In what is being hailed as an intensive study with national impact, Fort Worth, Texas has begun air and source pollution tests on hundreds of natural gas drilling sites.
The ultimate goal is to facilitate natural gas drilling, and the tests are aimed at ensuring drilling can be done without exposing residents to hazardous levels of pollution.
First of Its Kind
“This is really the first comprehensive test any city has done,” says Brian Boerner, environmental management director for the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. “It is a scientific, statistically valid test, … and yes, it will have national implications.”
The tests will take place at 650 different pad sites in Fort Worth, Boerner said, and will include between 1,500 and 1,800 wells. Two basic tests are planned: Point source tests at about 75 percent of the sites and ambient tests to monitor air quality.
“The information will help us model the exposure potential in four different scenarios,” Boerner said. “Then, they will use that for rulemaking, … and this will become the foundation of studies that will be done in the [rest of the] nation.”
Prior Surveys Unreliable
Jason Lamers, manager of media and public affairs for the city of Fort Worth, said City Council members decided to go ahead with the tests because prior surveys have given mixed results and citizens have been confused about which numbers to believe.
“Several months ago, maybe a year ago, there were some reports concerning levels of benzene related to gas production sites. It was a private survey that was conducted by a private citizen who paid himself to have it done. But there was media exposure, and concerns were raised,” Lamers said.
After the private study was released, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality took air samples at some of the sites. It found nothing that would cause health problems in the short term, Lamers said.
“But more testing was needed,” he said. “It said nothing about long-term.”
Fort Worth City Council members approved a more comprehensive test to gauge not only the level of pollutants leaking from the physical sites but also the level that escapes into the air.
National Implications Expected
Depending on the results—which Boerner said would be ready for public release in March 2011—the national view of natural gas drilling could undergo a dramatic shift.
“A lot of it is going to impact land-use restrictions for oil and gas [extraction],” Boerner said, foreseeing big changes on the local and state regulatory fronts if pollution emission levels are shown to be minimal. “It’ll change what you can do, what you can’t do, the setback requirements, … [and] how you’re allowed to extract or maintain rights.”
Lamers expects the results to cast a favorable light on the pro-drilling movement.
“Fort Worth has been dealing with natural gas issues for years, and we’ve been kind of on the forefront of technology,” he said. “We’ve changed our gas ordinance several times. Fort Worth has been kind of a model to other states, and I think people are looking to us to see what’s going on.”
Cheryl K. Chumley ([email protected]) writes from Northern Virginia.