After Some Counties In Texas Released Air Pollution Data, A State Agency Cut Their Funding

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Drilling at night in the Eagle Ford shale.

Earlier this month, a coalition of county governments in Texas posted a study that air pollution would increase significantly by 2018 thanks to a local drilling boom. One week later, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality slashed the coalition’s budget for air quality planning.

The study in question was an inventory of emissions from the Eagle Ford shale, which, with the advent of hydraulic fracturing, has seen a boom in natural gas and oil drilling over the past few years. The analysis was put together at the behest of the Alamo Area Council of Governments (AACOG), a coalition that oversees thirteen counties in and around San Antonio. An initial draft of the study came out in November of last year, and the final version was completed on April 4.

About a week later, the Center for Public Integrity reports, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ), slashed AACOG’s air-quality planning budget by 25 percent. TCEQ, which funded the study, cited a breach of contract by AACOG to justify the decision.

That accusation appears to reference an incident last July, when Peter Bella, AACOG’s natural resources director and a 15-year veteran of the group, posted a summary presentation of the results from the draft version of the infentory to AACOG’s website. According to the contract, AACOG could not release any of the results from the study without TCEQ’s approval.

Bella told the Center for Public Integrity he put the presentation together for a meeting with companies involved in the Eagle Ford shale, and that posting such presentations to its website was routine at AACOG. He also said the presentation was well-received by the industry representatives, and the discussions surrounding the emissions inventory — which the Center obtained through a Public Records Act request — show no signs of animosity.

In fact, six days after the July meeting, Bella invited TCEQ to attend another meeting with the same presentation, but no one from the agency showed up.

“I thought the state environmental agency would be happy I was making progress and bringing data forward,” Bella told the Center. “Part of the difficulty is that I have yet to receive a true indication of the true nature of the breach.”

Last week, AACOG chairman Kevin Wolff told a Texas radio station that an AACOG employee — presumably referencing Bella — made a “fairly minor mistake.” But he also added that he didn’t find TCEQ’s response particularly logical.

Al Armendariz — who works for the Beyond Coal Campaign with the Sierra Club’s Texas chapter, and is a former administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency — had far stronger words: “This is among the more petulant, childish and vindictive things I’ve seen TCEQ do,” he told the Center for Public Integrity. “It’s cheap, it’s schoolyard bullying… to go after a local government whose sole mission is to protect public health.”

According to the emissions inventory, the Eagle Ford shale’s air pollution comes from a variety of sources. The main ones include the engines that run drill rigs and pumps, leaks from pipes, and the inevitable vapor escapes that occur when the oil and gas is stored and shipped. The pollutants include carbon monoxide, nitrous oxides, and volatile organic compounds — all of which have been linked to serious health effects for humans.

The “moderate scenario” projected by the inventory found that volatile organic compound emissions will increase in the Eagle Ford shale from 101 tons per day in 2011 to 544 tons per day in 2018. Nitrous oxides will increase from 66 to 146 tons per day over that same time period, and carbon monoxide emissions will increase from 50 to 160 tons per day. (There was also a “low” and “high” scenario.) These are also the results from the final version of the inventory, and are considerably more dramatic than the result from the draft. All told, they would increase air pollution in San Antonio’s Bexar County by 7 parts per billion.

Since 2012, San Antonio’s monitors have already recorded air pollution levels as high as 87 parts per billion — while the federal standard is 75 parts per billion.

Earlier this year, an eight-month investigation by InsideClimate News and the Center for Public Integrity found that Texas officials were failing to adequately monitor air pollution from the Eagle Ford shale, or to engage in any serious regulatory enforcement.