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Barnett Shale Gas Drilling Critics Getting Louder

As some municipalities and environmental groups step up a call for stricter oversight of natural gas drilling in the Barnett Shale, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) last week launched a website to distribute information about air pollution testing in the North Texas gas play.

The TCEQ site, among other things, will update test results on air quality and the locations of its air quality monitors. The commission in the past several years has set up similar websites on other issues of concern, including drought, spokeswoman Andrea Morrow told NGI.

The commission,which regulates air pollution in Texas, has come under fire for what some see as a slow response to complaints from area residents about gas drilling pollution across the 18-county play. Drillers began storming into the Barnett Shale about 10 years ago, but the commission didn't begin testing the air quality around the North Texas gas installations until 2007.

Earlier this year a study by Southern Methodist University, based in Dallas, reported that emission from gas production activities during the summer months in the Barnett could exceed on-road motor vehicle emissions. That study was criticized by the industry, but other studies since then are more ominous. An interim study released in October by the TCEQ on ambient air quality in the region found harmful concentrations of benzene at some drilling locations (see NGI, Nov. 9).

The interim data led the TCEQ just weeks ago to ask gas producers operating in the Barnett Shale to voluntarily reduce air pollution emissions at drilling sites before it considered more stringent permitting rules (see NGI, Nov. 30a).

However, some of the region's residents are taking action too. The mayor of DISH, TX, population around 180, sent a letter last month to several gas operators asking them to cease drilling operations to eliminate an odor at a compression station that was said to be causing health problems (see NGI, Nov. 30b).

Most of the TCEQ's testing up to now has been in rural parts of North Texas, but Fort Worth, TX, residents are concerned about air quality from drilling too. Last week city council officials asked the TCEQ to test the ambient air quality in their city, which borders Dallas. Fort Worth is considered to be in the "heart" of the Barnett play.

Fort Worth Mayor Mike Moncrief said he wanted some "hard information, some hard numbers...Then we'll be able to make our own decisions." Council member Zim Zimmerman, speaking to a TCEQ representative during the council meeting, said Fort Worth "is a lot different than being out in some pasture land somewhere, and I would strongly urge you to get a sense of urgency about this city and make this a focus."

Another North Texas city was considering a ban on gas drilling altogether, which would have been a first. Flower Mound, a mid-size city with a population of around 68,000, is situated in Denton and Tarrant counties, on the outskirts of the Dallas-Fort Worth metropolitan area.

In a close vote, the Flower Mound Town Council on Thursday night voted 3-2 to continue to permit gas drilling sites. The council had been considering whether to suspend permitting until more information, such as the gas drilling impacts on health, was available from the TCEQ.

"I believe in the premise of innocent until proven guilty," said Flower Mound Councilman Mike Wallace. "There's not sufficient evidence to impose a moratorium."

The TCEQ isn't expected to issue its final report on ambient air quality in the Barnett Shale for a week or more.

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