The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) said on-site investigations related to complaints to the Dallas/Fort Worth regional office, which oversees the Barnett Shale's air quality, are to be given an "immediate response priority" within 12 hours of receiving a complaint.

The revision in policy by the state's air regulatory agency comes after some North Texas residents who live in the Barnett Shale region complained about air-related illnesses and possible harmful emissions from regional natural gas and oil production sites.

Last month the TCEQ launched a website to distribute information about air pollution testing in the Barnett Shale (see NGI, Dec. 21, 2009). 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, 2009).

Last month state Rep. Lon Burnam renewed a call for a moratorium on issuing new drilling permits in the Barnett Shale until the TCEQ had completed an air quality study of the region -- a study expected at any time. State Sen. Wendy Davis separately has called for a senate investigation of the environmental impacts from Barnett Shale drilling operations.

TCEQ's two-page interoffice memo, written by TCEQ's John Sadlier, deputy director of the Office of Compliance and Enforcement, said the staff is to discuss the "citizen-collected evidence" with the complainant. TCEQ staff members also were told to investigate the complaints using infrared cameras and ambient air quality testing equipment.

"When high readings are documented, staff will immediately make every effort to contact the owner/operator of the equipment and make them aware of the agency findings and request that the company take immediate corrective action," Sadlier wrote. "The company will be given two days to respond to the request, including cause of the emissions and corrective actions taken to resolve the situation."

Meanwhile, Michael Williams, who sits on the Railroad Commission of Texas (RRC), has asked Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott for a legal opinion on whether the RRC would have authority to halt drilling in the Barnett Shale.

The RRC has primary regulatory jurisdiction over the natural gas and oil industry, pipelines and pipeline transporters, and natural gas utilities, among other things. It also posts drilling permit information on its website. According to the RRC, as of last Monday (Jan. 4), it was taking one day to obtain an expedited drilling permit and three days to obtain a standard permit.

Williams, a Republican who is said to be considering a U.S. Senate bid, has served on the three-member RRC since 1999, including a stint as chairman. A spokesman told NGI that Williams requested an opinion from the state attorney general about the RRC's authority "because it made no sense to question whether or not drilling was posing a health threat until the question was answered about the commission's authority."

A spokeswoman in Abbott's office told NGI Friday that an opinion request may take up to six months.

©Copyright 2010 Intelligence Press Inc. All rights reserved. The preceding news report may not be republished or redistributed, in whole or in part, in any form, without prior written consent of Intelligence Press, Inc.