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Barnett Air Quality Questions Linger

The controversy over air quality in the Barnett Shale in North Texas appears to be far from over after the Fort Worth City Council last week voted to delay until Feb. 2 a vote on XTO Energy Inc.'s application for a multiple-well drilling site on the city's south side.

The vote Tuesday night followed a report by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) that found no dangerous levels of air pollution during a December test of the city, which is in the heart of the Barnett play.

According to a council spokesman, the proposed drilling site is within 600 feet of dozens of properties, mostly homes, which triggers a special review by the city under a drilling ordinance enacted about a year ago (see NGI, Dec. 16, 2008). A little more than 600 feet from the site, which is outside the protected zone, is a school, which also worries some parents and nearby residents.

Concern across the Barnett Shale region has risen since evidence from some independent scientific studies last year indicated that high levels of some hazardous chemicals, including benzene and other carcinogens, were detected in the ambient air around gas drilling sites.

TCEQ based its latest findings after testing the air quality in Fort Worth at 126 well sites during mid-December. However, opponents to drilling said cold-weather testing may have skewed the ambient air data because the air temperature has to be warm enough for chemicals to evaporate.

Fort Worth City Councilman Joel Burns, whose district includes the proposed XTO drilling site, said Tuesday that the council's delay in considering XTO's request will allow more time to consider the potential environmental impacts. The extra time also would allow XTO representatives to present their case to stakeholders who live along and near the proposed site, he said.

If XTO meets all of the city's drilling ordinance requirements, the city will be required to issue a permit, he noted.

Meanwhile, the TCEQ continues its work on another in-depth study of the Barnett Shale and ambient air quality, which is scheduled to be released this month. More tests are sure to follow once the study is published, a TCEQ spokesman told NGI Thursday.

However, Railroad Commission of Texas (RRC) Chairman Victor Carrillo last week appeared to pour cold water on a request earlier this month for the RRC to impose a drilling moratorium in the Barnett Shale (see NGI, Jan. 11). A drilling moratorium, he said, would be a "drastic overreaction" based on current facts.

"Reactionary policy could have a devastating effect on Barnett Shale development that has been critically important to the Texas economy, jobs, and domestic energy security," Carrillo said. The Barnett Shale, he noted, accounts for more than 25% of Texas' total natural gas production and will contribute "$100 billion dollars in output and one million person-years of employment" through 2015."

State regulators are "a long way from having enough scientific data to definitively determine the exact source and levels of these [hazardous chemical] compounds," said the commissioner. "We are just now beginning to collect sufficient data from impartial, nonbiased sources to accurately assess the emission and exposure levels in the communities within the Barnett Shale."

A 1982 memorandum of understanding between the RRC and TCEQ spells out the jurisdictions of the two state agencies, and they already are working together on air quality issues in the shale play, Carrillo said.

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