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Bad Air Quality for Texas Could Be Due to Oil & Gas Activity

Photo of Randy Sorrels

32 days: that is how many days in 2011 that the Dallas-Fort Worth area had air pollutants readings above federal standards for air quality. That is just over a month of the entire year that Texans in the area had to breathe "bad air." And, according to a chemical engineering professor, it was not just Dallas that was affected.

"Every place in Texas suffered worse air quality this year," said David Allen, who is a chemical engineering professor at the University of Texas who also directs an air-quality program in the state of Texas. According to the program, all of Texas's major metro areas suffered from almost record numbers of bad-ozone days this past year. Why was 2011different than previous years?

Scientists are puzzled, but have offered a number of explanations: extreme heat during the summer months, wildfires and the drought.

But questions are beginning to arise about the safety of oil and gas production. Fatal explosions in oil refineries - such as the explosion at NuStar Energy plant in San Antonio, the explosion at Alon on Big Spring and the explosion at the Enterprise Products facility in Chambers County this last year - release hazardous chemicals in the air.

Drilling at shale sites across the state - like Eagle Ford Shale, Haynesville Shale and Barnett Shale - also impact the environment. The large trucks carrying drilling equipment and compressors emit nitrogen oxides. Pipeline and storage tanks slowly leak natural gas, which carry volatile organic compounds with it. These oxides and compounds can affect the ozone and the air that Texans breathe.

While the exact effect of oil and gas production on the ozone is hard to quantify, researchers are conducting a number of studies to determine what exactly the impact is. It is expected that reports completed by the state, in conjunction with the Environmental Protection Agency, will be released later this year detailing exactly what impact gas and oil have on the air quality in Texas and whether such activities will pose a health danger not only to the workers, but also to the citizens of Texas.

Source: New York Times, "2011 Proving to Be a Bad Year for Air Quality in Texas," 12/11/11.

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