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Video Investigation of Gas Drilling Sites Reveals Invisible Air Pollution

A Chesapeake Bay Foundation infrared video investigation of natural gas drilling and processing sites in Pennsylvania, Maryland, and West Virginia found invisible air pollution rising from almost three quarters of those examined.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF) sent the video to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency today with a letter explaining that the video shows that emissions from drilling sites are not being adequately controlled, and that proposed new EPA regulations for the drilling industry do not recognize the extent of the problem or a solution.  CBF's video provides important new evidence that "the industry is not sufficiently limiting the amount of leaks from drilling and processing operations,"Jon Mueller, CBF's Vice President for Litigation, wrote to the federal agency.

DrillingsiteThe video, which can be viewed by clicking here, demonstrates the need for a comprehensive federal study of the environmental and human health impacts of the growing amount of hydraulic fracturing for natural gas in the region’s Marcellus shale formation, according to two experts who reviewed CBF’s videotapes.

The images also raise troubling questions about exemptions for gas drilling rigs from air pollution control permits and regulation in federal and state law, the experts said.

“It makes no sense to exempt an emissions source that we don’t know enough about,” said one of the experts, George Jugovic, former director of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection’s southwest region office, who examined the Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF) videos.  “In Pennsylvania, we just don’t know if the emissions (from drilling rigs) are significant or negligible.”

RigforestThe second expert CBF consulted about its video investigation, Dr. Robert Howarth, Professor of Ecology at Cornell University, said the invisible gases seen rising in the CBF video likely include a potent greenhouse gas, methane.  The gases might also include other hydrocarbon gases, perhaps benzene (a carcinogen), toluene and/or propane.

“This would certainly contribute to smog (and) ozone,” said Dr. Howarth, as he examined CBF’s infrared videos of gas pouring out of drilling and compressor sites.
“I would not want to be breathing the air downstream of those rigs,” said Dr. Howarth, who represents the state of New York on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Chesapeake Bay Program’s Science and Technical Advisory Committee.

FlareOver the last few years, roughly 2,000 natural gas wells have popped up across the fields and forests of Pennsylvania’s part of the Marcellus shale formation, and that number could grow to 60,000 wells by 2030, according to a report by The Nature Conservancy and Audubon Pennsylvania.

In November 2010, Dr. Howarth co-authored a study published in the journal Climatic Change that estimated that between about 4 percent and 8 percent of the methane from hydraulic fracturing for gas in shale formations escapes or is released into the atmosphere, creating a significant amount of global warming pollution.

A 2009 report about air pollution in Texas estimated that the emissions from shale drilling in the Dallas/Fort Worth area likely exceeds the air pollution  from all the cars and trucks in the region, according to the study by Dr. Al Armendariz, formerly an associate professor at Southern Methodist University and now Administrator of EPA’s regional office in Dallas.

To create the video about the Marcellus shale region, CBF hired David Sawyer, an infrared video technician and owner of Sawyer Infrared Inspection Services of Peabody, Massachusetts. Sawyer has in the past been hired by gas and oil companies to use a Flir GasFindIR HSX camera to detect gas leaks from pipelines and industrial equipment.  Working for CBF earlier this year, Sawyer shot infrared images of 15 natural gas drilling and compressor sites across the region, including 13 in Pennsylvania, one in Western Maryland, and one in northern West Virginia.

RighillsideSawyer’s equipment detected hydrocarbon gas emissions from 11 of these 15 sites. The infrared video camera picked up methane and/or other hydrocarbon gases (the camera does not distinguish between hydrocarbon gases such as methane and benzene). Some of the images could include diesel engine exhaust, a form of air pollution that often contains hydrocarbon gases.

CBF then compiled a video that contrasts standard video shots of locations (in which the gas emissions are invisible) to the infrared videos (in which the emissions look like brightly colored smoke).

Harry Campbell, CBF’s Pennsylvania Senior Scientist, said the video provides new evidence of the need for a comprehensive federal study, called a Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement, of the human health and environmental impacts of drilling in the Marcellus Shale.  CBF has petitioned the White House Council on Environmental Quality and EPA for such a study.

“The Chesapeake Bay Foundation has asked the federal government to undertake …a cumulative impact analysis that will look at all of the impacts to the environment – the air, the land, and the water,” Campbell said. “That is what is necessary.”

In May, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) released a more limited report describing its air pollution monitoring around four gas drilling sites in north central Pennsylvania’s Bradford, Lycoming and Tioga counties. State technicians earlier sampled locations in southwestern and northeastern Pennsylvania. All three state sampling efforts found methane, ethane, propane, and butane in the air near drilling and compressor sites.

“The elevated methane results at the sampling sites would seem to confirm that the natural gas production….is a source of pollutant emissions,” the May 2011 report by DEP said. The report also found odors that could produce headaches and nausea if released at high enough levels.

The state agency, however, said that its “limited sampling effort” did not find enough toxic emissions to cause immediate illness or death.  DEP did not examine cancer risks or any other long term health risks, according to the state report.

Campbell said the DEP air sampling was not thorough or comprehensive enough, and so the federal study is needed.

“The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection study….looked at only a handful of sites, for a very limited duration,” Campbell said.  “That analysis did not look at or consider the cumulative, chronic, environmental and…human health concerns associated with air pollution and the  Marcellus shale industry.”

Jugovic, the former DEP regional director, now works for Citizens for Pennsylvania’s Future, an environmental organization.  He said that Pennsylvania law exempts gas drilling and well site activities from the need for state air pollution control permits, and therefore state regulation.  That exemption was approved more than five years ago, before the Marcellus shale drilling boom started.  Now that drilling has dramatically increased, it is time for the state to re-examine that exemption, Jugovic said.

Dr. Eric Lipsky, Assistant Professor of Engineering at Penn State University’s Greater Allegany Campus in McKeesport, Pa., also examined CBF’s video and concluded the images seem to reveal air pollution that should be more thoroughly investigated.

“It appears to indicate fugitive emissions that should be verified with instrument measurements,” said Dr. Lipsky.  He said he plans to conduct his own study of air emissions from drilling in the Marcellus shale region.

To see a long version of the CBF air pollution video, click on the video at the bottom of this story. 

One of the images in this video shows gases rising from a natural gas processing center in Western Maryland, the Texas Eastern Transmission LP compressor station, located near a town called Accident, Maryland.  The facility self-reported to the Maryland Department of the Environment that it released 1,038 tons of methane in 2010, which was more than double the 483 tons of methane that it released in 2009, according to the state agency.  The 2010 emissions were roughly the equivalent of the total annual greenhouse gas emissions from a town of 3,750 average Americans, according to an estimate by Dr. Robert Howarth of Cornell.

UPDATE:  This article was updated on January 4, 2012, to make it clear that the FlirGasFindIR images likely include methane and/or other hydrocarbon gases, and that some of the images could include diesel engine emissions, a form of air pollution that often contains hydrocarbon gases.

By Tom Pelton

Chesapeake Bay Foundation

(Photos by author)




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I’ve used these cameras offshore and on land all over the country for the past 5 years and have attained Level III certification as an Infrared thermographer. This is absolutley the worst interpretation of a GasFind video I have ever seen. The video is simply indicating the heated exhaust being emitted from engines and gas fired units. Although there are some unburned hydrocarbon gases in the plume, it is not what you say it is. This is shameful ignorance on your part and makes you look like complete tools to those of us with the appropriate knowledge and experience. A tool is only as good as it’s user!

That is not the conclusion that our investigation reached. We used a Level III certified infrared thermographer recommended to us by the Flir comany, and then showed our video to three independent experts. You say that there are hydrocarbon gases in these exhaust plumes, and that is what our conclusion was. One of the sites shown in the video with these plumes self-reported releasing 1,038 tons of methane last year to the Maryland Department of the Environment. A May 2011 report by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection of the agency's own sampling around drilling and compressor sites found "elevated methane levels" in the air. “The elevated methane results at the sampling sites would seem to confirm that the natural gas production….is a source of pollutant emissions,” the May 2011 report by DEP said. We also reached the conclusion that these sites appear to be releasing methane and or other hydrocarbon gases.

Agree with Guiny. These are diesel exhaust plumes and nothing more with the exception of the exhaust plume from one glycol reboiler. (Still not vented methane however.)

As an infrared thermographer, a certified GasFindIR thermographer, a mechanical engineer with a specialty in thermodynamics and combustion, and a consultant who performs leak detection work within this industry using FLIR GasFindIR cameras... the majority of the interpretations within this video are false. The majority of what are being interpreted as vented emissions are simply exhaust plumes, most of which are actually on diesel generators for electricity production on drill sites.

Therefore, it cannot be assumed that there are unburned hydrocarbons (methane) within all the exhaust plumes unless it is verified that these are not diesel engines (which the majority of drilling rigs are)and the downstream plume has been reviewed for dissipation. It is true that if a piece of equipment using methane as it's primary fuel source is not operating correctly, it could result in incomplete combustion and therefore lead to some unburned hydrocarbons in the atmosphere. However, as an experienced thermographer you must follow the plume downwind and assess its dispersion rate to make a determination whether or not a significant amount of unburned methane is being released. Whether this was done or not on the actual video is unclear because the video only shows circles around the portion of the exhaust plume that does not matter and you should not be looking at, and most of them are diesel engines as I previously mentioned. What you are seeing at the immediate discharge of the exhaust stacks are infrared energy refraction, high temperature water vapor and other common exhaust gasses, which are common byproducts of hydrocarbon combustion:
CH4 + 2 O2 → CO2 + 2 H2O (Simplified version)

Shortly downwind the high temperature water vapor cools/dissipates. If a plume remains intact further downwind, then you know there are unburned hydrocarbons being emitted to the atmosphere.

There are indeed a few likely hydrocarbon leaks I can see in the videos, but they are definitely not the exaggerated cry wolf scenario this story was made out to be. Infrared and Optical Gas Imaging are incredible tools when used properly, but can also do incredible harm when not interpreted properly.

Also, the story said a "Level III Infrared Thermographer" was used. Was this thermographer certified solely on radiometric cameras, or did he have a GasFindIR certification as well?

The article does not claim that methane is the only air pollutant likely rising from these drilling and compressor sites. It says that the emissions likely include methane and/or other hydrocarbon gases picked up by the GasFindIR camera.

I updated the article on January 4, 2012, to make it clear that the FlirGasFindIR images likely include methane and/or other hydrocarbon gases (which was also stated in the original version of the article); and that some of the images of air pollution could include diesel engine emissions from equipment on the sites, which often contains hydrocarbon gases.

The fact that there is a vigorous debate over which pollutants are rising from these drilling and compressor sites underscores the main point of the article and video: That further study of these air emissions is needed. An in-depth federal study of all of the environmental and public health impacts of drilling in the Marcellus shale would be a good way to get to the bottom of these questions.

I don’t know why most people join the CBF but I suspect it is because they believe that organization’s focus on a single regional issue – cleaning up the waters of the Chesapeake Bay -- is the most effective way to address a major environmental problem. Consequently, I am distressed to see that CBF wasting limited resources by becoming involved in peripheral issues such as greenhouse gas emissions. I refer specifically to the Bay Daily article and video on the CBF website dated 11/29/2011 – Video Investigation of Gas Drilling Sites Reveals Invisible Air Pollution. The use of an IR camera to document hydrocarbon emissions from drilling sites is not new; in fact EPA’s web site, http://www.epa.gov/airquality/oilandgas/basic.html, shows oil and gas emissions taken with an infrared camera in 2010. So CBF’s contribution is not new or unique. In addition, it is unclear from the CBF video what are the actual gas sources. It could, as suggested by several bloggers, be emissions from diesel generators and may not be methane.
The CBF article fails to state that EPA has a legal requirement to publish regulations by April 3, 2012. The new EPA regulations will significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions (http://www.epa.gov/airquality/oilandgas/pdfs/20110728factsheet.pdf).
So the basic question is – Why is CBF devoting its resources to an environmental issue which is at best, only peripherally related to cleaning up the waters of the Chesapeake Bay and which is being addressed by EPA on a timely basis? Stay focused.
W.C. Thurber
Edgewater MD
CBF Member

In response to the post by W.C.Thurber, hydraulic fracking often results in accidents that spill a top-secret mix of chemicals into the Susquehanna River. The Susquehanna River feeds into the northern part of the Chesapeake Bay. These chemical spills result in significant pollution. Oddly, we don't regulate these activities. My understanding is that the Chesapeake Bay Foundation is working to protect our waters by using many regulations, and drawing attention to the whole picture of how the life of the Chesapeake Bay needs to be protected.

Elizabeth seems to have missed the point of my post. I indicated that CBF should stay focused on protecting and improving the waters of the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries and not dilute its resources on peripheral issues such as air pollution from natural gas drilling. I recognize that hydraulic fracturing can result in contamination these waters. However, I note that New York and Pennsylvania have or about to have regulations designed to minimize water contamination from fracking operations and to disclose the chemistry of the drilling additives. New York has recently issued a Draft Environmental Impact Statement that requires mandatory disclosure of hydraulic fracturing additives. It also requires drillers to evaluate the use of alternative fracking fluid additives that pose less potential risk to water resources (http://www.dec.ny.gov/docs/materials_minerals_pdf/rdsgeisexecsum0911.pdf).
In Pennsylvania, Preparedness, Prevention, and Contingency Plans and well completion reports are required to list chemicals or additives utilized, the approximate quantities of each material, and the method of storage. Operators must include safety and health information, cleanup procedures, toxicological data and waste chemical characteristics. (http://wilderness.org/files/State%20chemical%20disclosure%20requirements_1.pdf).

Elizabeth states that fracking “often” results in spills and that spills are a source of “significant” pollution. To further an informed and useful dialogue such vague generic measures of frequency and magnitude should be quantified.

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