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.
The 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.”
The 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.
Over 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.
Sawyer’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)