By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
"We were trying to find an academic in the Dallas-Fort Worth area who could do a real analysis," recalls Jim Marston, EDF's regional director for Texas. "We knew he cared about air issues too; we knew he was good at crunching numbers."
Adding up emissions from lots of little sources in the gas production chain—engine exhaust from gas compressors, vents from condensate tanks where the gas is separated at the surface, leaks from valves and pipe connections, and more—Armendariz figured just how much the operations polluted, in terms of smog-forming substances like nitrous oxide and volatile organic compounds, greenhouse gases and other toxins like benzene. They published the study in February 2009.
"I actually was skeptical that there was going to be a lot of emissions there," Marston says. "It was a big, big number. We were kinda shocked."
That number—165 tons of smog-forming compounds per day (TPD) from a five-county area around Fort Worth—is impressive next to the benchmark Armendariz compares it to in the report: All the car and truck traffic in that area including Fort Worth "was 121 TPD, indicating that the oil and gas sector likely has greater emissions than motor vehicles in these counties."
The gas drilling study is what made Armendariz a star—that, and his role in the Oscar-nominated documentary Gasland. In Dallas alone, anti-drilling activists have circulated copies of the study and the film to the city council while its members consider whether to permit gas drilling on city land. (The council's put off its vote until October, to allow for a study of possible health risks.)
Gasland covers director Josh Fox's cross-country road trip to gas drilling hot spots, from his home in Pennsylvania, west to Wyoming and back—including a stop in Texas where, waiting for Fox in his cluttered lab at SMU with a blue lab coat and a few days' stubble, is Armendariz.
Fox says Armendariz became a "Wizard of Oz" figure at the end of his road movie, one of the characters "who had the information, who understood a deeper reality than we could get just from talking to people."
In the film, Armendariz points out the cluster of gas drilling sites dotted on a map of the Fort Worth area, and explains why it's so tough to regulate emissions when each dot comes with a handful of separate tanks, compressors and drill rigs that all contribute to the pollution. "Each of those little sources is exempted from the Clean Air Act," he says.
"TCEQ had no idea how many gas wells were being put in and were in the ground around the city of Fort Worth," Armendariz tells Fox, before offering a warning for places where the industry's spreading next. "We've learned our lesson: You've got to stay on top of this. You've got to look at the issues as it's happening," he says. "Or it's just a big mess."
"It was kind of astounding that no one had done this before, that no one had added it up, and that the state wasn't adding it up," Fox says, and "It wasn't like I'm in some wacko lab in San Francisco. I'm at SMU, with a PhD who used to work for the natural gas industry."
In June, TCEQ announced the results of its own in-house study testing the veracity of Armendariz's numbers. Its results were roughly similar—gas production contributed as much pollution as auto traffic in that five-county area. "I was impressed that the TCEQ, who wanted to say he was wrong, weren't able to," Marston says. "And they've got some pretty creative scientists."
But unlike Armendariz, TCEQ didn't believe these findings warranted any regulatory changes, because all the oil and gas production pollution was spread across rural areas, not packed in around cities like car exhaust.
After it came out, Armendariz's study became as good as scripture for people around Fort Worth who'd been desperate to confirm something was up with their air, who'd grown frustrated that TCEQ and the RRC—which had a way of referring complaints about gas drilling back and forth to each other—weren't doing more to help.
Deborah Rogers, who runs a goat dairy in north Fort Worth, says she'd been concerned when she learned in 2009 that Chesapeake Energy was putting in 12 wells on the land next to hers—one pad site up against her property line—because she'd read about pastures where gas drilling nearby had caused problems for the cattle.
After the wells were in, Rogers decided to pay for some baseline testing of the air around her house. But the day they came out to test, one of the Chesapeake wells started flaring—burning up gas vented out the top—and the results of the test shocked her: benzene, toluene, sulfur compounds and other chemicals were all well represented.
Rogers took the results to the TCEQ. "They told me I was the first person who had any data like that in North Texas near a gas drilling site," she recalls. But because the numbers were from just one site, on just one day, she says TCEQ told her there was nothing the commission could do. And the EPA told her its hands were tied because any enforcement action had to come from the state.