Texas Freezes Agency's Funding Over Release of Data Linking Fracking to Ozone Pollution

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The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality has consistently said that fracking has no significant impact on air quality, not in the Barnett Shale. Not in the Eagle Ford Shale. Not anywhere.

It was news, then, when a TCEQ-funded study, performed by the Alamo Area Council of Governments, a San Antonio-area regional planning agency, suggested a link between oil and gas drilling and a recent surge in the region's ozone levels.

Was TCEQ finally admitting that the fumes being belched out by gas wells and compressor stations might be having a negative effect on air quality? Far from it. So miffed was the agency that it froze funding for the Alamo COG.

The Statesman's Asher Price has the scoop.

The Alamo group, composed of officials representing local governments over a 12-county area, did not share the report's data beforehand with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, which had paid for its collection.

So when it came time last fall to dole out money to councils of government from across the state -- including the council from the Austin area -- all but the Alamo area council were rewarded with a roughly 30 percent uptick in Legislature-appropriated money to carry out air quality monitoring and planning work.

TCEQ air quality division director David Brymer told the American-Statesman that the Alamo area council violated a contract with the state environmental agency.

"We had some issues with (the Alamo area council), not necessarily complying with all their contractual obligations," Brymer said.

The Alamo group "presented some information to the public and the media that we had paid for but hadn't seen yet," Brymer said. "As in most contractual relationships we'd want to see that first."

Alamo COG's funding stayed flat at $569,800. Had it been given an increase comparable to its peers, it would have received an additional $180,000.

Jim Schermbeck, head of the local environmental advocacy group Downwinders at Risk, sees politics at play.

"The level of thuggery in this administration is amazing," he says, suggesting that TCEQ was punishing Alamo COG for publishing information that put the oil and gas industry in a bad light.

Metropolitan areas in Texas are struggling to meet a new federal ozone threshold of 75 parts per billion by the end of 2018. Evidence showing significant ozone pollution coming from the oil and gas industry could tip areas like Dallas-Fort Worth (which is already failing) and San Antonio into nonattainment, thereby spurring costly anti-smog regulations.

"It's all about the modeling," Schermbeck says. "You have to estimate what the ozone levels are going to be by the time your deadline comes around."

Figuring out ozone contributions from other sources -- cars, cement plants, power plants, etc. -- is straightforward and well established. But there's no standard way for measuring oil and gas emissions, which means the estimates of their contribution to ozone levels depends very much on who's doing the estimating.

Texas officials, Schermbeck says, have an incentive to design their models in such a way as to show that fracking has negligible impact on air quality. That, he suspects, is why TCEQ came down so hard on the Alamo COG; their data contradicted the party line.

Schermbeck is pushing to keep Texas' air quality models as honest as possible. He'll be at the North Central Texas Council of Governments in Arlington on Thursday for the inaugural public presentation of the UNT paper linking fracking to DFW smog.

Send your story tips to the author, Eric Nicholson.

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