Sunday, February 27, 2011

Increased Drilling for Oil & Gas, "Fracking" and Condensate Compression Stations; Are We Safe?

Drilling rig south of Pecos, Texas
BALMORHEA: Recently, I've noticed a significant increase in oil and gas well drilling platforms along highway-17 between Balmorhea and Pecos.  I began to wonder if the increase was the result of hydraulic fracturing technology ("fracking") that allows for the release of oil and gas in strata that was formerly difficult to access, such as shale.  Then I spoke with an oil field worker who informed me that, indeed, the oil and gas companies have begun "fracking" in West Texas.

Hydraulic fracturing is a process with environmental risks.  It is known to contaminate ground water through the kind of leakage that led to the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill disaster as well as to produce toxic condensates from chemicals used in the process that accumulate within the well bore itself.  

Of these toxins -- and there are hundreds -- perhaps the one that poses the gravest concern to the public is radioactive pollution of the ground water.  In recent months, radioactive contaminants in the City of Houston's tap water caused by "fracking" led to the shutting down of at least two of the city's major water wells

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality has provided a data base that reports the level of radiation in the water supplies of most of the cities and municipalities in the state.  The data base for the Town of Pecos can be accessed here.  Balmorhea gets its water from a different source than Pecos -- The Madera Valley Water Company (pdf). The figures for water supply radiation for Balmorhea are here.  Currently, both the Pecos and Balmorhea numbers are within legally prescribed ranges; nevertheless, with the increase of "fracking" in the area, it is wise to monitor the levels on an ongoing basis.  

It should be noted that while the testing data for this area in West Texas is within legal limits prescribed by law, the safest radiation levels have been determined by environmental monitoring groups, not subject to corporate and lobby-driven compromises with the federal government, to be ZERO pCi/L (picocuries per liter)

The sudden increase in drilling in West Texas may in fact be due to contingency planning by the Pentagon, as reported by investigative journalist Wayne Madsen, a retired naval intelligence and National Security Administration analyst.

February 24, 2011 -- Renewed "chatter" about a possible U.S. military attack on Iran

WMR's sources in the national security establishment are reporting on "chatter" that they are hearing about a possible U.S. military attack on Iran in the autumn, with October or November the likely months.

Although such chatter about U.S. military action against Iran has been heard before, the current talk comes amid two significant developments.

First, U.S.-backed regimes in the Middle East and North Africa have either already been ousted or are in danger of being overthrown. With U.S. clients Bahrain and Saudi Arabia under domestic pressure, talk of a U.S. attack on Iran, which would be popular with the Bahraini and Saudi regimes, tends to bolster those regimes.

Second, WMR has been informed that U.S. oil companies are drilling 1200 new oil wells in west Texas to raise U.S. domestic oil production. The companies have been told by the government that they have a 12 to 18-month window to drill new wells and a 24-month window to achieve maximum oil production. In the event of a U.S .military attack on Iran, oil exports from the Persian Gulf would be severely impacted.

WMR has been told that oil storage containers are currently being built in west Texas to hold the oil extracted from the new wells. Within the last three months, a number of oil exploration and support services personnel have arrived in towns all over west Texas. More significantly, Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) personnel have also arrived in west Texas in support of the oil drilling operations.  --Wayne Madsen
If the above report by Wayne Madsen is confirmed, then we can expect the same safety exemptions applied in order to expedite oil and gas production which led to last summer's British Petroleum Deep Water Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. 

More to the point: following the increase in drilling over the last several months, I noticed the installation of at least two condensate compression stations that can be seen from state highway-17 just north of Saragosa.  Increased levels of toxic condensate is produced by the "fracking" process, which is probably why we are seeing an increase in the number of condensate compression stations in the area like the one pictured below.

Condensate compression station north of Saragosa on state highway-17

I did some research on the toxic emissions produced by these stations and I’ve become very concerned. Benzene, an extremely toxic hydrocarbon that causes cancer, is just one of the emissions associated with condensate tanks. When I read that I was taken aback, in fact, I was near shock.

The usual means of disposing of the condensate that is collected in the drilling process is by tanker truck. I don’t know were the toxins are taken; I haven’t gotten that far in my local investigation. But the thing that has me really concerned more than anything else is the use of flares to simply burn off emissions separated from the condensate with post-burn-off hydrocarbons deposited directly into the atmosphere. 

This flare is not burning cleanly
Today, I emailed my concerns to UT Law Professor Tom McGarity, of the Center for Progressive Reform, a friend who specializes in environmental law.  This is a clip of what he wrote back:
"If the flares are burning pure methane and are burning it cleanly, the emissions will not be photochemical oxidants (ozone), but it appears from the photos that they are not burning cleanly. Most natural gas has some sulphur in it in the form of mercaptans. The mercaptans themselves are highly toxic. The flares, if they are burning cleanly, should destroy the mercaptans, but will convert them to sulfur dioxide, which is a pollutant that can pose hazards at concentrations above the national ambient air quality standards." 

The efficiency of flares in this process is questionable, but the general process of condensate compression is by no means efficient either.  Infrared thermography cameras have been used to document escaping emissions that can't be seen with the naked eye.  In addition to benzine and other toxic gasses, high levels of ozone are also a byproduct of the condensate compression process.

December 6, 2010; BBC World News

 From today's New York Times:

A summary of the above article, published on today's front page of the New York Times, was provided by Rocky Kistner for the Huffington Post.  A clipping of his analysis follows.
"Today The New York Times published an important story about the environmental and health impacts of natural gas production in states across our country. Everyone should read it for themselves, as well as watch the excellent video companion, and review the leaked documents that The Times has posted on line. Among the report's findings:

"Hydraulic fracturing waste contains radioactivity at levels higher than previously known and is sometimes hauled to sewage plants that cannot safely handle it and then discharged into rivers that supply drinking water. Because natural gas drilling waste is so toxic, NRDC last year asked the EPA to update the current rules governing oil and gas waste, which were written in the 1980s and leave oil and gas waste completely exempt from rules that oversee hazardous waste.

"Scientists from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) are alarmed and warn that the drilling waste is a threat to drinking water in Pennsylvania. The Times reviewed thousands of documents, including never-reported studies by the EPA, and has posted many on its website.

"Air quality in rural western areas in Wyoming has failed to meet federal standards for air quality and have experienced levels of ozone higher than those recorded in Houston and Los Angeles. This has since also occurred in Utah. I have also blogged previously about toxic levels of benzene and other dangerous poisons found in other communities near natural gas operations.

Chidren and adults are experiencing severe illness from living near natural gas production facilities (the NYT interviewed families in Texas and Colorado), including asthma attacks, dizzy spells, headaches, nausea, diarrhea, and nosebleeds. There are families reporting these and additional symptoms, including serious neurological and other illnesses, in other states as well. I've blogged about children waking up covered in blood and families whose doctors have ordered them to evacuate their homes. There are also families across the country reporting drinking water contamination they suspect is linked to hydraulic fracturing and leaks or blow-outs in natural gas wells.

"Sickening birth defects, deaths, and other serious illnesses are occurring in livestock that are kept near natural gas operations. Government scientists are investigating birth defects in the tragic deaths of baby dolphins in the Gulf of Mexico--as they should, but not one is investigating the birth defects and other abominable sicknesses in animals that are suspected to be linked to natural gas operations and may be entering the human food chain across the country. Can someone explain that?

"More than 1.3 billion gallons of waste-water was produced by Pennsylvania natural gas wells over the past three years, far more than has been previously disclosed, and most of this water -- enough to cover Manhattan in three inches -- was sent to treatment plants not equipped to remove toxic substances in drilling waste, even though some of the waste contained radioactivity levels more than 2,000 times the drinking-water standard.

"State regulation is insufficient to protect citizens. The NYT found that, from October 2008 through October 2010, Pennsylvania officials usually gave companies only written warning for violating the law -- not a fine. And when there are fines, they are practically meaningless. Companies paid an average of about $44,000 each year--a tiny fraction of the several million dollars it costs them to drill one well. It seems that it is easier for companies to pay a fine than to do things right."

Stay tuned; I will be posting follow-up reports as more information becomes available. --Cliff Hammond