*UPDATE* Eagle Ford Air Report: Get the Facts

UPDATE (4/24/2014; 4:20pm CT): AACOG just released its Emissions Trend Analysis report for the San Antonio-New Braunfels area, which is part of the broader emissions study that the organization has been completing (part of which was released earlier this month, as highlighted in the original post). The trend analysis compared volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and nitrogen oxides (NOx) for non-road mobile, area, point, off-road, on-road mobile, and Eagle Ford sources for the years 1999, 2002, 2006, 2012, 2018, and 2023, all to determine emissions trends.

According to the report:

“For the year 2023, the total emission of VOCs is expected to reach 244.39 tons/day indicating an increase of 11.20 tons/day as compared to 1999. NOX emissions are predicted to reach 124.83 tons/day in 2023 indicating a reduction of 264.84 tons/day as compared to 1999.”

The decrease in emissions of NOx can be attributed to state and federal regulations, and company compliance.

What stands out here is that decline in NOx emissions, which is projected to occur even as the region’s population and economic activities grow considerably — including expanded development of the Eagle Ford Shale.  And while VOCs are projected to increase, the Eagle Ford Shale’s contribution is going to be only a fraction of the total.  Other contributions to the VOC increase include construction equipment, quarry, landfill and mining equipment, tractors and combines, and non-road equipment.  In fact, by 2018, on-road sources of VOCs will be three times larger than Eagle Ford contributions.

According to the report, “The largest source of anthropogenic VOC emissions is area sources followed by on-road and non-road sources. On-road and non-road emissions show a marked reduction between 1999 and the forecasted year of 2023.”

Importantly, between 2018 and 2023, the AACOG analysis projects Eagle Ford VOC emissions will actually decline. Considering that its models also forecast an increase in total oil production in the coming decade, a leveling off would be a testament to the industry’s commitment to reducing impacts. But even better than that, VOCs from the Eagle Ford will actually fall, even as production climbs.

Original post, April 15, 2014

The Eagle Ford Shale continues to produce impressive levels of oil and natural gas, serving as a major source of economic growth within the region.  In the past three years, the area has seen substantial development, leading to an increase in jobs, local tax dollars available for infrastructure projects, and increased opportunities for local businesses.

Thanks to the rapidly increasing production from the Eagle Ford Shale and the Permian Basin, Texas actually reached a remarkable milestone in September 2013: As a separate nation, Texas would now rank as the ninth largest oil producing country in the world.  Three years ago, many would not even believe the production numbers of today.

Of course, skyrocketing levels of production often come with certain growing pains.  The Alamo Area Council of Governments (AACOG) released a report earlier this month indicating an increase in emissions in the resource rich Eagle Ford Shale.  According to the report,

“[P]roduction in the Eagle Ford emitted an estimated 66 tons of NOX and 101 tons of VOCs per ozone season day in 2011. For the 2012 photochemical model projection year, emissions increased to 111 tons of NOX and 229 tons of VOCs per ozone season day. To estimate emissions for 2018, calculations were based on three potential levels of development. NOX emissions increase slightly for the low development scenario in 2018 (113 tons per day). NOX emissions also increase under the 2018 moderate scenario (146 tons per day) and the high scenario (188 tons per day).”

The report was prepared in cooperation with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ), as well as various oil and natural gas companies. (As a quick aside, this proves yet again that the industry is sharing data and fully committed to better understanding environmental impacts, which in turn can help guide decisions on how best to improve operations.) The emissions increase within the region can be attributed to power generation, vehicle emissions, and population growth, among other economic activities – including oil and gas development.

Operators in the Eagle Ford are continually testing and implementing programs to lower emissions, and they’re working with regulatory agencies, such as Texas Railroad Commission (RRC) and (TCEQ), to ensure a reduction in emissions from field operations.  As we have noted before, contrary to what many anti-industry groups advertise, the oil and gas industry is not an “unregulated free for all.” Rather, the industry is a well monitored and well understood component of the Texas economy, constantly working to improve its operations, both environmentally and economically.

The report also states there will be a change in the types of emissions observed over time.  According to the report,

“[T]he majority of NOX emissions in 2012 were emitted by drill rigs and well hydraulic pump engines (47%). By 2018, these sources are expected to account for only 9% of the NOX emissions as engines are replaced with models that meet TIER4 standards. In contrast, compressors and mid-stream sources only accounted for 39% of NOX emissions in 2012, but are expected to increase to 77% of total NOX emissions under the 2018 moderate scenario because of the significant increase in oil and gas production. The majority of VOC emissions in 2018 are from storage tanks (47%) and loading loss (32%).”

The change in emissions sources shows how industry is developing innovative solutions, instituting safeguards in compliance with environmental regulations, and actively developing new technologies to lower emissions in the area near oil and natural gas development areas. The study also acknowledges that drilling operations typically last two or three weeks and have various stages that can release emissions.  Industry is currently investing in a pilot program, which will phase drilling operations from diesel power in the first few days to natural gas – which is a much cleaner option.

Additionally, the report states hydraulic fracturing sometimes requires venting or flaring, process which have associated air emissions.  Industry is instituting vapor recovery units (VRU) to compress the gas and convert the recovered vapor into a usable product.  The goal is to minimize gas sent to the flare during completion operations, redirecting it instead to pipeline for sale.  This operational improvement has reduced the flaring of gas during completion operations anywhere from 79 to 99 percent. VRUs are custom fit for each location and use – from well sites to central facilities and storage tanks – to capture valuable natural gas and prevent it from being flared.  This technique is just another example of how industry is actively developing and applying new technologies to minimize emissions in oil and natural gas operations.

The report goes on to state how midstream sources, such as disposal facilities, tank batteries, processing facilities and compressor stations, generate large emissions.  To reduce emissions, the industry has begun using combined heat and power (CHP) system units.  CHP is the simultaneous production of electricity and heat from a single fuel source and is an integrated energy system that can be modified depending upon the needs of the energy end user.  By increasing the use of low-emission microturbine systems in operations, industry is reducing emissions and improving the efficiencies, as less fuel is burned to produce each unit of energy.

It’s also worth remembering that this report is step one in the process of understanding air emissions in the region. San Antonio has experienced rapid economic growth over the past few years, not all of which has been associated with Eagle Ford development, which underscores why it’s necessary to get a full accounting of any potential environmental impact.

The oil and gas industry has worked collaboratively with AACOG to build this inventory of data, the likes of which have never been collected for the area. San Antonio has also experienced ozone concentrations above federal limits many times over the past fifteen years, including well before Eagle Ford development took off in earnest. The TCEQ has even said that photochemical modeling from AACOG suggests even rapid development in the Eagle Ford would only increase ozone in San Antonio by about 0.5 parts per billion. The federal limit is currently 75 parts per billion.

That’s not to say oil and gas producers have no role to play in addressing air concerns in San Antonio and even the broader south Texas region, though. And as the AACOG report shows, the industry is playing an active role in developing solutions to important problems – the first step of which is obtaining accurate and useful information.


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