Texas tells natural gas producers to clear the air




Posted on November 20, 2009 at 11:42 AM

Updated Friday, Nov 20 at 12:41 PM

FORT WORTH — Last week, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality called the Barnett Shale's biggest players to Austin. The result could change the future of public health in the 17-county area that holds underground natural gas reserves.

Not long ago, Dr. Michael Honeycutt realized the future of health in the Barnett Shale might be in his hands. The head of TCEQ's Toxicology Division was shocked to see air sampling revealed high levels of benzene, a cancer-causing toxin, near some natural gas facilities.

"The highs that we found are relatively high, some pretty high numbers, a thousand parts per billion," he said. "That would be equivalent to opening a can of gasoline and holding it up under your nose."

Dr. Honeycutt went to TCEQ's executive director. “I'm not a Chicken Little toxicologist," he said. "That got his attention.”

And so, last week, TCEQ brought the ten biggest natural gas producers in the Barnett Shale into a room, showed them a video of emissions, and told them about the benzene concerns.

According to Dr. Honeycutt, none of the producers present at the meeting denied that benzene is an issue in the Barnett.

As News 8 revealed in previous stories, many permits for natural gas facilities don't specifically address benzene. Dr. Honeycutt anticipates TCEQ passing a new rule on benzene emissions, but that process will take several years.

So TCEQ is giving companies a chance to play ball and voluntarily add benzene emission reductions to their permits where necessary.

According to Dr. Honeycutt, "If they don't do it now, the grace is gone."

State legislators will be briefed on the strategy next week.  News 8 shared the TCEQ plan with State Sen. Wendy Davis. "I'm grateful that it's happened," she said. "I'm surprised it took so long."

The permit changes, Dr. Honeycutt said, will begin in the next weeks and months. In the meantime, energy companies are being asked to look for — and report — any leaks.

E-mail chawes@wfaa.com