Using publicly available air-quality data from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, Stephen F. Austin State University environmental science graduate student, Laura Fimibama, is conducting one of the state’s first formal studies to examine possible changes in air quality precipitated by the dramatic expansion of natural gas development throughout the Eagle Ford Shale region of Texas.
Recent advances in directional drilling and hydraulic fracturing technology, or fracking, have provided access to oil and natural gas reserves previously out of reach. The Eagle Ford Shale, which spans a 27-county region from South to East Texas, is at the epicenter of this development due to its high concentration of carbonate shale and relatively shallow depth. According to the Rail Road Commission of Texas, the state agency responsible for regulating oil and gas development, the combination of these two factors makes the region’s resources more accessible than in other areas of the country.
“Whenever we talk about fracking, people are usually more concerned about its effect on groundwater,” said Dr. Sheryll Jerez, associate professor of environmental science at SFA’s Arthur Temple College of Forestry and Agriculture and Fimibama’s advising professor.
This concern is primarily due to the compounds used in the fracking process. Hydraulic fracturing utilizes a blend of water and chemicals injected into the ground at high pressure to fracture the subsurface shale, maintain fissures and release natural gas. Jerez said that if a well used in this process ruptures, ground water contamination is a possibility. While the Texas Railroad Commission has fielded numerous allegations regarding water-well contamination in the state, regulators have yet to confirm a single instance of it occurring.
Fimibama said that fracking in the Eagle Ford Shale began around 2008. To provide insight into possible changes in air quality, she will analyze data provided by TCEQ air quality monitoring stations in the region prior to the region’s fracking boom, as well as data collected since the industry’s expansion.
Specifically, she is concerned with the release of benzene, thourine, ethelene and xylene from these operations. These volatile organic compounds result in the formation of ozone and reduce air quality, Jerez said. Fimibama also will investigate rates of nitrogen oxide, carbon monoxide and particulate matter.
Jerez explained that research on the environmental effects of fracking, particularly on air quality, is in its infancy, and the vast majority of these air quality monitoring stations were installed prior to the industry’s growth. Because of this, Fimibama also will examine the adequacy of TCEQ’s current air quality monitoring stations.
“One of my objectives is to determine if the locations of the current air monitoring stations are sufficient enough to quantify the impact of fracking in the area,” Fimibama said. “There are so few (long-term monitoring stations) compared to the number of fracking sites that we have.”
In August, Fimibama and Jerez traveled to South Texas to tour counties located along the Eagle Ford Shale, and were surprised to see how closely some large fracking sites operated next to residential areas.
“In Karnes County there are so many fracking operations,” Fimibama said. “You can’t imagine; they are everywhere.”
She added that Karnes County also maintains the largest number of active fracking sites, but, until December 2014, did not have a single air quality monitoring station in the county.
Both say they are interested in the technology and methods used in fracking, and hope that this research will only serve to improve the safety of the industry, as well as the public it serves.
“I’m not trying to show that fracking is bad,” Fimibama said. “It’s actually good because it powers everything we do. All I am saying is that it can be done better.”
Fimibama, an international student from Nigeria, worked in her native country’s expansive oil industry prior to attending SFA. She said she hopes to use the knowledge gained through her occupational health focus within SFA’s Division of Environmental Science to benefit oil and gas industry workers in the U.S. and Nigeria.