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Last year when the summer spat of bad-ozone days sent air quality monitors spiking around Texas, Galveston delivered the state's highest reading since 2008 — 112 parts per billion of smog, well above the federally mandated 75 parts per billion ceiling. All in all, 2011 saw air quality worsen across Texas, with nearly every major city busting the federal limits on ozone more than 2010. All told, San Antonio has made dramatic improvements in air quality since 2004, when Bexar County air quality monitors were still reading in the 90 parts per billion range, making the Alamo City the outlier in Texas and the largest U.S. city still within Clean Air Act compliance. While we're still in attainment, "we're right on that cusp," says Peter Bella, natural resources director for AACOG. Last year, San Antonio registered twice as many bad-ozone days than it did in 2010, holding the line at 75 parts per billion of smog, right at the federal limit.

But as we teeter on the edge, Bella worries all the generators, trucks, and drilling activity hitting the Eagle Ford could still push us out of attainment. Trucks swarming the Eagle Ford emit nitrogen oxides, or NOx, an ozone precursor, as do compressors and generators powering onsite equipment. There's growing worry natural gas may escape from pipelines, storage tanks, or well heads, pumping more into the air. "All the diesel-powered equipment out there represents the potential for a lot of NOx to be produced. And right now, that's what keeps me awake at night," Bella says.

Non-attainment would trigger serious consequences for San Antonio. Transportation planning requirements would grow cumbersome, new businesses would have to undergo more stringent emissions reviews, and industry might even have to scrounge the area for pollution offsets. "That's traditionally the onus for the business community," Bella says. "That's why San Antonio retaining its current status, the largest city in the country that's in compliance with all federal air quality standards, is a valuable commodity. … It's a big deal to the business community."

Bella cites a 2010 study published by environmental consulting group Environ projecting large increases in ozone around the Haynesville shale area stretching across the Texas-Louisiana border. Projections there show the region could see an increase as high as 17 parts per billion. "That estimation in the Haynesville study shows as many as a 17 parts per billion increase, and we can't afford one part per billion," he said. •

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