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Cover 03/27/2013

The sour side of life in South Texas' Eagle Ford Shale

Photo: Michael Barajas, License: N/A

Michael Barajas

An anti-fracking activist shoots infared video in Karnes County in early March

Photo: , License: N/A

Four albuterol inhalers for the Cernys, a family of three

Consortium speakers acknowledged that once-sleepy rural towns have seen unnerving increases in deadly car wrecks, that housing and infrastructure can’t keep up with boom, and that truck traffic has torn county roads to ribbons. But, the consensus went, these are all fixable problems.

At the conference government officials, business leaders, and academics largely sidestepped what environmentalists consider the dark side of the play, ignoring nagging concerns over water contamination, aquifer depletion, and air quality.

That wasn’t the case at last year’s gathering. Back then, Alamo Area Council of Governments natural resources director Peter Bella warned of how drilling in the Haynesville Shale, near the Texas-Louisiana border, made regional ozone levels spike. The message: If we don’t understand, catalogue, and attempt to lower emissions from drilling in the Eagle Ford, our regional air quality could suffer, possibly knocking San Antonio from its tenuous standing as the largest U.S. city still within Clean Air Act compliance.

Bella wasn’t invited back to speak at this year’s consortium. Last August, two Bexar County ozone monitors for the first time picked up readings that violated federal air standards.

Researchers increasingly contend that fracking may release sizable amounts of harmful contaminants into the air, like methane and volatile organic compounds (or VOCs) like benzene, contrary to the drilling industry’s (and, seemingly, Texas regulators’) belief that there is little, if any, public health threat caused by fracking-related air contamination.

Last year the Colorado School of Public Health published a study indicating higher risks for cancer and other health problems because of air quality near fracked wells. About a mile out from fracking sites, researchers found elevated levels of benzene and other chemicals that can irritate eyes and cause headaches, sore throats, or breathing difficulties.

A follow-up study, published earlier this year in the journal Human and Ecological Risk Assessment, found dozens of so-called non-methane hydrocarbons in the air near Colorado drilling sites, including some chemicals known to harm the brain and nervous system.

Other studies, such as one co-authored by Anthony Ingraffea, argue that one of the “green” benefits of natural gas, that it burns twice as “clean” as coal, may actually be hot air itself. In 2011, Ingraffea, a professor at Cornell University’s School of Civil and Environmental Engineering, and his colleagues published a study claiming the best (though admittedly incomplete) estimates indicate that shale gas may emit as much as 20 percent more greenhouse gases than coal throughout its lifecycle. Industry-backed groups have attempted to discredit the Cornell study, like the American Clean Skies Foundation, chaired by Chesapeake Energy CEO Aubrey McClendon, which funded a major MIT study that criticized the Cornell researchers and their findings.

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