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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

After meeting with the Cernys this month to hear about their health complaints, Subra said, “What they’re reporting are exactly the health impacts you’d expect to see with these chemicals. … It correlates exactly.”


Industry largely derides Sharon Wilson as an anti-fracking crackpot.

In 1996 Wilson left Fort Worth for some 40 acres she bought in rural Wise County. Soon afterward, wildcatter George Mitchell pioneered fracking as we know it today, and his Mitchell Energy & Development moved in next door to Wilson to frack the surrounding Barnett Shale. Within a few years, drilling rigs had sprouted up all around her, and Wilson grew weary of the waste dumping, the generators, and the foul air.

That’s when Wilson started her widely-followed fracking blog, Bluedaze, chronicling the dark side of life in oil and gas plays, posting page after page of disaster stories, toxic waste photos, and tales from sick families.

Myra and Mike Cerny complained to Marathon for months before finding Wilson. Last spring, the Cernys were still in talks with Marathon over a buy-out, hoping to leave the area. When Marathon reneged on the offer, Myra took to the internet searching for people like her. She soon landed on Wilson’s blog.

“The emails she sent me were just so sad,” Wilson said. “I knew they were miserable.”

This month, Wilson, Wilma Subra, and other activists toured Karnes County with an infrared camera, looking for fugitive oil and gas emissions.

At nearly every facility, including the one TCEQ investigated last year, contaminants were seen boiling out of flares and storage tanks.

“We’ve done this all over the Barnett Shale,” said Calvin Tillman, founder of North Texas-based air monitoring non-profit ShaleTest, looking at an infrared video feed on his laptop. “We’ve found small leaks, but the ones that are really just massive and bellowing, those are few and far between,” he said.

“Down here, nearly every single one we’ve filmed shows massive leaks. … It looks like the wild west down here.”

It’s still an open question whether significant leaks, like the kind happening near the Cernys, are anomalous or the norm industry-wide.

While industry estimates methane leakage rates of about 1.6 percent, recent research from the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration and the University of Colorado at Boulder indicate the number could be as high as 9 percent. Finding the true number is critical. One study by scientists at Princeton University and the Environmental Defense Fund suggests that shifting from coal to natural gas will only reap climate benefits as long as methane leakage stays below 3.2 percent.

The EDF last year joined with University of Texas at Austin and nine major gas producers, like Chevron and ExxonMobil, to catalogue methane emission rates at shale gas wells across the country. David Allen, who led the fieldwork and data analysis for UT, said results have been submitted to a scientific journal and should be published within the next two months.

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