Utilizing air-quality data provided by 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 air-quality changes triggered by the dramatic expansion of natural gas development throughout Texas’ Eagle Ford Shale region.
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 region, which spans 27 counties located 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 Railroad 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 in 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. If an individual well utilized in this process ruptures, ground water contamination is a possibility, Jerez said.
While the Railroad Commission of Texas has fielded numerous allegations regarding well-water contamination in the state, regulators have yet to confirm a single occurrence.
Fracking along the Eagle Ford Shale region began around 2008, Fimibama said. 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 fracking boom, as well as data collected following the industry’s expansion.
Specifically, Fimibama is concerned with the possible release of benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene 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 we have.”
In August, Fimibama and Jerez traveled to South Texas to tour counties located along the Eagle Ford Shale, and they were surprised to see how closely some large fracking sites operated in proximity to residential areas.
“In Karnes County, there are so many fracking operations,” Fimibama said. “You can’t imagine; they are everywhere.”
She added that although Karnes County was at the core of initial oil and gas development in the region and continues to maintain a large number of wells, it did not have a single air-quality monitoring station until December 2014.
Both say they are interested in the technology and methods used in fracking, and they hope this research will help improve the safety of the industry, as well as the public it serves.
Fimibama, an international student from Nigeria, worked in her native country’s expansive oil industry prior to attending SFA. 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.
This map, courtesy of the Railroad Commission of Texas, illustrates the location of permitted and completed oil and natural gas wells throughout the Eagle
Ford Shale. Since 2008, this 27-county region has been the epicenter of oil and gas development in Texas due to its unique geological features and advances
in drilling technology.