Clean-Air Fund to Stop Funding Natural Gas Projects Till Industry Cleans Up Its Act

bsOilGasWells.jpg
Click to expand this map provided last week by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality
Way back in '97, and again last June, we told you the story of Sue Pope -- a Midlothian rancher who became legendary for taking on pollution-spewing TXI -- and the genesis of the fund named in her honor, which doles out green to groups cleaning up the air in North Texas. Twice in recent years the Sue Pope Fund has funded projects involving natural gas: "a CNG-powered bus ferrying workday commuters from Arlington to the TRE station in Ft. Worth, and the conversion of approximately 20 gasoline-powered taxis to natural gas," according to Downwinders at Risk, which Sue Pope was instrumental in founding.

But this morning, Downwinders at Risk's director, filmmaker Jim Schermbeck, sends word that the Sue Pope Fund will stop funding natural-gas projects in light of revelations in recent months -- topped off with last week's release of a report from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality -- that extracting and processing natural gas is a dirty business. Says Schermbeck, "Our small effort won't make anyone in the industry tremble, but maybe our stand will influence others to do the same thing. We appreciate the value of small stuff adding up -- it's how we've won all our own battles." The full release, as well as a statement from the Downwinders board offering four reasons for pulling the funding, follows.
Texas' Largest Private Clean Air Fund Suspends Funding Natural Gas Projects, Supports Moratorium on New Drilling

Says "facts on the ground" in Barnett Shale belie greener image of natural gas

(Dallas) Stating that "it's become impossible to ignore the incongruity of the claims of a 'cleaner' natural gas industry, versus the facts on the ground in our own backyard," the grassroots directors of the largest private clean air fund in Texas have voted to suspend consideration of any further anti-pollution grants promoting the use of the increasingly controversial fuel and voiced support for a regional moratorium on new gas drilling.

It's believed to be the first time a Texas charity devoted to environmental goals has turned its back on an energy source that only a few years ago was being touted as a green alternative to coal and oil.

Totaling $2.3 million, the Sue Pope Fund is a creation of a legal settlement between Holcim Cement and Downwinders at Risk after the company's Midlothian cement plant violated its permit for ozone-forming Nitrogen Oxide emissions. Monies in the Fund can only be spent on projects that have the potential to reduce ozone pollution in North Texas. It's named after Downwinders at Risk founder and Midlothian rancher Sue Pope, and is operated by the board of Downwinders.

Since it initiated funding in 2007, the Fund has awarded grants to small start-ups as well as large, precedent-setting projects. It paid for the air-conditioning of the McKinney Avenue Trolley so more people will ride in the summertime as well as invested in a South Dallas neighborhood photovoltaic solar venture to reduce emissions from coal plants.

Two of the projects it's funded use natural gas: A CNG-powered bus ferrying workday commuters from Arlington to the TRE station in Ft. Worth, and the conversion of approximately 20 gasoline-powered taxis to natural gas. Those projects will be fully funded, but no new projects centered on gas will be approved.

In unanimously voting for the suspension and moratorium at its January meeting, the Downwinders board cited four specific problems with the way natural gas is being obtained and processed in the Barnett Shale field: exemptions from national environmental laws, increasing local air pollution problems, the consumption of large amounts of water and the lack of property rights for surface landowners.

In a statement it said would be posted on the Pope Fund website as well as distributed to other North Texas foundations, the Downwinders board stated that "Natural gas could play an important and constructive role in the transition from coal and oil to more sustainable energy sources. But for it to do so, it must be extracted and processed with less waste and pollution."

The Fund's decision is only the latest example of a re-examination of natural gas occurring in the local and national environmental communities. Just last week a nationwide coalition of green investor groups announced they were targeting natural gas companies using "fracking" technology in their drilling operations.

According to Downwinders at Risk Director Jim Schermbeck, his group of volunteer clean air activists saw "too many bad similarities" between the state's response to the public health threats posed by gas operations and their own 16-year old battle with authorities.

"Our small effort won't make anyone in the industry tremble, but maybe our stand will influence others to do the same thing. We appreciate the value of small stuff adding up - it's how we've won all our own battles", said Schermbeck.

The full statement adopted by the Downwinders At Risk board is reprinted below:

Statement by the Board of Downwinders at Risk
Over the last four years, the board has received many grant proposals that promote the use of natural gas as a transportation fuel. We selected two of these for funding: a bus owned by the "T" fueled by Compressed Natural Gas that ferries workday Arlington commuters to and from the Ft. Worth Intermodal Center, and approximately 20 conversions of DFW area taxis from gasoline to CNG fuel for Cowboy Cabs.

We're proud of these projects, which have taken cars off the road and produced less pollution per vehicle mile than their gasoline-powered counterparts. But recent events have compelled us to weigh not just this desirable end result, but the entire natural gas fuel cycle, in considering the projects that we believe will truly result in better DFW air quality and improved public health.

In doing so, it's become impossible to ignore the incongruity of the claims of a "cleaner" natural gas industry, versus the facts on the ground in our own backyard. Among the most important of those facts are:

1) The natural gas industry is poorly regulated.
Gas drilling and extraction has broad exemptions from all federal environmental regulation, including the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act, and Superfund laws. These exemptions have allowed natural gas producers to pursue wasteful and polluting practices that would otherwise be illegal for other industries. Moreover, state regulatory agencies are woefully under-funded and under-staffed to be able to sufficiently monitor the facilities already operating. The regulatory system must catch-up to the industry.

2) The gas industry is adding to local air pollution problems.
Barnett Shale gas activities have been found to contribute as much ozone-forming pollution as the entire inventory of vehicles in the North Texas area. Greenhouse gases and toxic air pollution are also produced in large volumes. Hazardous levels of pollution have been recorded near gas drill sites and compressor stations. In North Texas, natural gas is causing more air pollution than it's preventing. "Green completion" technology should be mandatory throughout the natural gas fuel cycle.

3) The gas industry is consuming and contaminating large quantities of water.
Each drill site can consume 1 to 6 million gallons of water upon completion. That water can become contaminated with toxic chemicals that are injected for the purposes of "fracking," or separating the gas from the Shale. Afterwards, each gas well can be "fracked" repeatedly over its lifetime, consuming another 2-5 million gallons of water every time. Water recycling should be mandatory and we support the passage of H.R. 2766, the Fracturing Responsibility and Awareness of Chemicals Act of 2009. Like the Boy Scouts, gas producers need to leave the places they're intruding on cleaner than they found them.

4) The gas industry is abusing private property rights.
Currently, surface property owners have few rights to protect their homes or land from damage when a third party exploits mineral rights or eminent domain. There must be a balance of interests between those who are using the surface to build homes and those who own the mineral rights underneath those homes.

Natural gas could play an important and constructive role in the transition from coal and oil to more sustainable energy sources. But for it to do so, it must be extracted and processed with less waste and pollution. Until more modern methods are adopted and applied in the Barnett Shale, the board of Downwinders at Risk will not be funding any new projects through the Sue Pope Fund that promote the use of natural gas, and supports a moratorium on new natural gas industry permits in the Barnett Shale.

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