Our Northern Tier Region’s air quality historically has been very good.  Emissions in some of our counties, such as Sullivan for example, have been among the lowest in the state.  Sullivan County also has one of the lowest childhood asthma rates among school children, that being 6.29% for the 2010-2011 school year.

As drilling, hydraulic fracturing, increased diesel traffic, flowback impoundments, compressor stations, pipelines and other facilities increase around the Northern Tier Region, our air quality will reflect the changes such industry brings.  How dramatic these changes will be, well, that depends on a number of issues, beginning with how our PA DEP adequately protects our air resources to how responsible the various operators choose to utilize natural gas within their operations as a fuel source and how they choose to go the extra mile and utilize technologies that will reduce emissions further than what may be required.

The emissions that this activity brings are some common already to our region, NOx, SOx, CO, and PM [nitrogen oxides, sulfur oxides, carbon monoxides and particular matter.] However, there are other emissions that have more significant health effects such as VOC’s and HAP’s [volatile organic compounds and hazardous air pollutants]. Diesel engines are responsible for many pollutants including ground level ozone.  Main ingredients in ground level ozone are VOC’s and NOx.

These pollutants contribute to health challenges for those of the critical population; those being, the very young, the elderly, asthmatics, those suffering with chronic bronchitis, emphysema and COPD.  The EPA reports these emissions can aggravate asthma, cause acute respiratory symptoms such as coughing, shortness of breath and chronic bronchitis.  Repeated exposures to ozone can make people more susceptible to respiratory infections, such as asthma.  The elderly, children and asthmatics are particularly susceptible to health problems caused by breathing in fine particles.

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Particulate matter primarily from diesel engines is very aggravating to the at risk public: the very young, elderly, and those that are challenged with respiratory ailments, such as asthma, chronic bronchitis, emphysema and COPD.
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Air emissions such as these can be greatly reduced by the use of natural gas engines rather than diesel engines. The use of natural gas engines for these activities would greatly improve the reduced air quality in the Northern Tier region, along with the entire statewide Marcellus Shale exploitation region.

Air quality is affected by local conditions which determine where the ground level ozone goes and how bad it gets.  Much of rural Pennsylvania, now locations of gas industry activity, are the areas that may have inversions and trap the ground level ozone.  Many areas along the Susquehanna River for example, are heavy fog areas which may also trap ground level ozone for extended periods of time.

There are air quality issues that have folks across the board discussing what shall we do.  These matters range from green completions, vapor recovery to air aggregation.  And, air aggregation is quite the discussion.  Some environmental groups, such as the case involving Ultra Resources in western Bradford and eastern Tioga Counties would have as much as 558 square mile area aggregated.  That type of aggregation seems fairly unreasonable in that it would pretty much bring the exploitation and production to a halt.  A better way than aggregation is for operators to employ natural gas into their drilling and fracing operations in order to reduce those field emissions.  Then, adequate spacing of compressor stations to ensure that pollutant dispersion is effective.  Operators are able to share compressor stations and dehydration facilities.  These provide for greater economies of scale along with better siting opportunities. Natural gas is much more economical and the industry needs to take advantage of the reduced costs by utilizing natural gas in their activities, which would be a really good indicator of community respect. It is a win-win situation for everyone.

Operators also need to be cognizant of the ambient noise levels  within the areas they operate.  They need to provide for adequate housing to reduce noise levels on their facilities.  They need to provide for sound barriers when drilling and fracing operations bring them to within 1,000 ft of full time residences.

So, what is our PA DEP doing about our Shale region’s air quality?

They required the industry to submit an emissions inventory beginning with the year 2011.

FACT SHEET:  Air Emissions Inventory For the Natural Gas Industry

FACT SHEET:  Understanding the Basics of Gas Flaring

Presently, they are doing a study around the Elk Lake School District property where there is considerable industry activity and infrastructure.  They will continue to do periodic sampling in that area.

The DEP Bureau of Air Quality annually publishes a proposed Ambient Air Monitoring Network Plan.  Early June 2013, it was available for the public to submit their comment on their concerns about the Plan.  During 2012, a group of concerned Wyoming County residents submitted their comments to the Bureau concerning the proposed plan.  As a result, a temporary VOC monitor has been placed in the region.  As noted from page 18 of the proposed 2013-2014 plan:

After posting of the 2012 Proposed Ambient Air Monitoring Network Plan for public review and comment, numerous comments were received by the Department requesting air monitoring in  Wyoming County. The requests mainly cited concern about expanded Marcellus Shale drilling activities in the county in recent years, and the effects on air quality. In order to further gauge potential chronic air toxic exposure effects to citizens living in a Marcellus shale extraction area in the Northeastern region of the Commonwealth, in early 2013 the Department relocated an existing toxic VOC canister sampler located at the Wilkes-Barre COPAMS station to a new site located in Susquehanna County where both active shale gas drilling and start-up/operation of multiple new natural gas compressor stations exist. Sampling in Susquehanna County commenced in late-February of 2013. The Department intends to sample for at least one year at the new Susquehanna County site.  Unless further sampling at the site would be warranted, the Department then intends to relocate the VOC canister sampler to a location in Wyoming County that is also undergoing Marcellus shale gas well pad development, extraction, gathering and transmission for the purpose of long-term toxic exposure and risk/hazard assessment. Deployment in Wyoming County will commence in early 2014.  Data collected during the two-year span (as it becomes available) will be assessed to determine further action by the Department.  

While the Department originally intended to relocate the VOC sampler from the Wilkes-Barre COPAMS station (Luzerne County) to a site, “yet-to-be-determined” in Wyoming County for a period of one year, and then relocate to a site in adjacent Susquehanna County, further evaluation of Marcellus Shale activity and siting considerations prompted the Department to deploy the Susquehanna County location before the Wyoming County. Due to the higher density of larger operating compressor stations and completed well farms in Susquehanna County, as well as the lack of other large stationary VOC sources and a lower density of potential mobile sources, PA DEP determined that the Susquehanna location provided a better chance to site downwind of active facilities and better isolate and differentiate emissions from shale gas facilities.

Annually, C.O.G.E.N.T. urges residents throughout the Northern Tier Region to submit comments on the Annual Ambient Air Monitoring Network Plan.  This happens annually between May & June.    Please see our currently posted ACTION ALERT on the Action Alert webpage.

What is industry doing about our air quality?

Kudos to Cabot as the first Northern Tier Operator to begin using natural gas in their fracing operations.

Cabot Oil & Gas Implements the Use of  “Field Gas” and Dual Fuel Engines in their Hydraulic Fracturing Operations – a plus to improving air quality in the Gas Field.

What does are air quality look like in the Northern Tier?

Comparison School Age Asthma Statistics
Regional Air Emissions Tables