Texas freezes agency's funding after air pollution data released

Lisa Song

A few casual words and the early release of some scientific data have cost the San Antonio region much-needed state funds to battle its growing air pollution problem. The misstep, which appears to have been unintentional, highlights the sensitivity of studying oil and gas pollution in business-friendly Texas.

The dispute began after the Alamo Area Council of Governments (AACOG) — a coalition that oversees 13 counties in the San Antonio region — launched a two-part study to determine how oil and gas drilling was affecting the city's air quality.

San Antonio’s air quality has been deteriorating since 2008, the same year drilling began in the nearby Eagle Ford Shale, site of one of the nation’s biggest energy booms. The air pollution is now so bad that metropolitan San Antonio could soon be declared in nonattainment with federal standards for ozone, the main component of smog. If that happens, it could be subject to sanctions from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, including increased EPA oversight for new development projects.

Local officials hope to avoid that fate by curbing pollution through voluntary measures, but first they need to understand where the emissions are coming from. Because San Antonio is one of the fastest-growing cities in the nation, much of the ozone-forming chemicals are likely emitted by cars and trucks. But AACOG knew little about the contributions from oil and gas drilling.  

AACOG released the first part of the study, an emission inventory of the Eagle Ford, on April 4. It projected a dramatic increase in air emissions by 2018 during peak ozone season, including a possible 281-percent increase in releases of volatile organic compounds, which react with nitrogen oxides to form ozone. More details are expected in the second part, a photochemical model that explains how the emissions affect San Antonio’s ozone levels.

About a week after the emission inventory was released, the Austin American-Statesman reported that the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ), which funded the study, had slashed AACOG’s air-quality planning budget by 25 percent because an AACOG employee had made some of the draft results public. AACOG's contract with the TCEQ prohibited AACOG from releasing any results without TCEQ approval.  

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This story is part of Big Oil, Bad Air. Fracking the Eagle Ford Shale of South Texas. Click here to read more stories in this investigation.

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Copyright 2014 The Center for Public Integrity. This story was published by The Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit, nonpartisan investigative news organization in Washington, D.C.