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UTA study indicates air contamination near fracking sites result of operational inefficiencies, not inherent to the extraction process

A study led by chemists at the University of Texas at Arlington (UTA) indicates that highly variable contamination events registered in and around unconventional oil and gas developments are the result of operational inefficiencies and not inherent to the extraction process itself.

The study, published in Science of the Total Environment, found highly variable levels of ambient BTEX (benzene, toluene, ethyl benzene, and xylene compounds) in and around fracking gas drilling sites in the Eagle Ford shale region in South Texas. In situ air quality measurements using membrane inlet mobile mass spectrometry revealed ambient benzene and toluene concentrations as high as 1000 and 5000 parts-per-billion, respectively, originating from specific sub-processes on unconventional oil and gas well pad sites. BTEX compounds in high concentrations can be carcinogenic and have harmful effects on the nervous system.

These variable contamination events, attributable in many cases to specific natural gas flaring units, condensation tanks, compressor units and hydrogen sulfide scavengers, indicate that mechanical inefficiencies, and not the inherent nature of the extraction process as a whole, result in the release of these compounds into the environment.

These results therefore suggest that air contamination events from fracking can be monitored, controlled and reduced. We hope that this research would help producers and other upstream operators improve the efficiency and reduce the environmental impact of unconventional drilling.

—Kevin Schug, UTA Shimadzu Distinguished Professor of Analytical Chemistry and director of the University’s Collaborative Laboratories for Environmental Analysis and Remediation, or CLEAR lab

The researchers made sampling excursions in the Eagle Ford shale region in June and November of 2015. They used a mobile mass spectrometry system, in collaboration with Professor Guido Verbeck of the University of North Texas, that allowed the team to identify individual points of contamination. The field study was coordinated by Dr. Zacariah Hildenbrand of Inform Environmental, LLC and affiliate of the CLEAR lab.

All data were collected in a blind fashion, and samplers were guided by third-party local landowners with extensive knowledge of the local roadways. Collectively, 12,821 data points were taken.

Individual extraction sites with producing unconventional drilling wells were examined in accordance to the rights afforded to the mineral rights lessors. Anecdotal cases of contamination where air quality was considered downgraded were also analyzed with full consent of the participating landowners.

We found that ambient BTEX compound emissions in and around fracking sites are within the federally mandated acceptable limits for short-term exposure. Our future research will focus on the long-term effects of sporadic contamination on citizens living in impacted areas. Monitoring of ambient BTEX in conjunction with review of medical records, in collaboration with local healthcare officials, will provide greater insight into the long-term human health implications of unconventional drilling air contamination events.

—Kevin Schug

Previous studies from the CLEAR Lab have focused on groundwater quality associated with unconventional drilling. CLEAR is dedicated to the development of remediation technologies and best management practices to effectively handle and decrease the occurrence of contamination events.


  • Zacariah L. Hildenbrand, Phillip M. Mach, Ethan M. McBride, M. Navid Dorreyatim, Josh T. Taylor, Doug D. Carlton Jr., Jesse M. Meik, Brian E. Fontenot, Kenneth C. Wright, Kevin A. Schug, Guido F. Verbeck (2016) “Point source attribution of ambient contamination events near unconventional oil and gas development,” Science of The Total Environment, Volume 573, Pages 382-388 doi: 10.1016/j.scitotenv.2016.08.118



I believe this dates back to Dick Cheney being Santa Clause to the fossil fuel industry. Had we put on good standards from the beginning, we wouldn't be having an ugly mess like this. Indutry refusing to be clean and getting their way in congress gives us pollution.

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