Turning a camera on invisible gasses, Earthworks ramps up action campaign

Jim Rosenberg was at a Fayette County planning commission meeting when “one of the commissioners looked me in the eye and said, ‘Compressor stations don’t cause air pollution.’”

“And I looked him back in the eye and said, ‘Yes, they do.’”

That was the end of that discussion. And it frustrated Mr. Rosenberg, a Fayette County resident who had been fighting against oil and gas development for years.

Then he took an infrared video of a compressor station to the Fayette County zoning hearing board. The experience left him feeling the opposite of that earlier meeting: vindicated, perhaps, and delighted.

The video had been shot by a $100,000 optical gas imaging camera that a Washington, D.C.-based environmental group named Earthworks has been hauling around the country to oil and gas sites to “see the invisible.”

“With this camera, we are able see what industry is trying to hide, and show that fracking isn’t clean or safe,” the organization says on its website. “Our most powerful takeaway: Seeing is believing.”

When Mr. Rosenberg hit play on his computer at the zoning board meeting, a black-and-white video of the Springhill natural gas compressor station started to play on a large screen behind the board members, who were hearing testimony about the facility.

Something that looked like fire was burning in two stacks, and then the footage switched to high-sensitivity mode. The whole picture began pulsating, like a strobe light. Instead of a fire, now there was thick smoke billowing in the direction of nearby trees.

When Shawn Gallagher, an attorney for Laurel Mountain Midstream, a joint venture between Oklahoma-based Williams Partners LP. and California-based Chevron Corp., which owns the compressor station, sprung to his feet to object that the zoning board had no authority to regulate emissions, he did so against this menacing backdrop. 

It should be noted that the video doesn’t reveal the contents of the billowing smoke. It was shot with a FLIR, or forward-looking infrared, camera calibrated to show emissions of hydrocarbons such as methane, ethane, pentane and others.

But the technology would also show water vapor, which is what Mr. Gallagher said was on the screen behind him.

Image captured with a forward-looking infrared camera (FLIR) by environmental group Earthworks. (Earthworks)

“There’s no question that they were showing steam coming off,” he said recently. “They were off site and had some kind of camera. I don’t know if it was even from the same compressor station.”

It was, in fact, the same Fayette County compressor station — one of 700 “investigations” that Earthworks has done since it launched its Community Empowerment Project in 2014.

Called to (further) action by the presidency of Donald Trump and the efforts of his Environmental Protection Agency to undo rules limiting emissions from oil and gas sites, Earthworks is stepping up its campaign.

Pennsylvania is among six states receiving more attention these days, said Nadia Steinzor, a program coordinator with the group.

That means the advocacy group’s two certified thermographers will be visiting more wells, pipelines and processing plants, shooting more video and sending the footage to the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection. The crux of the effort is using the visual evidence to file complaints with regulators, and to urge investigations and enforcement.

The DEP, which has six of its own FLIR cameras that inspectors use to identify leaks, is at least aware of Earthworks’ initiative, Ms. Steinzor said.

“We’ve shared our PA playlist with them on YouTube,” she said.

Seeing the invisible

Optical gas imaging cameras have had a profound impact on the way that oil and gas companies and regulators survey what goes on in the field, said Ron Lucier, a senior instructor with the Infrared Training Center, the customer education arm of Oregon-based FLIR Systems Inc., which makes the cameras.

“In 2005, we finally figured out a way to be able to see the gasses,” Mr. Lucier said.

The nation’s first ever methane rules, finalized in 2016, named such cameras as one of the best methods of spotting leaks and problems.

The Environmental Protection Agency, which wrote those rules, has reversed course under its new administrator, Scott Pruitt, who as attorney general of Oklahoma sued the agency he now heads to stop such measures.

In June, the EPA announced a two-year delay in the methane leak rules requiring frequent surveys, but on Monday, a D.C. Court of Appeals sided with Earthworks and other environmental organizations in rejecting the delay.

Whatever happens next, gas optical imaging is likely to continue to gain more influence — both among oil and gas companies and regulators. Both groups are regulars in Mr. Lucier’s courses.

Disputing what’s shown

Earthworks thermographers aren’t the first environmental activists to use the industry’s own methods against it. And they’ve run into the same challenges as others: Companies often dispute what the videos actually show.

Sharon Wilson, who took Mr. Lucier’s course, shot the video of the Springhill compressor station that played before the Fayette County zoning board. She’s sure —  she said in sworn testimony — that it shows emissions of hydrocarbons.

Steam dissipates quickly, she said, while hydrocarbons show up as thicker clouds that stick around and reach farther into the sky.

“The attorney asked me if I was aware that (the company) has a permit that allows emissions,” Ms. Wilson said. “That seems to be an admission that the facility is emitting more than just ‘steam.’”

Laurel Mountain Midstream, which also uses FLIR cameras to detect leaks, said through its spokesperson Joe Horvath, that it is “heat that is dissipating (similar to what is often seen when looking at a vehicle when it’s hot outside).”

“Any emissions that are shown are from permitted sources and within permitted ranges,” Mr. Horvath said.

As a matter of policy, Mr. Lucier declined to weigh in on Ms. Wilson’s footage of the compressor station. He never interprets videos shot by others, he said.

That should be left to the experts, he said.

For Earthworks, the point isn’t to figure out exactly what gasses are billowing out of the pipe. It’s to allow people to see the billowing in the first place. And to take action.

Anya Litvak: alitvak@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1455.

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