Deep in the heart of South Texas, oil and gas wells are sprouting at an unprecedented rate, making the Eagle Ford Shale one of the biggest energy booms in America. But local residents fear for their health from the air they breathe. An eight-month investigation pulls back the curtain on the dangers of releasing a toxic soup of fracking chemicals into the air and reveals how little the Texas government knows about drilling pollution in its own state.
See companion post: Texas Officials Turn Blind Eye to Fracking Industry’s Toxic Air Emissions
The following is posted by permission of and with thanks to InsideClimate News, the Pulitzer Prize-winning, non-profit, non-partisan news organization that covers clean energy, carbon energy, nuclear energy and environmental science — and the territory in between where law, policy and public opinion are shaped.
This report was jointly produced by InsideClimate News, the Center for Public Integrity and The Weather Channel. For the full report go to http://insideclimatenews.org/
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Fracking Boom Spews Toxic Air Emissions
on Texas Residents
Culture of indifference, toxic air and scant enforcement amid oil boom have turned the prairie landscape into an industrial free-for-all.
By Jim Morris, Lisa Song and David Hasemyer
KARNES CITY, Texas – When Lynn Buehring leaves her doctor’s office in San Antonio she touches her inhaler to be sure it’s close.
About 40 miles down the road, flares trailing smoke appear. A yellow-brown haze can fill the horizon as Buehring, 58, passes into Karnes County, where she was born. Today, the ranch house she shares with husband Shelby, 66, is at the epicenter of one of the nation’s biggest oil and gas booms, with more than 50 wells within 2.5 miles.
Known as the Eagle Ford Shale play, this 400-mile-long swath of oil and gas extraction stretches from East-Central Texas to the Mexico border. Since 2008, more than 7,000 wells have been sunk with another 5,500 approved. Energy companies, cheered by the state, envision thousands more. It’s an “absolute game-changer,” an industry spokesman said.
From their porch, the Buehrings can see and smell this gold rush. Three nearby processing facilities have permission to release 189 tons of volatile organic compounds, a class of toxic chemicals that includes benzene and formaldehyde, each year. That’s more than Valero’s Houston Oil Refinery disgorged in 2012. They also are allowed to release 142 tons of nitrogen oxides and 95 tons of carbon monoxide per year.
The regulation of oil and gas extraction falls primarily to the states, whose rules vary dramatically. States also enforce the federal Clean Air Act—a problematic situation in Texas, which has sued the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency 18 times in the last decade.
For eight months, InsideClimate News, the Center for Public Integrity and The Weather Channel have examined what Texas, the nation’s biggest oil producer, has done to protect people in the Eagle Ford. What’s happening in Texas also matters in Pennsylvania, North Dakota and other states where hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, has made it profitable to extract energy from shale. Our investigation reveals a Texas system that protects industry more than the public:
- Air monitoring is so flawed that Texas knows little about pollution in the Eagle Ford, an area nearly twice the size of Massachusetts.
- Thousands of facilities are allowed to self-audit their emissions, so authorities have no idea how much pollution they release.
- Companies that break the law are rarely fined. Of 284 complaints Eagle Ford residents filed in a recent four-year period, only two resulted in fines despite 164 documented violations.
- Texas lawmakers have cut the state’s budget for environmental regulation since the Eagle Ford boom began, from $555 million in 2008 to $372 million in 2014.
- Since 2009, the number of unplanned toxic air releases associated with oil and gas production increased 100 percent statewide.
Industry spokesman Steve Everley said the oil boom is lifting large parts of South Texas out of poverty.
“The Eagle Ford Shale is the biggest economic investment zone in the entire world,” said Everley, who works in Washington, D.C., for Energy in Depth, an arm of the Independent Petroleum Association of America. “I mean, are we going to prevent people from having jobs?”
Texas officials are often industry defenders, so residents of drilling areas are usually left to fend for themselves. Oil money is so ingrained in Texas culture there is little sympathy for people like the Buehrings, who become collateral damage.
The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) is led by three commissioners appointed by Gov. Rick Perry, who favors dismantling the EPA. TCEQ officials often move to lucrative jobs as lobbyists for the industry they regulated. The Texas Railroad Commission, which issues drilling permits and regulates other aspects of oil and gas, is controlled by three elected commissioners who accepted more than $2 million in campaign contributions from the industry during the 2012 election cycle, according to data from the National Institute on Money in State Politics.
State legislators who regulate the industry are often tied to it. Nearly one in four lawmakers, or their spouses, has a financial interest in at least one energy company active in the Eagle Ford, a Center for Public Integrity analysis of personal financial disclosure forms shows.
“I believe if you’re anti-oil-and-gas, you’re anti-Texas,” Republican state Rep. Harvey Hilderbran said in September.
The TCEQ declined interview requests. In a statement, it said air pollution isn’t a problem. “The air monitoring data evaluated to date indicate that air pollutants in the Eagle Ford Shale area have not been a concern either from a long-term or short-term perspective,” the TCEQ said. “Therefore, we would not expect adverse health effects…”
But a memorandum obtained through a public records request indicates the TCEQ knows its air monitoring is flawed. “The executive director has extensive records of underestimated or previously undetected emissions from oil and gas sites. These are not isolated instances but have occurred statewide and indicate a pattern,” Richard A. Hyde, then deputy director of the TCEQ’s Office of Permitting and Registration, wrote in the Jan. 7, 2011 memo. Hyde, now executive director, declined to comment.
Since drilling came to Karnes County, Lynn Buehring’s asthma has worsened. Instead of using a breathing machine once or twice a month, she sometimes needs it every day. She has migraines so intense they’ve induced temporary blindness.
When the Buehrings complained to the TCEQ, investigators checked out Marathon Oil facilities nearby. At one point, emissions were so high, investigators wrote, they “evacuated the area quickly to prevent exposure.” Marathon, worth nearly $25 billion at the end of 2013, promised to fix the problem and was not fined.
“There’s nothing we can do,” Shelby Buehring said. “Nobody is listening to us. They’re not going to stop, so we have to live with it or leave…I hate it here.”
Fracking’s impact has been debated since the mid-2000s, when the oil and gas shale boom came to vast stretches of the United States. Much of the concern centers on how methane and chemicals can contaminate drinking water. But scientists say air pollution is equally serious.
Health issues faced in drilling are trumped by financial benefits nearly every time, said Robert Forbis Jr., an assistant professor of political science at Texas Tech University. “Energy wins,” Forbis said. “That’s how states see it—promote economic development and minimize risk factors.”
People who live close to drilling report similar symptoms: nausea, nosebleeds, headaches, body rashes and respiratory problems. “If you have pockets of communities with the same symptoms…then there is a body of evidence,” said Isobel Simpson, an atmospheric scientist at the University of California-Irvine.
Chemicals released include hydrogen sulfide, a deadly gas; volatile organic compounds (VOCs) like benzene, a carcinogen; sulfur dioxide and particulates; carbon monoxide; and carbon disulfide. VOCs can mix with nitrogen oxides to create ozone. They can cause a range of ailments, some so serious the federal government has set worker safety standards. But there are no clear standards to protect people living near drilling sites.
Scientists “really haven’t the foggiest idea” how oil and gas development affects public health, said Aaron Bernstein, associate director of the Center for Health and the Global Environment at Harvard University.
“It’s not as though there isn’t reason to be concerned,” Bernstein said. “These are industrial activities with known emissions that are known to affect people’s health.”
While Eagle Ford residents have filed almost 300 complaints since 2010, some suffer silently. Mary Alice Longoria, an X-ray technician who lives in a mobile home, once could sit on her deck and see only horses, cows, deer and the occasional dove hunter. Now, oil rigs and tanks mar her view and send foul odors into her home. A flare ebbs in the distance. Her grandson isn’t allowed to play in the backyard.
Experts say Texas doesn’t have enough data to say the air is safe. The TCEQ relies primarily on canister samples and infrared aerial surveys to detect emissions.
Scientists say these spot checks are no substitute for strategically placed, stationary monitors. The TCEQ has only five permanent monitors in the Eagle Ford, positioned far from the heaviest drilling. The Barnett Shale near Dallas-Fort Worth, by contrast, has 35 permanent monitors, though it covers about a quarter of the area of the Eagle Ford.
No additional air monitors are planned for the Eagle Ford, but the TCEQ has contracted with the University of Texas to conduct mobile monitoring upwind and downwind of the shale play. The goal is to learn how that pollution affects nearby cities, like San Antonio, which has violated federal ozone standards dozens of times since drilling began.
The study won’t address emissions in Karnes County, where at least 17 oil wells lie within a mile of Mike and Myra Cerny’s small house. Their teenage son, Cameron, gets frequent nosebleeds, and the fumes make his parents dizzy, irritable and nauseous. “This crap is killing me and my family,” said Cerny, a former oil company truck driver. “We went from nice, easy country living to living in a Petri dish.”
Myra complained in 2012, and the TCEQ cited Houston-based Marathon Oil for a broken flare and failing to report unauthorized emissions, but Marathon paid no penalty. “I feel like we’re expendable,” Myra said.
The number of employees in the TCEQ’s Office of Compliance and Enforcement has fallen 13 percent since 2010 while the number of wells has skyrocketed.
Texas allows thousands of smaller oil and gas facilities to operate on an honor system, without reporting emissions, using what is called permit by rule, or PBR—if they emit no more than 25 tons of VOCs per year and handle gas low in hydrogen sulfide. Two TCEQ employees estimate these permits account for half of those issued for new or modified facilities since the 1970s.
“It’s probably not even fair to call them permits,” said Ilan Levin, an Austin-based lawyer with the Environmental Integrity Project, an advocacy group. “The regulators don’t have a clue as to what’s really coming out of some of these facilities.”
Levin said there’s some justification. “It would overwhelm the [TCEQ] if you had every mom-and-pop oil and gas operator out there filling out applications,” he said.
Eagle Ford operators who violate regulations face few repercussions. Larry Soward, a former TCEQ commissioner with a reputation for being tough on industry, said the agency is shaped by top-down management. Its upper ranks consist of people who share Gov. Perry’s business-friendly view, he said. Its middle managers “know the parameters very well in which they can operate. It’s not unclear…who they can go after and who they can’t.”
“You have a regulatory system that says, ‘Well, even if you did something bad, we’re just going to say don’t do it again, or slap you on the wrist’,” Soward said.
Between January 2012 and October 2013, the TCEQ issued 117 fines statewide for violations related to oil and gas production. Operators paid less than $25,000 in more than three-quarters of those cases, records show.
Every month, the Texas Railroad Commission updates an online map of drilling in the Eagle Ford, using green dots for oil and red dots for gas. Karnes County is almost entirely green and red. “Karnes County is ground zero,” said County Judge Barbara Shaw, an industry supporter. “We always have fears that the federal government is going to stop it.”
Shaw, whose husband works in the oil industry, admits that the boom has brought unpleasant changes in the county of 15,000. Traffic deaths rose from two in 2010 to 25 in 2012, trucks tear up roads, and rents have quadrupled.
Oil, the judge said, is “a natural resource that’s given by God to allow us to function. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that.”
But the region’s rapid development makes it difficult to separate the bad actors from the good, said David Sterling, chair of the University of North Texas Health Science Center.
“As much as I would like to believe that industry can police itself,” he said, “history has shown that that has not worked without sufficient oversight.”