Texas Officials Turn Blind Eye to Fracking Industry’s Toxic Air Emissions

Texas Governor Rick Perry

Texas Governor Rick Perry

When it comes to fracking the Eagle Ford Shale, Texas government becomes a ‘wholly-owned subsidiary’ of the oil industry. The legislature’s rush to protect the oil and gas industry reflects a culture in which politics and business have become almost inseparable.

See the companion post: Fracking Boom Spews Toxic Air Emissions on Texas Residents

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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Texas Officials Turn Blind Eye

to Fracking Industry’s Toxic Air Emissions

When it comes to fracking the Eagle Ford Shale, Texas government becomes a ‘wholly-owned subsidiary’ of the oil industry.

By David Hasemyer, Ben Wieder and Alan Suderman

KARNES CITY, Texas—In January 2011, with air quality worsening in Texas’ booming oil and gas fields, state environmental regulators adopted rules to reduce emissions.

The industry rebelled. So did the state legislature.

Texas State Capitol (Wikimedia Commons)

Texas State Capitol (Wikimedia Commons)

A few months later, lawmakers passed SB1134, effectively preventing the new regulations from being applied in the Eagle Ford Shale region of South Texas, one of the nation’s biggest oil and gas booms. Since then, more than 2,400 air emissions permits have been issued in the Eagle Ford without additional safeguards to reduce the amounts of benzene, hydrogen sulfide and other dangerous chemicals that drift into the air.

The legislature’s rush to protect the oil and gas industry reflects a culture in which politics and business have become almost inseparable.

State Rep. Tom Craddick, a Republican who championed the House version of SB1134, owns stock in nine oil companies, five of which are active in the Eagle Ford. In 2013, the stock was worth as much as $1.5 million. Craddick, his corporations and partnerships also received royalties of as much as $885,000 for mineral rights. Corporations and unions are banned from giving to Texas candidates, but since 2000, industry employees and related political action committees have given Craddick’s campaigns more than $800,000.

The industry also invested $600,000 to help Craddick’s daughter, Christi, win a seat on the Texas Railroad Commission, which issues drilling permits.

Other Texas lawmakers also benefit from the oil and gas industry’s largesse.

Forty-two of the body’s 181 members or their spouses own stock or receive royalties from companies active in the Eagle Ford, according to a Center for Public Integrity review of financial disclosure records. Those holdings could be worth as much as $9.6 million, according to a conservative estimate based on 2012 data.

Republican Gov. Rick Perry, who signed SB1134, has collected more than $11.5 million in campaign contributions from those in the industry since the 2000 election cycle. Attorney General Greg Abbott, favored to win the Republican nomination for governor, has raked in more than $4 million. Abbott has sued the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency 18 times for interfering in Texas affairs.

Supporters say oil and gas has been good to Texas, and they are right. The industry employed 315,000 people and paid $8.5 billion in taxes in 2010. It has been especially important to counties in the Eagle Ford. The tax base for the industrial sector in Karnes County, in the center of the drilling, exploded from $217 million in 2008 to $6.2 billion last year.

The downside is industrial air pollution in a rural area where people of limited means rarely share in the bounty.

Most of the Eagle Ford’s roughly 1.1 million residents live in small towns or on farms. About 23 percent live below the federal poverty line, compared to 17 percent statewide and 15 percent nationally.

“Let’s be blunt. That is not really a body of voters that the power structure in Austin has any real concern about,” said Larry Soward, a former commissioner of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality who is now president of the board of Air Alliance Houston, an organization dedicated to reducing air pollution.

Rep. Tim Kleinschmidt, a Republican who represents Karnes County in the state legislature, is no stranger to the oil industry. He has leased land to oil companies while the law firm where he practices specializes in negotiating oil and gas agreements. “I’ve practiced in an oil field my whole life,” he said.

Kleinschmidt says the industry is proactively addressing climate and infrastructure concerns. “I can’t say too much in support of our oil and gas industry in Texas,” he said. “Our oil and gas industry is very environmentally concerned.”

Sister Elizabeth Riebschlaeger sees it differently. The 77-year-old nun-turned-activist speeds through the Eagle Ford region in her white Honda Civic, intent on exposing the ills she believes have been forced on residents. “They do not like to complain,” she said. “They don’t want to make trouble.”

While Texas may be extreme, it’s not unusual for politicians to be seduced by industry, said Michael Nelson, professor of environmental ethics and philosophy at Oregon State University.

“What’s going on is the masking of a moral decision in a utilitarian kind of debate that puts more weight on what can be seen, in this case the financial benefit, [than on] what can’t be as readily measured: the risks,” Nelson said. “Those risks to health and environment aren’t as perceptible as the financial benefit, so the cost benefit equation is tipped out of balance.”

As a consequence, residents suffer, said Sharon Wilson, a leader in the Texas office of the environmental group Earthworks.

“It doesn’t matter what the people say. It … does … not … matter,” Wilson said.

Rep. Lon Burnam, a Fort Worth Democrat who has served 16 years in the Texas House, is the most outspoken of a handful of legislators trying to curb oil company influence. He describes the legislature as “a wholly-owned subsidiary of the oil and gas industry.”

In the last legislative session, Burnam introduced 12 bills that would have regulated or taxed the industry in some way. Most died in the House Energy Resources Committee, where six of the 11 members, including Craddick, own stock or receive royalties from the industry, according to their personal financial disclosures.

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2 Responses to Texas Officials Turn Blind Eye to Fracking Industry’s Toxic Air Emissions

  1. Forrest says:

    It is understandable why Texas has such a vested interest in continuing oil production due to its economic benefits. Unfortunately, since the “easy to get to” oil in sandstone deposits has been depleted, fracking shale is the next step. Fracking has been proven to cause geologic instability and air pollution by harmful gas emissions. It would be in the best long-term interest of the global community to cease fracking, but the short-term economic advantages will probably continue to blind policy makers.

  2. R Lewis says:

    Former Texan here.. I am not surprised by Texas’ laissez-faire attitude towards the preservation and protection of the environment. Regarding pretty much every issue, the governing body considers “regulation” to be a dirty word. Regulation is especially avoided when hands are tied with the promise of booming capitalism. I wish Texas was a place where there wasn’t such a great conflict of interest. I also feel that there isn’t enough grassroots activism. If the state was more politically liberal maybe there would be. Honestly, I am not sure what it is going to take in order for measures and actions to be taken. The state is extremely large therefore they have the potential of causing a lot of damages that may not be reversible.

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