Big Oil, Bad Air: Fracking the Eagle Ford Shale of South Texas

Jim Morris, Lisa Song and David Hasemyer, Big Oil, Bad Air: Fracking the Eagle Ford Shale of South Texas. The Center for Public Integrity, 18 February 2014. This story [was] jointly reported by the Center for Public Integrity, InsideClimate News and The Weather Channel. “[T]he Eagle Ford Shale play [is a] 400-mile-long 50-mile-wide bacchanal of oil and gas extraction [that] stretches from Leon County, Texas, in the northeast to the Mexican border in the southwest. Since 2008, more than 7,000 oil and gas wells have been sunk into the brittle, sedimentary rock. Another 5,500 have been approved by state regulators, making the Eagle Ford one of the most active drilling sites in America. Energy companies, cheered on by state officials, envision thousands more wells scattered across the plains. It is, an industry spokesman says, an ‘absolute game-changer’ for a long-depressed region of about 1.1 million people, some of whom suddenly find themselves with enough money to ensure their grandchildren’s future.”

The regulation of oil and gas extraction falls primarily to the states, whose rules vary dramatically. States are also responsible for enforcing the federal Clean Air Act, an arrangement that is problematic in Texas, which has sued the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency 18 times in the last decade.

For the past eight months, the Center for Public Integrity, InsideClimate News and The Weather Channel have examined what Texas, the nation’s biggest oil producer, has done to protect people in the Eagle Ford from the industry’s pollutants. What’s happening in the Eagle Ford is important not only for Texas, but also for Pennsylvania, Colorado, North Dakota and other states where horizontal drilling and high-volume hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, have made it profitable to extract oil and gas from deeply buried shale.

Our investigation and records obtained from Texas regulatory agencies reveal a system that does more to protect the industry than the public. Among the findings:

Texas’ air monitoring system is so flawed that the state knows almost nothing about the extent of the pollution in the Eagle Ford. Only five permanent air monitors are installed in the 20,000-square-mile region, and all are at the fringes of the shale play, far from the heavy drilling areas where emissions are highest.

Thousands of oil and gas facilities, including six of the nine production sites near the Buehrings’ house, are allowed to self-audit their emissions without reporting them to the state. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ), which regulates most air emissions, doesn’t even know some of these facilities exist. An internal agency document acknowledges that the rule allowing this practice ‘[c]annot be proven to be protective.’

Companies that break the law are rarely fined. Of the 284 oil and gas industry-related complaints filed with the TCEQ by Eagle Ford residents between Jan. 1, 2010, and Nov. 19, 2013, only two resulted in fines despite 164 documented violations. The largest was just $14,250. (Pending enforcement actions could lead to six more fines.)

The Texas legislature has cut the TCEQ’s budget by a third since the Eagle Ford boom began, from $555 million in 2008 to $372 million in 2014. At the same time, the amount allocated for air monitoring equipment dropped from $1.2 million to $579,000.

The Eagle Ford boom is feeding an ominous trend: A 100-percent statewide increase in unplanned toxic air releases associated with oil and gas production since 2009. Known as emission events, these releases are usually caused by human error or faulty equipment.

Residents of the mostly rural Eagle Ford counties are at a disadvantage even in Texas because they haven’t been given air quality protections, such as more permanent monitors, provided to the wealthier, more suburban Barnett Shale region near Dallas-Fort Worth.

Texas officials tasked with overseeing the industry are often its strongest defenders, leaving the Buehrings and other families interviewed for this story to mostly fend for themselves. Oil money is so thoroughly ingrained in the Texas culture and economy that there is little interest in or sympathy for those who have become collateral damage in the drive for riches.

The TCEQ is led by three commissioners appointed by Gov. Rick Perry, a Republican who favors dismantling the EPA and voices doubt about climate change. TCEQ officials often go on to jobs as lobbyists for the energy industry they once regulated.

The Texas Railroad Commission, which issues drilling permits and regulates all other aspects of oil and gas production, 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 enact the laws that regulate the industry are often tied to it. Nearly one in four state legislators, or his or her spouse, 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….

But an interoffice memorandum obtained through the Texas Public Information Act indicates the TCEQ knows its statewide air monitoring system 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 the TCEQ’s executive director, through an agency spokeswoman declined to comment….

The health issues faced by people who live in drilling areas — not just in Texas but throughout the United States — simply don’t carry enough weight to counterbalance the financial benefits derived from oil and gas development, said Robert Forbis Jr., an assistant professor of political science at Texas Tech University….

The energy industry’s impact on Americans living near drilling areas has been fiercely debated in the last decade, as the shale boom brought drilling to vast stretches of the United States. Much of the concern has centered on how methane and fracking chemicals can contaminate drinking water. But scientists say air pollution is an equally serious problem that receives less attention, in part because it’s so difficult to track….

People who live close to oil and gas development — whether in Texas’ Eagle Ford, Pennsylvania’s Marcellus Shale or Wyoming’s Green River Basin — tend to report the same symptoms: nausea, nosebleeds, headaches, body rashes and respiratory problems. Public health experts say these shared experiences point to a pressing need for improved air monitoring….

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. Bernstein blames the information gap on a lack of monitoring and research, particularly in the rural, less affluent communities where most of the drilling occurs….

Experts interviewed for this story say Texas doesn’t have enough data to be able to claim, with any assurance, that the air is safe….

The TCEQ has only five permanent monitors in the Eagle Ford, all positioned far from the most heavily drilled areas. The Barnett Shale in North Texas, by contrast, has 35 permanent monitors, even though that field covers only about 5,000 square miles — a quarter of the area of the Eagle Ford….

San Antonio’s ozone levels have violated federal standards dozens of times since the drilling began.Ozone is one of several greenhouse gases, including methane, released or created during drilling operations. Experts are particularly concerned about methane because it’s a powerful greenhouse gas and large-scale leakage could undermine natural gas’ reputation as a cleaner alternative to coal.

Even the EPA doesn’t know much about methane emissions or the other pollutants from oil and gas production. An inspector general’s report last year concluded that the agency’s air emissions database is incomplete and “likely underestimates” those emissions. The lack of reliable data, the report said, “hampers EPA’s ability to accurately assess risks and air quality impacts from oil and gas production activities.”

Environmental groups have tried to collect their own air-quality data in the Eagle Ford, but the process is so expensive and time-consuming that they’ve had little success….

…[T]here’s another factor that state and federal health guidelines don’t consider: the added risks of breathing many chemicals at once.

Guidelines are set for one compound at a time without considering what happens when people are simultaneously exposed to multiple chemicals. To add to the confusion, scientists don’t know much about some of the chemicals emitted, and certain proprietary compounds are hidden from public scrutiny….

“State agencies don’t have the resources — and in a lot of cases they don’t have the political will — to implement regulations, monitoring and enforcement to keep pace with what’s going on in the field,” [Wilma] Subra [an environmental scientist] said. “Yet they continue to grant [drilling] permits.”…

Larry Soward, a former TCEQ commissioner with a reputation for being tough on industry, said the agency’s enforcement strategy is shaped by its top-down management style. Its upper ranks consist of people who share Gov. Perry’s business-friendly point of view, he said. Its middle managers and investigators “know the parameters very well in which they can operate. It’s not unclear, especially to the field staff, 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,’ and companies in industry know that,” Soward said….

Texas regulators and politicians had a clear idea of the problems that would arise in the Eagle Ford even before the drilling boom began.

Between 2003 and 2011, some 2,000 wells had been drilled within the city of Fort Worth, which lies atop the Barnett Shale formation, and six times that many were drilled in nearby communities. Tanker trucks rumbled past suburban lawns. Flares burned next to schools and playgrounds. An industry normally hidden in rural areas was suddenly visible to suburbanites, some of whom were frightened and incensed by the intrusion.

Under pressure from residents and the EPA, the TCEQ added more air monitors in the Barnett and agreed to respond to complaints in a timelier fashion….

A 2012 agency memo shows the TCEQ was fully aware that drilling companies needed more oversight. Titled “Findings and Lessons Learned from Barnett Shale Oil and Gas Activities,” it said “nearly all of the issues documented [in the Barnett] arose from human or mechanical failure that were quickly remedied and could have been avoided through increase [sic] diligence on the part of the operator.”

Soward said Barnett residents got at least a little protection because they “yelled and screamed” until the TCEQ responded. But yelling — and organizing — doesn’t come naturally to most residents in the Eagle Ford, who tend to have fewer resources and less political power than people in North Texas.