A Congressional investigation into the way states regulate the disposal of the often toxic waste generated during the fracking of oil and gas has expanded.
Rep. Matthew Cartwright, a Democrat from eastern Pennsylvania, launched the investigation in October by singling out his home state for the inquiry.
Now Cartwright, a member of the House Subcommittee on Economic Growth, Job Creation and Regulatory Affairs, has broadened the probe to include Ohio and West Virginia. Those states generate waste from hydraulic fracturing as well as accepting waste from other states, including Pennsylvania.
PEARSALL, Texas—During their careers as oil and gas inspectors for the Texas Railroad Commission, Fred Wright and Morris Kocurek earned merit raises, promotions and praise from their supervisors.
They went about their jobs—keeping tabs on the conduct of the state's most important industry—with gusto.
But they may have done their jobs too well for the industry's taste—and for their own agency's.
Kocurek and Wright, who worked in different Railroad Commission districts, were fired within months of each other in 2013. Both say their careers were upended by their insistence that oil and gas operators follow rules intended to protect the public and the environment.
The incidents Kocurek and Wright describe offer an inside look at how Texas regulates the oil and gas industry, a subject InsideClimate News and the Center for Public Integrity have been investigating for more than a year and a half.
The investigation has found that the Railroad Commission and its sister agency, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, focus more on protecting the industry than the public, an approach tacitly endorsed by the state’s political leaders. The Railroad Commission is controlled by three elected commissioners who, combined, accepted nearly $3 million in campaign contributions from the industry during the 2012 and 2014 election cycles, according to data from the National Institute on Money in State Politics. Gov. Rick Perry collected a little less than $11.5 million in campaign contributions from those in the industry since the 2000 election cycle. The governor-elect, Attorney General Greg Abbott, accepted more than $6.8 million.
Wright's job with the Railroad Commission was a particularly important one.
Two former oil and gas inspectors for the Texas Railroad Commission, Fred Wright and Morris Kocurek, were fired within months of each other in 2013.
They say they were fired because they demanded that the oil and gas industry strictly abide by state regulations designed to protect the public and the environment. The inspectors' responsibilities included keeping old and new wells safe and making sure the industry's often-toxic waste didn't become a hazard.
Below are links to some of the hundreds of pages of commission records that InsideClimate News used to document the praise, promotions, censure and exile that marked the men's careers. The documents were obtained by filing requests under the Texas Public Information Act.
"Don't mess with Texas," says the advertising slogan that has grown into a defiant unofficial state motto.
After a recent historic vote to ban fracking in the college town of Denton—and industry's lightning-fast response—the new refrain might read: "Don't Mess With Big Oil and Gas."
That's the bottom line for business and legal experts who surveyed the landscape after 59 percent of Denton's voters approved the ban.
Barely 13 hours after the polls closed on Nov. 4, oil and gas lawyers were in court, suing the town.
So, for that matter, was the state of Texas, where production of oil and gas reached $109 billion last year.
The overwhelming vote made Denton the first city to ban fracking in Texas, a state whose history, economy and culture are inextricably linked to oil.
The industry's swift reaction offers perhaps cautionary national implications for other cities seeking to follow Denton, the home of North Texas State University, just north of Dallas.
Unlined open-air wastewater pits brimming with the toxic leftovers of fracking and other types of oil and gas development are threatening California's air and water quality, according to a study by two national environmental organizations.
A visit to a series of wastewater pits in California's Central Valley that sickened researchers prompted the study, according to the authors. Oil and gas drilling has been generating vast amounts of waste in the region for decades.
The groups' findings further document the risks of using unlined pits for oil and gas wastewater disposal and challenge whether California's regulatory system adequately addresses the hazards. The report highlights threats to water, air and health; documents regulatory failures; and proposes immediate remedies.
"The discharge of wastewater into unlined pits threatens water resources, including potential sources of drinking and irrigation water, and impacts air quality due to the off-gassing of chemicals from the wastewater," according to the 28-page report, "In the Pits."
Californians' overwhelming approval for a bond that authorized $7.5 billion for badly needed water projects was largely driven by the state's current drought and by fears that unpredictable weather patterns fostered by global warming will continue to strain the water system.
California is in a severe, multiyear drought that continues to deplete its reservoirs and groundwater aquifers. Polls going into last week's election showed that more than three-quarters of Californians believe drought and water shortages are among the state's most pressing issues. Two-thirds of voters said yes to the bond last week.
The bond funds a strategic blueprint where funding priorities are tied to a comprehensive statewide water action plan that accounts for future drought and other variables associated with climate change, said Timothy Quinn, executive director of the statewide Association of California Water Agencies.
"At its core, Proposition 1 advances an all-of-the-above strategy that includes everything from local resources to water storage to safe drinking water," he said. "Other states facing similar challenges may learn from that approach."
The installation of the first air monitor in the heart of the Eagle Ford Shale region of south Texas has been delayed following a review of the proposed site by the Texas Historical Commission.
The location selected for the air monitor is on the grounds of the 90-year-old Karnes County courthouse of Karnes City, a community of slightly more than 3,000 in the center of the drilling hotbed. It was supposed to begin operating by the end of October.
But the spot proposed for the 40-foot-by-40-foot monitor with instruments reaching 32 feet into the sky would have spoiled the view of the picturesque building, said Chris Florance, director of public information and education for the commission.
"It was kind of right out there where everybody could see it," said Karnes County Judge Richard Butler, the county’s top executive.
During his 18 years in office, Texas state representative Lon Burnam has been the odd man out in a legislature that overwhelmingly believes in business, development and the unbridled support of oil and gas.
During the last session of the House, he introduced more than a dozen pieces of legislation that would have required the industry to become a more responsible steward of the environment and the state to be more of an industry watchdog.
His record: Zero wins and 12 losses.
In an interview with InsideClimate News last summer, when asked why he doesn't just move away, Burnam said he stays because Texas needs to hear from a Texan what the future holds for the environment if change isn't made.
People living along the proposed route of a natural gas pipeline through Michigan have been bombarding federal regulators with letters opposing the project planned by ET Rover Pipeline Company LLC.
In the face of mounting opposition in one county, ET Rover, a subsidiary of Houston-based Energy Transfer Partners, quietly revised its plan and rerouted the pipeline north though two counties that were surprised to suddenly be dealing with the project.
The letter-writing campaign was directed at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), the federal agency that will decide the project's fate. FERC is the lead agency responsible for conducting environmental reviews of proposed interstate pipelines, and as part of the process it allows time for the public to weigh in with comments.
People in Michigan's Oakland County were ready this time. When a Texas-based company announced plans for a natural gas pipeline that would bisect the county, township boards in Oakland County passed resolutions against it. Rallies stirred locals to action. Federal regulators were bombarded with letters against the project.
With resistance gaining momentum, ET Rover Pipeline Company LLC, a subsidiary of Houston-based Energy Transfer Partners, quietly reversed its plans. Now people in neighboring Genesee and Lapeer counties—the new path of the pipeline—are reeling, and asking the winners for help.
Two months after ET Rover revealed maps showing that its pipeline would cut across pubic land and through backyards in Oakland County—and only a few weeks after the first opposition appeared–ET Rover chose an alternative route north that touches only a tiny slice of Oakland County.
"We weren't going to let this happen again," said Kathy Thurman, the Brandon Township supervisor who heard from community members that they'd had enough of the turmoil caused by earlier pipeline projects. Brandon Township is in Oakland County.