About 70 percent of Bakken crude is shipped by rail to refineries in other regions of the country, passing through the heart of urban centers and environmentally sensitive wetlands. Three of those oil trains have exploded in the past year raising questions about the volatility of the Bakken crude and the safety of shipping it by rail.
After eight months of searching, regulators and industry still have not come up with an answer. Some oil and gas experts suspect producers might be failing to properly separate flammable "wet" gases like propane from the crude before shipping it. They cite three possible reasons: a shortage of gas-processing plants in the area; added profitability for producers if they "fluff up" their crude shipments with natural gas liquids, which are worth less per-barrel than crude; and/or carelessness.
As federal regulators continue investigating why tank cars on three trains carrying North Dakota crude oil have exploded in the past eight months, energy experts say part of the problem might be that some producers are deliberately leaving too much propane in their product, making the oil riskier to transport by rail.
Sweet light crude from the Bakken Shale formation straddling North Dakota and Montana has long been known to be especially rich in volatile natural gas liquids like propane. Much of the oil is being shipped in railcars designed in the 1960s and identified in 1991 by the National Transportation Safety Board as having a dangerous penchant to rupture during derailments or other accidents.
While there's no way to completely eliminate natural gas liquids from crude, well operators are supposed to use separators at the wellhead to strip out methane, ethane, propane and butane before shipping the oil. A simple adjustment of the pressure setting on the separator allows operators to calibrate how much of these volatile gases are removed. The worry, according to a half-dozen industry experts who spoke with InsideClimate News, is that some producers are adjusting the pressure settings to leave in substantial amounts of natural gas liquids.
KARNES CITY, Texas—When Lynn Buehring leaves her doctor's office in San Antonio she makes sure her inhaler is on the seat beside her, then steers her red GMC pickup truck southeast on U.S. 181, toward her home on the South Texas prairie.
About 40 miles down the road, between Poth and Falls City, drilling rigs, crude oil storage tanks and flares trailing black smoke appear amid the mesquite, live oak and pecan trees. Depending on the speed and direction of the wind, a yellow-brown haze might stretch across the horizon, filling the car with pungent odors. Sometimes Buehring's eyes burn, her chest tightens and pain stabs at her temples. On those days, she touches her inhaler for reassurance.
In another five miles Buehring, 58, passes into Karnes County, where she was born and once figured on living out her retirement, surrounded by a calm broken only by an occasional thunderstorm.
Today, however, the ranch-style house she shares with her 66-year-old husband, Shelby, is at the epicenter of one of the nation's biggest and least-publicized oil and gas booms. With more than 50 wells drilled within 2.5 miles of their home, the days when the Buehrings could sit on the deck that Shelby built and lull away an afternoon are long gone. The fumes won't let them.
Known as the Eagle Ford Shale play, this 400-mile-long, 50-mile-wide bacchanal of oil and gas extraction stretches from Leon County, Texas, in the northeast to the Mexico border in the southwest.
KARNES CITY, Texas—In January 2011, with air quality worsening in Texas' booming oil and gas fields and the federal government beginning to take notice, state environmental regulators adopted rules to reduce harmful emissions.
The industry rebelled. So did the state legislature.
A few months later, the legislature overwhelmingly approved SB1134, a bill that effectively prevented the new regulations from being applied in the Eagle Ford Shale region of South Texas, one of the fastest-growing oil shale plays in the nation. Since then, more than 2,400 air emissions permits have been issued in the Eagle Ford without additional safeguards that would have reduced the amounts of benzene, hydrogen sulfide, formaldehyde and other toxic chemicals that drift into the air breathed by 1.1 million people.
The Texas legislature's rush to protect the oil and gas industry reflects a culture in which politics and business are almost inseparable.
State Rep. Tom Craddick, who championed the House version of SB1134, owns stock in nine oil companies, five of which are active in the Eagle Ford. At the end of 2013, the stock was worth as much as $1.5 million. That year Craddick, and the partnerships and corporations he controls, received royalties of as much as $885,000 for mineral rights. For decades he had a lucrative partnership with Mustang Mud, an oilfield supply company. Corporations, along with unions, are banned from giving directly to state candidates in Texas, but since 2000, industry employees and related political action committees have contributed more than $800,000 to Craddick's campaigns, according to an analysis of data from the National Institute on Money in State Politics.
Fracking the Eagle Ford Shale: Big Oil and Bad Air on the Texas Prairie is an eight-month investigation by InsideClimate News, the Center for Public Integrity and The Weather Channel.
Award-winning reporters reveal the dangers of releasing a toxic soup of chemicals into the air from oil and gas drilling and expose how little the Texas government knows about such pollution in its own state. They also show that the Texas legislature is intent on keeping it that way.
The project blends traditional and multimedia reporting—including this original video documentary, plus photographs, a slideshow and print and interactive graphics.
Watch the video, click through the slideshow and check out each publication's presentation of the project.
Inside the making of Fracking the Eagle Ford Shale: Big Oil and Bad Air on the Texas Prairie
An eight-month investigation by InsideClimate News, the Center for Public Integrity and The Weather Channel
How does one of America's biggest oil and gas booms go mostly unrecognized in the national media? Hard to say, but it has. A subject of solid local coverage, the Eagle Ford Shale play in South Texas has yet to become part of the national conversation on hydraulic fracturing—fracking—in contrast to, say, Pennsylvania's Marcellus Shale or North Dakota's Bakken.
This oddity, along with the sheer size of the play—26 counties, 20,000 square miles— attracted us to the story. We focused on the air-quality impacts of drilling and related activities because chemical-laden air may prove to be an even bigger public health consequence than tainted water, which has been widely reported.
The partnership that produced Fracking the Eagle Ford Shale: Big Oil and Bad Air on the Texas Prairie was formed in the spring of 2013. Two nonprofit news organizations, the Center for Public Integrity and InsideClimate News, teamed up with The Weather Channel to explore the issue of air emissions and the consequences for the people of the Eagle Ford.
Air pollutants are released at every stage of oil and gas extraction. This diagram shows some of the many emission sources during drilling, fracking, production and processing at an oil well in the Eagle Ford Shale.
The diagram is part of an eight-month investigation into the air pollution effects of one of the biggest energy booms in America by InsideClimate News, the Center for Public Integrity and The Weather Channel.
The top environmental regulator in Texas, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ), keeps a public database of citizen complaints filed with the agency. We scraped hundreds of entries to find the ones specifically related to oil and gas activity in the Eagle Ford Shale.
This graphic is part of an eight-month investigation into the air pollution effects of one of the biggest energy booms in America by InsideClimate News, the Center for Public Integrity and The Weather Channel.
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.
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.
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.