What might the oil- and gas-rich Eagle Ford Shale region of South Texas look like in 2018?
A newly released but largely unnoticed study commissioned by the state of Texas makes some striking projections:
The number of wells drilled in the 20,000-square-mile region could quadruple, from about 8,000 today to 32,000.
Oil production could leap from 363 million barrels per year to as much as 761 million.
Airborne releases of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) could increase 281 percent during the peak ozone season compared to 2012 emissions. VOCs, commonly found at oil and gas production sites, can cause respiratory and neurological problems. Some, like benzene, can cause cancer.
Nitrogen oxides—which react with VOCs in sunlight to create ground-level ozone, the main component of smog—could increase 69 percent during the peak ozone season.
People in natural gas drilling areas who complain about nauseating odors, nosebleeds and other symptoms they fear could be caused by shale development usually get the same response from state regulators: monitoring data show the air quality is fine.
A new study helps explain this discrepancy. The most commonly used air monitoring techniques often underestimate public health threats because they don't catch toxic emissions that spike at various points during gas production, researchers reported Tuesday in the peer-reviewed journal Reviews on Environmental Health. The study was conducted by the Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project, a nonprofit based near Pittsburgh.
A health survey the group released last year found that people who live near drilling sites in Washington County, Pa., in the Marcellus Shale, reported symptoms such as nausea, abdominal pain, breathing difficulties and nosebleeds, all of which could be caused by pollutants known to be emitted from gas sites. Similar problems have been reported by people who live in the Eagle Ford Shale in South Texas, the subject of a recent investigation by the Center for Public Integrity, InsideClimate News and The Weather Channel.
Colorado's tough, new air pollution rules for the oil and gas industry were approved only a month ago but they're already making an impact in Texas, where lawmakers and energy companies have long resisted tightening air standards.
Several companies have approached the nonprofit Environmental Defense Fund and expressed interest in discussing whether Colorado's rules make sense for Texas, according to Jim Marston, a vice president at EDF. Marston didn't name the companies.
"The companies are often ahead of the Texas state government," said Marston, who works in the group's Austin office. "If some important industry leaders like the idea, it might move state government."
EDF played a leading role among the environmental organizations that helped craft the Colorado rules. Many energy companies also participated in the rule-making process, but only four of them—Anadarko Petroleum Corp., DCP Midstream, Encana Corp. and Noble Energy, Inc.—fully support the new regulations.
America's electric cars are better for the environment, but they share a dirty little secret.
The Chevy Volt, Nissan Leaf and Tesla Roadster all use a super greenhouse gas known as HFC 134a as the refrigerant for their air conditioners. The liquid coolant is so potent that when it leaks into the atmosphere it traps 1,400 times more heat than carbon dioxide over a 100-year time horizon.
For automakers and advocates of green transportation, it poses an uncomfortable truth: Vehicles touted as a solution to climate change carry a hairspray-sized canister loaded with a chemical that significantly contributes to warming of the earth's climate. As much as half of current HFC emissions, a small but fast-growing source of global warming pollution, come from leaks out of the air conditioners in cars.
Already a number of Chevrolet, Buick, GMC and Cadillac gas-powered cars use an alternative climate-friendlier coolant called HFO 1234yf, as carmakers confront growing pressure from environmentalists and as regulations are developed by governments. Climate experts say it's clear that all electric automakers should get on board soon. "It makes sense for electric vehicles to use [alternatives], and to reduce their overall global warming potential," said Don Anair, deputy director of the clean vehicles program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, a science advocacy group.
But among 16 EV models on America's roads, only two—Chevy's newest model of its all-electric Spark and the leaseable Honda Fit—have ditched the super greenhouse gas HFC 134a for the climate safe alternative so far.
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.