AUSTIN—In 2007, Texas regulators quietly relaxed the state's long-term air pollution guideline for benzene, one of the world's most toxic and thoroughly studied chemicals. The number they came up with, still in effect today, was 40 percent weaker, or less health-protective, than the old one.
The decision by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) was a boon for oil refineries, petrochemical plants and other benzene-emitting facilities, because it allowed them to release more benzene into the air without triggering regulatory scrutiny. But it defied the trend of scientific research, which shows that even small amounts of benzene can cause leukemia. The American Petroleum Institute, lobbyist for some of the nation's largest benzene producers, privately acknowledged as early as 1948 that the only "absolutely safe" dose was zero.
It's "the most irresponsible action I've heard of in my life," said Jim Tarr, an air-quality consultant who worked for the TCEQ's predecessor agency in the 1970s. "I certainly can't find another regulatory agency in the U.S. that's done that."
The benzene decision was part of Texas' sweeping overhaul of its air pollution guidelines. An analysis by InsideClimate News shows that the TCEQ has loosened two-thirds of the protections for the 45 chemicals it has re-assessed since 2007, even though the state's guidelines at the time were already among the nation's weakest.
The changes are being supervised by TCEQ toxicologist Michael Honeycutt, who began updating the way Texas develops its guidelines in 2003, when he was promoted to division chief. A genial, bespectacled man who takes great pride in his work, Honeycutt is a trusted advisor to top TCEQ officials and often acts as the agency's scientific spokesman. He is also a frequent critic of federal efforts to reduce air pollution.
Honeycutt's actions reflect Texas's pro-industry approach to air quality, which InsideClimate News and the Center for Public Integrity have been examining for the past year and a half. Most of the air-quality guidelines the state's oil and gas producers are supposed to meet are not legally enforceable regulations. That means violators are rarely punished, and residents who complain about foul air near drilling sites have few places to turn for help.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo surprised environmentalists Monday when his administration banned hydraulic fracturing in the state, citing public health concerns. The move puts an end to years of heated debate between activists and the oil and gas industry—and could help buoy the case against fracking in hundreds of similar fights happening across the United States.
"This is an overwhelming victory," Sandra Steingraber, an environmental health expert and fracking activist in New York, told InsideClimate News. "Fracking is able to roll over so many communities because people are told it is inevitable. This decision emboldens us all. It shows this fight is winnable."
Steingraber talked about the decision from the parking lot of a sheriff's office where she was bailing out 28 musicians arrested in an ongoing protest against a fracked gas storage facility in the Seneca Lakes region of New York. She said that when she told the activists the news, they picked up their instruments and there was "singing and dancing in the streets."
The ideological divide over climate change widened this week in the Senate committee charged with shaping America's energy policy, setting the stage for a partisan showdown over the new Republican majority's plans to attack the Environmental Protection Agency, build the Keystone XL pipeline and drive fossil fuel expansion.
Democrats' replacement of three pro-fossil-fuel lawmakers with more pro-climate-action senators means that any across-the-aisle cooperation on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee is probably dead, according to political strategists. While Republicans will control the panel 12-10 in 2015, Democrats could delay—or even potentially derail—the GOP's pro-fossil-fuels agenda by nitpicking bills during committee mark-up or by threatening a presidential veto.
"The GOP's appointments are evidence of the increasing desire within the party to roll back Environmental Protection Agency regulations," said Ford O'Connell, a Republican strategist who served as an adviser on the 2008 McCain-Palin presidential campaign. "The Democrats' decisions were definitely calculated, defensive choices. They chose three of their strongest environmentalists...There will be some serious battles in the next two years."
LIMA, Peru—A few hours before dawn poured over the Andes Mountains on Sunday, exhausted diplomats from 190 nations finally reached an uneasy compromise after a grueling and highly contentious round of United Nations climate negotiations.
Somehow, they managed to keep open a route, however uncertain, toward a new climate treaty that they want to complete in Paris a year from now.
"Like all texts, it is not perfect," acknowledged Peru's Manuel Pulgar-Vidal, who as the president of COP20, the 20th conference of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, had spent the last few days herding the deeply divided delegates toward a shaky consensus.
Climate advocates, who had come to Peru optimistically after China, the United States, and the European Union had all announced plans this autumn for significant climate actions, left town relieved that the whole enterprise didn’t fall apart.
But they were disappointed with its scope.
The Union of Concerned Scientists called the deal "the bare minimum needed." Oxfam International said, "the decisions made in Lima do not foreclose the possibility an agreement in Paris, but do little to improve the odds of success."
The draft, which incorporates the main elements of a proposed treaty, doesn't bind anyone to emissions cuts just yet. It's a working paper that contains many options, and will provide the basis for further talks starting early next year.
For most of New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio's first year in office, global warming didn't seem to be a top priority—leaving green groups who endorsed him as an environmental champion during his campaign reeling. But 11 months into his term, there are signs that a shift is under way as the mayor made significant pledges and restructured the city's climate team.
Last week, de Blasio quietly named Nilda Mesa to lead New York's climate agenda as director of a new Office of Sustainability. The agency combines two offices with climate-action responsibility. Mesa, an environmental policy and planning authority, has experience at the federal level working for the White House and the Environmental Protection Agency and in New York as the former head of Columbia University's sustainability efforts.
"She has sterling environmental credentials and the ear of the mayor and his top officials—two extremely valuable assets for success in this position," said Eric Goldstein, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council's New York City Environment program. "There had been a gap in critical personnel. We're glad it has been filled by a quality candidate."
LIMA, Peru—The air was sticky in Lima Wednesday morning, but at least the 15,000 demonstrators who marched through the streets demanding climate action could feel a tepid breeze.
Not so inside the stuffy white carnival tent where delegates at the United Nations talks spent hours fiddling with text meant to map out the route to Paris. It is there where a global climate treaty is supposed to be adopted one year from now.
A delegate from the European Union at a news conference seemed fed up with Lima's dog days. "Progress is a lot slower than we want and need," said Miguel Arias Cañete, the EU's commissioner for energy and the environment. "The text is increasing in length, with no paragraphs yet agreed. It is high time to pick up the pace."
Later in the day it was the turn of Bangladesh's delegation to vent its frustration. With a big slice of their country likely to be swamped by rising seas in the decades ahead, Bangladesh and other poor nations are demanding reliable flows of aid from the rich, and damage payments for the losses they are sure to suffer in the years ahead. Europe and the United States are not interested in any such notion.
But the Bangladeshis, speaking in vehement and even strident tones, said these are not just suggestions—they are "demands," expressions of "our rights."
The hand-wringing and tough talk might be taken as a sign that things were going badly in Lima—a conference that everybody says must succeed if the Paris treaty is ever to be completed.
DALLAS—Propped up on a hospital bed, Taylor Ishee listened as his mother shared a conviction that choked her up. His rare cancer had a cause, she believes, and it wasn't genetics.
Others in Texas have drawn the same conclusions about their confounding illnesses. Jana DeGrand, who suffered a heart attack and needed both her gallbladder and her appendix removed. Rebecca Williams, fighting off unexplained rashes, sharp headaches and repeated bouts of pneumonia. Maile Bush, who needed surgery for a sinus infection four rounds of antibiotics couldn't heal. Annette Wilkes, whose own severe sinus infections were followed by two autoimmune diseases.
They all lived for years atop the gas-rich Barnett Shale in North Texas, birthplace of modern hydraulic fracturing. And they all believe exposure to natural gas development triggered their health problems.
"I've been trying to sell my house," said Williams, a registered nurse, "because I've got to get out of here or I'm going to die."
Texas regulators and politicians have shrugged off such complaints for years. The leap from suspected environmental exposure to definitive proof of harm is a difficult one, and they insist they've found no cause for concern. Officials in other states have said the same thing as hydraulic fracturing—known as fracking—moved beyond Texas and opened up lucrative oil and gas deposits across the country.
But scientific research—coming out now after years of sparse information—suggests that proximity could pose risks.
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.
WESTLAKE, La. — Stacey Ryan already knows where he'll be buried.
It will be in Perkins Cemetery, the same place his mother and father were laid to rest after dying from cancer. It's where his aunts, uncles, grandfather and great-grandfather are interred, having been felled by various malignancies, diabetes, and ailments of the heart, respiratory system and pancreas. Most of Ryan's family is there, along with almost everyone else who ever died in Mossville, an unincorporated area founded by freed slaves.
Soon, the cemetery may be all that is left.
Sasol North America, the domestic division of a South Africa-based energy and chemical company, has begun offering voluntary buyouts to many of the 300 or so remaining inhabitants of Mossville. Some properties may be expropriated come February. By 2018, the land Ryan and other holdouts have fought to keep will be consumed by an $8.1 billion ethane cracker and a multibillion-dollar gas-to-liquids facility, a massive addition to a plant Sasol already operates nearby.
The state of Louisiana says it will allow the facility to release up to 10.6 million tons of greenhouse gases and 3,275 tons of volatile organic compounds such as benzene, a carcinogen, into the atmosphere each year. This is on top of the 963 tons of pollutants that were discharged into the air by Sasol and other companies within the 70669 ZIP code last year, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
"With the plans they have," Ryan said, "Mossville just sits in the way."
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.