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Fracking Boom Spews Toxic Air Emissions on Texas Residents

Eight-month investigation reveals that the Texas State Legislature is more intent on protecting the industry than protecting residents' health.

Lisa Song, Jim Morris and David Hasemyer

Feb 18, 2014

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.

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.

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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.

From the porch of their little white house, the Buehrings can see, and often smell, evidence of the hell-bent rush to tap Texas oil.

In addition to the wells near their home, there are at least nine oil and gas production facilities. Little is known about six of the facilities, because they don't have to file their emissions data with the state. Air permits for the remaining three sites show they house 25 compressor engines, 10 heater treaters, 6 flares, 4 glycol dehydrators and 65 storage tanks for oil, wastewater and condensate. Combined, those sites have the state's permission to release 189 tons of volatile organic compounds, a class of toxic chemicals that includes benzene and formaldehyde, into the air each year. That's about 12 percent more than Valero's Houston Oil Refinery disgorged in 2012.

Those three facilities also are allowed to release 142 tons of nitrogen oxides, 95 tons of carbon monoxide, 19 tons of sulfur dioxide, 8 tons of particulate matter and 0.31 tons of hydrogen sulfide per year. Sometimes the emissions soar high into the sky and are carried by the wind until they drop to the ground miles away. Sometimes they blow straight toward the Buehrings' or their neighbors' homes. 

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.

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