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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
(Page 2 of 9 )
  • Thousands of oil and gas facilities, including six of the nine production sites near the Buehrings' house, are allowed to self-audit their emissions without reporting them to the state. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ), which regulates most air emissions, doesn't even know some of these facilities exist. An internal agency document acknowledges that the rule allowing this practice "[c]annot be proven to be protective."

  • Companies that break the law are rarely fined. Of the 284 oil and gas industry-related complaints filed with the TCEQ by Eagle Ford residents between Jan. 1, 2010, and Nov. 19, 2013, only two resulted in fines despite 164 documented violations. The largest was just $14,250. (Pending enforcement actions could lead to six more fines).

  • The Texas legislature has cut the TCEQ's budget by a third since the Eagle Ford boom began, from $555 million in 2008 to $372 million in 2014. At the same time, the amount allocated for air monitoring equipment dropped from $1.2 million to $579,000.

  • The Eagle Ford boom is feeding an ominous trend: A 100 percent statewide increase in unplanned, toxic air releases associated with oil and gas production since 2009. Known as emission events, these releases are usually caused by human error or faulty equipment.

  • Residents of the mostly rural Eagle Ford counties are at a disadvantage even in Texas, because they haven't been given air quality protections, such as more permanent monitors, provided to the wealthier, more suburban Barnett Shale region near Dallas-Fort Worth.

Texas officials tasked with overseeing the industry are often its strongest defenders, leaving the Buehrings and other families interviewed for this story to mostly fend for themselves. Oil money is so thoroughly ingrained in the Texas culture and economy that there is little interest in or sympathy for those who have become collateral damage in the drive for riches.

The TCEQ is led by three commissioners appointed by Gov. Rick Perry, a Republican who favors dismantling the EPA and voices doubt about climate change. TCEQ officials often go on to jobs as lobbyists for the energy industry they once regulated.

The Texas Railroad Commission, which issues drilling permits and regulates all other aspects of oil and gas production, is controlled by three elected commissioners who accepted more than $2 million in campaign contributions from the industry during the 2012 election cycle, according to data from the National Institute on Money in State Politics.

State legislators who enact the laws that regulate the industry are often tied to it. Nearly one in four state legislators, or his or her spouse, has a financial interest in at least one energy company active in the Eagle Ford, a Center for Public Integrity analysis of personal financial disclosure forms shows.

"I believe if you're anti-oil and gas, you're anti-Texas," state Rep. Harvey Hilderbran, a Republican from Central Texas, said during a media panel discussion in September.

The TCEQ declined to make any of its commissioners, officials or investigators available for interviews. In a prepared statement, it said air pollution isn't a problem in the Eagle Ford.

"The air monitoring data evaluated to date indicate that air pollutants in the Eagle Ford Shale area have not been a concern either from a long-term or short-term perspective," the statement said. "Therefore, we would not expect adverse health effects, adverse vegetative effects, or nuisance odors in this area."

But an interoffice memorandum obtained through the Texas Public Information Act indicates the TCEQ knows its statewide air monitoring system is flawed.

"The executive director has extensive records of underestimated or previously undetected emissions from oil and gas sites. These are not isolated instances but have occurred statewide and indicate a pattern," Richard A. Hyde, then deputy director of the TCEQ's Office of Permitting and Registration, wrote in the Jan. 7, 2011, memo. Hyde, now the TCEQ's executive director, through an agency spokeswoman declined to comment.

Since drilling came to Karnes County, Lynn Buehring's asthma has worsened. Instead of using a breathing machine once or twice a month, she now needs it several times a week, and sometimes twice a day. She has also developed migraine headaches so intense that they've induced temporary blindness and brought her to the brink of unconsciousness.

The Buehrings complained to the TCEQ in 2012, prompting investigators to check out several Marathon Oil facilities near their home. At one point the emissions were so high, the investigators wrote in their report, that they "evacuated the area quickly to prevent exposure." Marathon, a Houston-based company worth nearly $25 billion at the end of 2013, reported that it fixed the problem and was not fined.

Last summer, the air around the Buehrings' house was so bad—Lynn described a rancid chicken stench—that she couldn't sit outside with Shelby and watch the sunset, a nighttime ritual since they bought their house in 1995.

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