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.
Story updated on Feb. 14 at 2:00 p.m. EDT to include comment from the Canada Revenue Agency.
In both the United States and Canada, activism against tar sands, pipelines and climate change has soared in recent years.
But while President Obama has encouraged citizens to "stand up and speak up" to demand change on energy, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper's administration has tried to silence critics of pro-tar sands policies.
In the most recent evidence, seven influential environmental organizations have become the subject of rigorous audits by the Canada Revenue Agency.
Activists allege that the scrutiny is an attempt by the Harper administration to subdue tar sands opponents as decision time looms for pipelines needed to bring Alberta's landlocked oil to market—the Texas-bound Keystone XL and the Northern Gateway to the Pacific Coast of British Columbia.
China is erecting huge industrial complexes in remote areas to convert coal to synthetic fuel that could make the air in its megacities cleaner. But the complexes use so much energy that the carbon footprint of the fuel is almost double that of conventional coal and oil, spelling disaster for earth's climate, a growing chorus of scientists is warning.
Efforts by China to develop so-called "coal bases" in its far-flung regions have received scant attention beyond the trade press, but scientists watching the effort say it could cause climate damage that eclipses worldwide climate protection efforts.
The facilities, which resemble oil refineries, use coal to make liquid fuels, chemicals, power and "syngas," which is like natural gas but extracted from coal. The fuels and electricity are then transported to China's big cities to be burned in power plants, factories and cars.
Currently 16 coal base sites are being built and many are operational. One being constructed in Inner Mongolia will eventually occupy nearly 400 square miles—almost the size of the sprawling city of Los Angeles.
The American oil industry could be on the verge of winning its war on the federal Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS), as the Obama administration weighs changes that could severely undermine the nation's most successful—and most divisive—effort to cut crude oil consumption in the nation's cars.
Faced with what it called an "inadequate domestic supply of renewable fuels," federal regulators in November proposed lowering the 2014 usage requirements for the total volume of renewable fuel and for advanced biofuels. Last month, regulators said they may also grant oil industry requests for waivers on their biofuel obligations for 2014 as well as for fiscal 2013, which ends in June.
The moves triggered howls from biofuels companies and representatives from corn states fearful that those setbacks will lead to others, and that uncertainty over the program will pull the rug from under the fledgling market for advanced biofuels. The Environmental Protection Agency is expected to rule on the proposed biofuel reductions and the oil industry waivers in the coming months.
Of course, the potential unraveling of the RFS is complicated and highly controversial. The program's troubles stem primarily from sinking gasoline demand, overly optimistic biofuels targets and 2012's drought-driven rise in corn prices. In addition, the ongoing dependence on corn-derived ethanol has further inflamed critics who say the rush to produce that kind of ethanol has been gobbling up land and diverting food to U.S. gas tanks.
But, for all its struggles and faults, the RFS accomplished things that almost no other gasoline additive or alternative was in a position to achieve so quickly.
With the Obama administration heading into the endgame on the Keystone XL decision, now comes the final test for a resurgent U.S. environmental movement that has put all its chips on blocking the Canada-to-Texas tar sands pipeline.
"[This] is our last chance to convince the administration and the American people that this pipeline isn't actually beneficial, that it isn't in the national interest," said Danielle Droitsch, director of the Canada Project at the Natural Resources Defense Council, one of the many green groups fighting the pipeline.