A couple of years after Neta Rhyne and her husband moved to the small Texas town of Toyahvale, just outside Balmorhea State Park, she got a diagnosis of terminal lung cancer and was told she had two months to live.
They had been drawn to this part of West Texas by its dry, clean air and Balmorhea’s vast, natural, spring-fed swimming pool, the largest in the world, up to 25 feet deep.
Rhyne thought her days were numbered, but almost three decades later, she was still alive, thanks to radiation and chemotherapy that staved off her cancer.
Then there was a new threat to her lungs. In 2016, Apache Corp., a large oil company based in Houston, announced finding massive quantities of oil and natural gas in a huge shale field it called Alpine High. The company started drilling test wells, releasing polluting gases into the atmosphere. Balmorhea lay at the center of its find.
While some residents worried that the fracking would damage the natural springs that fed Balmorhea’s famous swimming pool, Rhyne obsessed over the air. Her lungs were already frail, and for vulnerable people like her, a sudden change in air quality can have disastrous effects on their quality of life.
“The flaring, especially to me, because of my history with lung cancer, when I drive down the road, or when I walk out my front door, and I can taste the air is so bad—it scares me to death,” said Rhyne, 71.
This practice of burning off unwanted natural gas from oil wells has been commonplace and largely condoned by Texas regulators across the state’s shale fields for years. But now winds of change have begun blowing here in Texas, as climate activists at the state and national level focus on flaring and on methane, the largest component of natural gas and a climate super-pollutant 86 times more potent at warming the atmosphere than carbon dioxide over a 20-year period.
In advance of April’s climate summit in Washington, leading environmental groups called on President Biden to cut the nation’s methane emissions by 40 percent by 2030, as the best way to slow global warming over the next two decades. The U.S. Senate followed up on April 28 by reimposing Obama-era controls on methane leaks from oil and gas wells that had been rolled back by the Trump administration.
Even the Texas Railroad Commission, the state’s pliant regulator of the fossil fuel industry, deferred consideration of a series of flaring applications from oil companies in February—applications it had routinely approved for years—after one commissioner said flaring should be “a necessary last resort” during emergencies and not a wasteful and polluting practice to dispose of unwanted natural gas.
Flaring the gas is preferable to simply “venting” it into the atmosphere, another common practice. Burning the gas turns methane, the super-polluting greenhouse gas, into carbon dioxide, the primary cause of climate change, which is less warming.
But both flaring and venting, beyond their impact on climate change, pose serious health threats to nearby residents like Rhyne. Flaring releases a variety of hazardous air pollutants, including volatile organic compounds like benzene, a carcinogen, and contributes to ground-level ozone, a pollutant that causes respiratory illness and heart disease.
Ever since Apache first started drilling in 2016, Rhyne said, flaring and venting have become prevalent.
Phil West, a spokesman for Apache, said the company “does not vent natural gas in our exploration or production activities intentionally” and works “diligently to eliminate unintentional emissions throughout our operations.” The closest producing well to Toyahvale, he said, is now more than five miles away.
West said flaring, while “sometimes-necessary,” is a practice Apache uses “sparingly.”
“It is a responsible practice—it is safe, highly regulated, and prevents the direct venting of methane (which contributes to increased greenhouse gas emissions),” West said in an email. “This process involves flowing a well in a controlled manner and safely combusting the natural gas produced. This type of testing is limited in duration and is necessary to ensure that the pipeline infrastructure built in the area is properly sized and designed (preventing further flaring).”
For Rhyne, who sometimes attends hearings on issues related to fracking and represents herself, because she can’t afford a lawyer or find one willing to stand up to oil giants, the fight against these powerful corporations is as much about her family as it is about her own predicament.
“[I’ll do] anything, anything to help. I have three grandsons in Odessa with asthma,” she said. “It’s scary.”
Earlier this year, Rhyne was a named plaintiff in a lawsuit filed by environmental groups in Texas against the Environmental Protection Agency, alleging that the EPA during the Trump administration had failed to require Texas regulators to strengthen air permits to be in compliance with the federal Clean Air Act.
“Until EPA steps up to do its job and ensures that emission limits in Texas permits are actually enforceable, Permian Basin gas plants will continue to fill the air with air pollution,” she said. “This is a problem that’s getting worse, not better and, as a lung cancer survivor, I fear for my health and well-being every time I walk outside and breathe the polluted air.”
The lawsuit is still pending, but the environmental organizations that filed it are now in settlement discussions with the Biden administration, according to a lawyer with the Environmental Integrity Project.
Flaring, Health and Environmental Justice
Over the past year, Covid-19 may have temporarily stunted the booming oil and gas industry in Texas, but with emissions rapidly bouncing back to pre-pandemic levels, flaring and venting have become growing health concerns for policymakers and environmental groups, alike. A series of recent studies has underscored this problem, showing that the health impacts of flaring and venting fall squarely on communities of color, whose residents live perilously close to these sites.
“We saw that, specifically, Latinx or Hispanic communities in South Texas were more likely to live near flaring [sites] compared to white communities,” said Jill Johnston, an assistant professor of preventive medicine and spatial sciences at the University of Southern California, who has led several studies on the subject.
In one study, published in February, Johnston and a team of researchers from USC and the University of California, Los Angeles showed that communities of color are disproportionately exposed to routine flaring around three major oil basins across the United States: the Permian Basin in west Texas and New Mexico, the Eagle Ford Shale in south Texas and the Bakken Shale in Montana and North Dakota.
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The study found that more than 535,000 people, including sizeable Black, Indigenous and Latino communities, lived within three miles of flaring sites in the three regions. Of those, 210,000 lived in areas where there were more than 100 flaring events nightly.
In a related 2020 study, Johnston also showed that expectant mothers in Eagle Ford Shale who were exposed to a high number of nightly flaring events were 50 percent more likely to have preterm births, compared to mothers who were not so exposed.
“We’re not entirely sure why we see the risk almost exclusively among Latino women,” Johnston said. But, she said, she suspects unusually high exposure to flaring and venting is at least part of the answer.
Lesley Fleischman, a senior analyst with the Clean Air Task Force, a Boston-based environmental advocacy group, said a reduction in flaring across the board should help alleviate the health burden on Latino communities.
But as policymakers, climate activists, health experts and the fossil fuel industry all endorse reductions in flaring, she said, they must target communities of color so that pollutants are reduced in those areas.
In a report Fleischman co-authored in 2016, researchers showed that more than 1.8 million Latinos lived within half a mile of oil and gas facilities across the country. The authors endorsed policies to provide Latino communities with immediate relief, including asthma and cancer education programs, vouchers to purchase inhalers and long-term research on the impact of respiratory problems on productivity and family burden.
‘We Don’t Matter’
Perhaps the biggest challenge to moving oil producers away from polluting in small communities like Balhmorhea stems from the wealth they provide to these areas and the political stranglehold the corporations have on people and local institutions, said Rhyne.
This is also true for other, small towns spread across Texas, including Forsan, 15 miles from Big Spring. There, almost everyone knows a friend or relative who works in the oil industry, because it provides attractive, high-paying jobs that don’t require college degrees, said Ramon Holguin, 56, who works in a liquor store.
The taxes that oil companies pay to the state also help fund a lot of institutions in the area, notably schools, he said. “Our high school here—it’s a top high-school. It’s nice, it’s up to date, it’s always modernised.”
All this means that while the health costs of living near oil production sites may be high, people will often turn a blind eye to these issues, Holguin said, adding that it also meant that many locals were unwilling to talk negatively about the industry for fear of running into trouble
“When you talk negatively about the oil industry, they will [bring] you down so quick,” he said. “You don’t talk bad about them. That’s what feeds us.”
While some look away, others will simply pack up and leave. Sue Franklin, 70, used to live in Verhalen, a small town in West Texas, when oil companies mushroomed around her home and started drilling. For the next few years, Franklin and her husband were exposed to flaring and venting occurring just a few miles from their home, leaving her with debilitating, asthma-like symptoms and headaches.
“We wound up with six poisonous gas wells surrounding our house,” she said. “We used to wake up in the morning with bad headaches. A lot of times as soon as you walked out the door, [the smell] just smacked you in the face.”
Franklin was vocal about the environmental and health consequences of these practices and was ready to fight back. But when she saw that an oil well was being built directly in front of her home and the companies offered to buy-off their property, she and her husband decided to move out. They moved about 40 miles away, up a mountain, where the air quality is better and they don’t have to incessantly worry about flaring.
But while Franklin may have found a little safe haven away from the drilling and toxic fumes, she’s not sure her health will ever be the same. “I don’t know if my lungs will ever repair themselves from this,” she said.
For many in Texas, there is hope for change. It may come slowly, but with Biden’s newly emboldened efforts to cut down on methane, and Texan regulators signaling a willingness to take a somewhat more restrictive stance on flaring, there is a growing sense that the industry may be fighting an uphill battle.
In Balmorhea, Rhyne, who has faced oil giants head on, said this narrative is grossly optimistic. “Texas is an oil and gas state, 100 percent. They support the oil industry, 100 percent,” she said.
With so much political power to keep Texas a lucrative hub for oil and gas production, Rhyne said she doesn’t see how the state would ever significantly curb polluting practices such as flaring and venting, even if legislation came from the top.
“We don’t matter,” she said. “The people in this state—we can holler and scream and fall over dead from breathing in toxic air and they don’t blink an eye.”