Metzger: The facts on the dangers of fracking and oil refining

The head of the Texas Oil & Gas Association thinks that any study pointing out the health effects and dangers of fracking and oil refining is “junk science.” Surprised?

Neither are we. But we couldn’t agree more with Todd Staples that the debate over what to do about oil and gas extraction and refining should be based on facts and sound science. So let’s review the facts on what the scientists, the industry itself, and policymakers say about the impact oil and gas has on health and the environment.

Drilling uses an enormous amount of water and chemicals. According to data that is self-reported by the industry to the Groundwater Protection Council, an association of state water regulators, oil and gas companies have injected 10 billion pounds of chemicals — including hydrochloric acid, benzene and methanol — underground and used 120 billion gallons of water to frack 54,958 oil and gas wells in Texas since 2011.

Those chemicals are harmful. A recent analysis by researchers at the Yale School of Public Health identified 157 chemicals used in fracking that are toxic; the toxicity of 781 other fracking chemicals examined by the researchers is unknown. Toxic substances in fracking chemicals and wastewater are associated with a variety of negative health effects. Chemical components of fracking fluids, for example, have been linked to cancer, endocrine disruption and neurological and immune system problems.

Fracking has polluted both groundwater and surface waterways such as rivers, lakes and streams. Fracking pollution can enter our waterways at several points in the process — including surface leaks, spills of fracking fluid, well blowouts, the escape of methane and other contaminants from the well itself into groundwater, and the long-term migration of contaminants underground.

According to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) Joint Groundwater Monitoring and Contamination Report, the state documented 557 instances of groundwater contamination due to oil and gas in 2014. For example, according to the Railroad Commission, the state’s primary regulator of the oil and gas industry, fracking wastewater injected into a disposal well contaminated the Cenozoic Pecos Alluvium Aquifer near Midland.

Much of the pollution being released is unauthorized. According to data self-reported by industry to TCEQ, 679 oil refineries and other industrial facilities released 68 million pounds of mostly illegal air pollution during 3,421 incidents of breakdowns and maintenance in 2015. Recently, the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that such emissions from ExxonMobil’s Baytown refinery and chemical plants were violations of the Clean Air Act and subject to penalties.

Irresponsibly, too often the state of Texas does not employ the “science-based regulation” that Staples claims they do. The Railroad Commission refuses to accept that wastewater injection by fracking companies can trigger earthquakes, despite strong scientific evidence by the U.S. Geological Survey, researchers at Southern Methodist University, and oil and gas regulators in Oklahoma. TCEQ’s chair denies the overwhelming scientific consensus on climate change. He even claims, despite decades of scientific research to the contrary, that reducing smog will make Texans sicker, not healthier.

The science clearly shows that oil and gas development is taking a toll on the health of Texas families and our environment. It’s not surprising, but still negligent, that the Texas Oil and Gas Association refuses to acknowledge this. But we can take steps to rein in the worst impacts of dirty drilling, including getting the Legislature to make sure oil and gas companies — and not taxpayers — pay to clean up the messes they make, and by pressing state and federal regulators to hold violators of environmental laws accountable. Eventually we’ll need to get off oil and fossil fuels completely. Until that day, we need to make sure that the science, and not the profits of Big Oil, prevails in our decision-making.

Luke Metzger is the director of Environment Texas.

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