Efforts to curb Texas methane emissions to face headwinds at Capitol

Updated April 16, 2018
  • By London Gibson
  • American-Statesman Staff
A pump jack sits on the outskirts of Midland in the Permian Basin oil field in 2016. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

In the lead oil-producing state in the country, environmentalists have been pushing for state methane restrictions for years. Now, facing an industry that is projected to beat national production records this year, those advocates fear their efforts could have even less traction when the Legislature reconvenes next year.

Environmental advocates say the state allows unsafe levels of methane emissions, a potent greenhouse gas that also poses a threat to public health. According to the Environmental Defense Fund, methane emissions include other toxic chemicals such as hydrogen sulfide and benzene, which increase a person’s risk of getting cancer and can harm respiratory and immune systems.

Texas currently does not monitor methane emissions from oil and gas drilling companies, unless they are considered a major source of air pollution. Texas Commission on Environmental Quality spokeswoman Martha Otero said the majority of oil and gas production facilities are not considered major sources.

“It should be noted many oil and gas production facilities are subject to controls for volatile organic compounds that also result in reductions of methane emissions,” Otero said.

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A recent study by Earthworks, Clean Air Task Force and FracTracker Alliance found that in 116 Texas counties, oil- and gas-related air pollutants surpass the EPA’s threshold for increased cancer risk. Those counties are home to 3 million people and make up half of the counties nationally identified as having an elevated cancer risk. Caldwell County is among the high-risk Texas counties.

The study was compiled with information from Environmental Protection Agency reports, census data and resident interviews.

“As industry is expanding into our neighborhoods and urban areas, they are building these facilities right next to homes, even on school property,” said Sharon Wilson, senior organizer for the Oil and Gas Accountability Project at Earthworks. “These facilities are permitted to release so many tons per year of these volatile, organic compounds. You’re almost guaranteed exposure, depending on which way the wind is blowing.”

The Texas environmental commission currently lists only five counties on its air pollutant watch list — counties with elevated concentrations of air pollutants. Otero said the commission cannot comment on another study’s data.

Methane traps significantly more heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide, the most common greenhouse gas, but its effects are shorter-lived. The oil and gas industry accounts for about a third of all methane emissions in the U.S., according to an EPA report.

Local control

Wilson was first personally affected by drilling-related pollution when she lived in Wise County in North Texas, where the process of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, was born.

“Eventually, my air turned brown and my water turned black. And I moved to Denton, thinking I would be safe from that in a city,” said Wilson, who worked as a data analyst for 12 years for EnerTrade, an oil and gas marketing company.

But she didn’t find it in Denton, one of the towns with the most fracking in the state. Shortly after Wilson’s move, she became part of the citizen-led effort that made Denton the first Texas city to ban fracking in 2014. The Legislature passed House Bill 40 a year later, limiting local control over drilling and reversing the Denton fracking ban.

“The industry got greedy,” said Colin Leyden, senior manager for state regulatory and legislative affairs with the Environmental Defense Fund. “HB 40 was an overreaction to the Denton ban. I think some in the industry saw the Denton ban as an opportunity to take more (control).”

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Leyden said tighter air quality regulations have been implemented in other states, such as Colorado, Pennsylvania and Wyoming, without major economic impact.

“Right now, the political leadership of Texas is not at all interested in holding the industry to the highest standards,” Leyden said. “The truth is that states that do hold industry to a higher standard do not see a downturn in the industry.”

Activists say with the state’s fossil fuel industry booming once again and pumping billions of dollars in taxes into state coffers demands for increased regulation will face serious headwinds at the Capitol. The number of active oil rigs in the Permian Basin, for example, will increase from 276 in January 2017 to an average of 371 in 2018 to accommodate production demands, according to the Texas Oil and Gas Association.

Obama-era rules

Texas officials joined the leaders from a number of other state in suing the EPA when then-President Barack Obama released his methane emission reduction plan in 2013, which would cap the amount of emissions allowed by facilities nationwide.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton called that “a gross demonstration of federal overreach.”

Under the Trump administration, EPA officials froze enforcement of the rules. Environmental activists sued, and a federal appeals court nine months ago sided with the environmentalists. Federal officials still haven’t issued methane regulations, however, prompting a lawsuit filed last week by 14 states accusing EPA chief Scott Pruitt of putting the interests of oil and gas companies ahead of the agency’s obligation to protect air quality.

John Hays, a lawyer who represents oil and gas companies in front of the Texas Railroad Commission, the state’s oil and gas regulator, said the Obama-era methane rules might have been too restrictive, causing concern over industry profits.

“It’s like everything else, there’s an appropriate balance between the monitoring and the cost of it, because it can be very costly” to prevent emissions, Hays said. “It has been an issue with some of the EPA regulations that want to take it down, whether it’s methane or sulfur dioxide, to take it down essentially to zero. And in most systems that’s simply not practical.”

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Some state politicians do support industry reform. State Rep. Terry Canales, D-Edinburg, proposed HB 3403 last year, which would restrict oil and gas drilling within 1,500 feet from a school or child care facility.

“I know the importance of the oil and gas industry for Texas, but as big an advocate as I am, I’m a parent first … and it is no secret that drilling for oil is not the safest thing to do,” Canales told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram last year. The bill was left pending in the House Energy Resources Committee and never received a hearing.

Hays said he thinks some of the regulations being pushed by environmentalists are reasonable and could potentially make headway in the future, mainly because conserving emissions and stopping leaks will be more economical for oil and gas companies.

“The industry is tending to do more (methane regulation) on its own, in part because methane is valuable,” said Hays, who is also a University of Texas adjunct law professor. “I’d say it’s definitely possible that we’ll see more of it. … I’m optimistic about the future of the Texas oil and gas industry.”

Correction: This story has been corrected to say that toxic chemicals such as hydrogen sulfide and benzene, emitted along with methane by oil and gas facilities, increase a person’s risk of getting cancer and can harm respiratory and immune systems, according to the Environmental Defense Fund.