In Texas, Pandemic-driven Deregulation Is Increasing Greenhouse Gas Emissions

Amy Westervelt interviews Sharon Wilson, a senior field investigator with Earthworks, about the excessive methane emissions she's spotted in West Texas fracking country.

by | Apr 3, 2020

Drilled Podcast Extra, April 3, 2020

In the latest episode of the Drilled podcast, Amy Westervelt speaks with Sharon Wilson, a senior field investigator with Earthworks, about the excessive methane emissions she’s spotted in West Texas fracking country.

Here’s a look at what her optical gas imaging camera captured in early March:

Listen to the episode:


Amy Westervelt Welcome back to Drilled. We’re calling this surprise season There Will Be Fraud and we’re doing it because the fossil fuel industry is trying to leverage the hell out of a pandemic. Of course, they are.

Reporting has really started to pick up on what’s happening on this story at the national level. I highly recommend you follow the reporting that Alex Kaufman and Chris D’Angelo are doing at HuffPost, Emily Atkin in Heated, Kate Aronoff at The New Republic and Justin Mikulka at DeSmog. We’re covering the national stuff on this podcast and on the Drilled News website, too. But one of the things I wanted to try to do with this series is make sure people know about everything that’s happening at the state level and even the local level. In the last week, I’ve gotten e-mails from folks in Pennsylvania, Texas, Massachusetts and California, each with a different story about what the fossil fuel industry is trying to use Corona virus to get away with in their backyards. Today, we’re headed to Texas.

Sharon Wilson So I’m Sharon Wilson and I’m senior field advocate for Earthworks. And further back than that, I worked for the oil and gas industry and I was uncomfortable with the ethics of the industry as a whole. And that was before I knew about any of the environmental impacts. So eventually, despite the fact that they paid very, very high salary, I left the oil and gas industry and moved to Wise County. I bought 42 acres next to the LBJ National Grasslands, and I didn’t know that that’s where George Mitchell, the father of fracking, was experimenting with how to economically frack oil and gas from shale. And so I had a ringside seat to that adventure and my air turned brown and my well water turned black. So, yeah, that that made me mad.

AW: Now, years later, Sharon takes her optical gas imaging equipment around the Permian Basin to document emissions from oil and gas companies. She’s going to tell us what she’s been seeing since this January and why the Corona virus might end up resulting in more methane emissions, even if it temporarily reduces CO2 emissions. That’s coming up right after a quick message from today’s sponsor. I’m Amy Westervelt and this is Drilled.

SW: So when you look at it, without an optical gas imaging instrument, you just see tanks and pipes. But when you look at it with the optical gas imaging camera that I use, you see big clouds of pollution coming from these sites.

AW: Sharon’s been tracking that pollution for years and she says it’s gone from bad to worse in 2020.

SW: I’ve done easily over a thousand individual investigations at all in gas facilities and I have never seen anything that even comes close to the levels of pollution coming from facilities in the Permian Basin. So I thought things were really bad prior to about November 2019, which is when I saw an increase. Then it it just it’s kept increasing until the last time I was there was March 6th and it was unimaginable. Unimaginable what was happening.

AW: Okay. We need to do a quick, oversimplified oil and gas lesson here. So shale companies started out using a method called hydraulic fracturing fracking to get natural gas out of shale rock in really broad strokes. Fracking works by injecting water and chemicals into shale rock to bust it open and extract gas. There’s a whole bunch of treatment and refining that happens after that, which is where water and soil contamination can happen. But those are the basics. Around 2010, shale companies realized they could access a type of oil in these rocks, too. They call it tight oil, and that’s what really position the U.S. as a top supplier instead of just a customer in the global energy market. When that oil is being refined, natural gas is burned off in a process called flaring. The idea is to reduce the amount of methane that would otherwise be released into the air during this process. But there’s a wrinkle. A strong wind could blow out the flare, and an unlit flare means methane and various volatile organic compounds are just kind of belched into the air. If this was just happening very occasionally at one plant or another, maybe it wouldn’t be that big of a deal. But it happens a lot. According to research that came out last year, unlit flares are the biggest contributors to global methane emissions. And just a reminder, methane is a greenhouse gas. It’s 86 times more potent than CO2. Okay, back to Sharon.

SW: Flares are not lit. And so it becomes a vent pipe that vents uncontested hydrocarbons into the atmosphere in huge quantities. The tanks and the tanks are venting. It’s just methane and volatile organic compounds blasting from everywhere.

AW: What are the restrictions or regulations in place?

SW: Well, Texas does have regulations that are supposed to prevent a lot of this, not entirely prevent it, because the system, the oil and gas design is it is designed to vent intentionally. So at this point, they cannot completely stop all of the methane and VRC emissions because they have to have pressure releases. So but we do have regulations in place to lessen that. And unlit flares are not legal. But the problem with regulations is they are words on paper. And in Texas, they’re not enforced. And especially in the Permian Basin, the oversight seems especially lax.

AW: Sharon says the problem with unlit flares and excessive venting tends to get worse when natural gas and oil prices are low. Right now, they’re at rock bottom.

SW: As the prices go down, the amount of venting and the number of unlit flares goes up. We do have some data for for that that we’ve collected since two thousand seventeen to show that there is an uptick in unlit flares. And this year it’s really gone up.

AW: So even as emissions may be going down in general, methane emissions could actually increase during the pandemic, which not only exacerbates climate change, it also creates a big public health problem.

SW: Right now, people are being told to shelter at home. And I’ve had so many. Calls from people who are having, you know, they previously they could at least get some relief when they went to school and to work. And now they are there all day and they’re breathing these hydrocarbons that are crossing the fence line onto their property.

And, you know, their toxic load in their body will be increasing.

AW: I contacted the two agencies that are tasked with regulating the oil and gas industry in Texas. The Texas Railroad Commission and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. The Railroad Commission are the ones that would oversee flaring. As of March 13th, oil and gas operators could request to have all regulatory requirements waived. That came almost two weeks before the EPA announced that it would grant various industries, including oil and gas regulatory relief during the pandemic. So basically they won’t find you for pollution infractions. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality is the body that would deal with complaints about toxic fumes and emissions that residents are experiencing.

They’re considering both administrative relief for paperwork violations and enforcement discretion on an as needed basis. The commission’s press person, Andrew Keese told me residents who are being impacted by another property and are concerned about their health should contact TCE Q’s complaint hotline or Regional Office. TCEQ Takes all complaints impacting human health very seriously.

But Wilson’s getting calls from residents who feel otherwise. And she says that from what she saw on her last trip out in the field since at least early March, operators seem to know that no one would really be watching.

SW: There has never been a system in place to adequately regulate the oil and gas industry. What we have in the United States is a voluntary regulatory system where they have a spill and they call up the regulator and report themselves. And if they have an invisible release of methane in VEO seas, they call up the regulator or they fill out a form and report that themselves. So that’s kind of like the last time I got to go anywhere, which was about three weeks ago. And maybe I was speeding. So I called up the DP s and asked them to come and give me a ticket.

AW: That’s it for this time. If you’ve spotted the fossil fuel industry using the cove at 19 pandemic as an excuse to avoid regulation or get some other kind of benefit, give me a shot. I’m [email protected] This season wasn’t really planned or budgeted for. It just seems necessary. So if you agree and want to support our efforts, we’d really appreciate it.

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Amy Westervelt is the editor-in-chief of Drilled News, creator and host of the Drilled podcast, and founder of the Critical Frequency podcast network, named AdWeek's Podcast Network of the Year in 2019. An award-winning print and audio journalist, Amy has contributed to The Guardian, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post, as well as KQED, The California Report, Capital Public Radio, and many other outlets. She is the 2015 winner of the Rachel Carson award for "women greening journalism," and a 2016 winner of an Edward R. Murrow award for her series on the impacts of the Tesla Gigafactory in Nevada. In 2019, the Drilled podcast won the Online News Association's "Excellence in Audio Storytelling" award.