America’s latest energy boom – greatly enabled by the development of hydraulic fracturing (or fracking) – has created hundreds of thousands of jobs across the country and added billions to state and local budgets.
However, environmental regulation of the oil and gas industry is left largely to the states, some of which lack the resources – or will – to protect public health.
Two states that have been participating in this boom are Pennsylvania and Texas.
Beneath much of western Pennsylvania lies the Marcellus Shale, a massive geological formation that stretches across several Appalachian states and holds trillions of cubic feet of trapped gas. Texas has two large reserves: the Barnett Shale in the state’s north, and the Eagle Ford Shale in the south.
In Pennsylvania, the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) oversees the drilling and is responsible for the formation and enforcement of environmental regulation. In Texas, the chief regulator is the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ).
In recent years, both states have reduced funding for these agencies. In Texas, for instance, state appropriations decreased 39 percent between 2008 and 2013.
The Texas Legislature has killed numerous bills that would have strengthened regulations and put them on par with those in states like Colorado. Instead, the state has adopted a “light touch” regulatory approach.
In 2011, the state approved SB 1134. The bill originally called for stricter standards, including mandatory leak-detection and emission-control devices on equipment and a requirement that new well operators collect emission samples and share them with state regulators.
State Rep. Tom Craddick (R-Midland), however, mandated that the bill should only apply to the northern Barnett Shale and not to the Eagle Ford Shale until a cost-benefit analysis was conducted to determine the financial burden of these new regulations.
Craddick’s ally in the opposite chamber, state Senator Glenn Hegar (R-Katy), attached a rider to the bill that prohibited the use of public funds from being used to conduct this analysis.
The TCEQ later determined that the new regulations in SB 1134 would apply in just 15 of 24 counties over the Barnett Shale and would not be applied in the Eagle Ford Shale.
Many Texas legislators and regulators have close ties to the oil and gas industry. Craddick owns stock in five companies active in the Eagle Ford Shale, and 6 of the 11 members of the House Energy Resources Committee have some financial stake in the industry. The Texas House Energy Committee chairman, Jim Keffer, has over a million dollars invested in the industry.
This light touch regulation has harmed residents such as Lynn Buehring, whose ranch in south Texas is surrounded by 50 wells within two and a half miles. The airborne toxins have worsened her asthma and occasionally cause migraine headaches that lead to temporary blindness.
In 2012, Lynn filed a complaint with the TCEQ. The investigators determined that the air quality was so poor that they had to evacuate the area.
The chemicals used at many of these operations include volatile organic compounds (VOCs) such as benzene, which is carcinogenic, and sulfur dioxide. Other harmful emissions include carbon monoxide and carbon disulfide. Hydrogen sulfide (H2S), another compound, can be fatal after even a brief period of high exposure. Ten oil workers have died in Texas from H2S exposure over the last decade.
A 2012 investigation at a Sugarhorn facility located near the Buehrings found that 26,000 pounds of VOCs had been ejected into the air in a 12-hour period — a thousand times above its permitted amount.
Lynn Buehring’s experiences parallel those of Pennsylvania resident Rebecca Roter, who has 20 wells within a mile of her home. In 2013, she was overcome by harsh odors, drove to a nearby well, and witnessed contaminants being pumped into the air.
She reported the incident to the DEP, which responded to the complaint 96 hours later. A report found that there was no harsh smell at the time of the investigation and concluded that “the operation appeared to be conducted as per standard procedure.”
Such delayed responses are common for Pennsylvania’s DEP, as the state’s follow-up can range anywhere between several days to two weeks.
Yet major threats to public health can occur in a matter of hours. Researcher David Brown studied 14 homes in Pennsylvania’s Washington County and found that, on some occasions, pollution can rapidly rise to dangerous levels. A resident can receive a full day’s worth of exposure in just 30 minutes.
As in Texas, Pennsylvania’s leading politicians and state regulators have commercial interests in the oil and gas industry. A report by the Public Accountability Initiative, released in early 2014, found that a “revolving door” exists with regulators and lobbyists. The report notes that the first 5 secretaries of the DEP have all consulted or lobbied for the energy industry before or after holding public office.
Critics point to the February 2014 explosion at a Chevron facility that killed 27-year old employee Ian McKee as evidence of the DEP’s regulatory submissiveness. When investigators arrived at the scene, Chevron denied them access to the site. The DEP later cited Chevron for 9 violations, including the two-day obstruction and the equipment failure that allegedly caused McKee’s death.
Between 2010 and 2013, only 2 of the 164 confirmed violations in the Eagle Ford Shale led to fines. Many violations, however, go unreported, since smaller operations that emit low levels of VOCs operate on an “honor system” of reporting.
Despite such lax state regulation, the federal government is relatively powerless in enforcing EPA and OSHA standards. The Texas attorney general, for instance, has sued the EPA 18 times for its interference in the state’s internal affairs and to keep it at bay.
Moreover, a 2013 EPA report admitted that the agency “did not anticipate the tremendous growth of the [energy] sector,” and acknowledged that a lack of information-sharing from the states “hampers EPA’s ability to accurately assess risks and air quality impacts” and thus to develop adequate standards and protections.