The tank farm owned by the Intercontinental Terminals Company in Deer Park burned for four days, producing a cloud of thick black smoke that rose a mile above greater Houston. The ITC site boasted a storage capacity of 13 million gallons, mostly byproducts of oil refining. When the fire was finally put out, what was left in the burned tanks started evaporating at ground level, setting off monitors that detected the cancer-causing chemical benzene in the working-class suburbs nearby. Regulators mounted up. Ryan Sitton, one of three members of the Texas Railroad Commission, which oversees the oil and gas industry, came down to reassure the industry that everything would be all right. He told Deer Park residents that the smoke posed the “same risks you’d have in your backyard fire.” That was “shockingly inaccurate,” a local toxicologist told KHOU. She’d been getting calls all day from doctors with patients suffering from respiratory problems, and no one knew what was in the plume.
Texas’ lax regulatory environment almost certainly contributed to the ITC fire, and to explosions at the Arkema chemical plant in nearby Crosby during Hurricane Harvey a year and a half earlier. These disasters are reminders that Texas is, by and large, run by the petroleum and petrochemical industries. Texas has few restrictions on legal corruption and influence-peddling, and our part-time state lawmakers have a lot of ways to make money on the side. Spindletop ensured that the flow of money from the oil and gas lobbies to the Legislature, Republicans and Democrats alike, would never stop. Even though the Texas economy has diversified and matured, that’s still true today.
With more of oil’s boom years behind us than ahead, oil and gas interests will become known increasingly by their uglier side effects, rather than their benefits. After the ITC fire, a “cocktail of firefighting foam and an unknown mixture of chemicals” slicked several miles of shoreline and marshland along the Houston Ship Channel, causing the closure of the nearby San Jacinto Monument. The annual festival and reenactment that marks the anniversary of the last battle of Texas’ war of independence was canceled.
That’s heavy-handed symbolism, but Texas excels at such things. I’ve taken several foreign friends to the San Jacinto Monument to try to explain this place. From the 489-foot-high observation deck, you can see almost nothing but tank farms, tankers and flares. It feels like the whole petrochemical industry of the United States drains into this basin. Other than the Alamo, this battlefield is the place that Texans are most sentimental about. Now, it’s surrounded by scarred land, choked with sludge and poison.
It’s almost impossible to imagine Texas without oil. In 1900, Texas was a poor, dirty and backward place. Then oil was discovered, and within a generation or two, formerly ragged dirt farmers with fistfuls of cash were flying to Dallas to shop at Neiman Marcus. Oil money helped push the state into the future. But Texas doesn’t need oil the same way it did even as recently as the 1980s, when a price drop crashed the state’s economy. Since then, Texas has learned a lot of other ways to make money.
But oil is still king at the Legislature, even when the industry’s interests conflict with the state’s economic future. Houston is a vibrant international city whose dependence on oil and gas has lessened in recent years. Heavy pollution is a threat to the city’s future — not to mention the existential threat of climate change. But in 2015, state government kneecapped the Harris County DA’s ability to prosecute polluters, setting a five-year statute of limitations and a financial cap of just $2 million on how much the county can recoup from those who violate the law. The two lawmakers who carried the bill were from Fort Worth and in the pocket of the oil and gas industry.
The uglier byproducts of drilling and refining are everywhere in Texas, and not always as tangible as they are in Deer Park. In truth, just about every poisonous policy initiative at the Legislature in the last few decades has some oilman and his money behind it. Petroleum funds most of the state’s worst right-wing pressure groups, along with its center-right business groups. What they want, and what the Legislature wants, is to keep Sitton’s backyard barbecue going at the expense of everybody else, for as long as they can. If Texas got to ride the boom in the 20th century, the challenge of the 21st century is to bust it.