The Aliso Canyon Oil Field, a natural gas storage facility in southern California, spewed an estimated 96,000 metric tons of methane into the air over the last four months, before it was temporarily capped this week. At its worst, the leak, which has been likened to the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, was responsible for a 25 percent increase in the state’s daily methane emissions. It also pushed hundreds of residents of the nearby Porter Ranch neighborhood out of their homes and prompted California’s governor to declare a state of emergency.
But a comparable climate disaster brewing in Texas has received far less attention from regulators and the media — perhaps because there isn’t a single huge leak to point to. Every hour, natural gas facilities in North Texas’ Barnett Shale region emit thousands of tons of methane — a greenhouse gas at least 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide — and a slate of noxious pollutants such as nitrogen oxides and benzene.
The Aliso Canyon leak was big. The Barnett leaks, combined, are even bigger. But regulators in Texas have done very little to address this well-documented problem.
Researchers at the Environmental Defense Fund, working with university researchers in Colorado and Michigan among others, estimate that the more than 25,000 natural gas wells in the Barnett Shale emit as much as 60,000 kilograms of methane every hour. That’s more than the 58,000 kilograms per hour the Aliso Canyon was emitting at its peak back in November.
In total, the Barnett emissions amount to 544,000 tons of methane every year — 8 percent of nationwide emissions. And before a glut of natural gas flooded the market and suppressed prices, Texas saw its natural gas production — and with it, emissions levels — skyrocket.
Between 2009 and 2014, Texas saw its shale gas production more than double. The number of unplanned toxic emissions also doubled during the same time. These emissions mainly contain methane as well as other chemical compounds such as benzene, xylene and toluene, which have been found to have detrimental health effects — such as respiratory problems and birth defects.
Yet, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) and the Texas Railroad Commission (RRC), which regulate the oil and gas industry, have been woefully slow to update regulations or clamp down on errant emitters. In many cases, the industry is allowed to self-police — as a result, TCEQ doesn’t even know where some of the state’s oil and gas facilities are located, or how much toxic gas they’re leaking. That makes it almost impossible for state regulators to adequately respond to residents’ concerns about air quality and health impacts in the Barnett.
In the case of the Aliso Canyon leak, Porter Ranch residents were exposed to the sulfurized odorants that are added to natural gas to make it detectable, and to other hydrocarbon compounds. Many have reported nose bleeds, headaches, nausea, vomiting and dizziness.
California regulators have said that once the leak is permanently capped, the Aliso facility will have to be shut down. The Los Angeles County DA has already filed criminal charges against Aliso operator SoCalGas, and residents have filed a class action lawsuit, further incentivizing the company to both fix the leak and compensate residents.
The same cannot be said for the fracking situation in Texas. According to researchers at the environmental group Earthworks, residents in the Eagle Ford Shale are exposed to benzene and toxic organic compounds from leaks in wells, compressor stations and pipelines. Similarly, researchers at the University of North Texas found that smog levels close to fracking zones have steadily been rising in the Metroplex. Elsewhere, researchers have found that people who live close to oil and gas activity have reported experiencing a number of health issues similar to Porter Ranch residents, including vomiting, nausea and nosebleeds. Studies have even shown women living in close proximity to natural gas wells in Pennsylvania are more likely to give birth to babies with low birth weight.
But proving a causal relationship between the emissions from natural gas facilities, which are often operated by multiple companies, and negative health effects is a challenge. That’s because in order to definitively establish that natural gas leaks make people sick, residents need emission level data showing air quality was better before the oil and gas companies moved in — something they’re not likely to have unless they live close to an air monitoring station. But some folks have been successful: In 2014, a Dallas jury awarded $2.9 million to a Wise County family for personal injury from living in close proximity to oil and gas production. The Parrs had 20 wells in a 2-mile radius and reported a laundry list of symptoms, such as rashes, migraines, dizziness and nosebleeds.
The Parr settlement is the only one of its kind in the country so far.
“The people in Porter Ranch, even though they were being exposed to emissions, they knew this will be fixed,” Amy Townsend-Small, a University of Cincinnati geology professor, told the Observer. “If you live downwind of a compressor station in Texas, you could be exposed to those emissions constantly.”
Part of the problem with the Barnett Shale is that there are thousands of small leaks dispersed over several thousand square miles that, combined, emit a little more methane than Aliso Canyon, making it more difficult to monitor and fix. Regulators would also likely have had an easier time fixing the Aliso leak because they know exactly where it is. That’s not the case in the Barnett or other shale plays in Texas where some of the facilities — called “super-emitters” — are erratic.“If one well was a super-emitter the day we measured them, it could change the next day,” said Daniel Zavala-Araiza, lead researcher of a 2015 Environmental Defense Fund study of methane emissions in the Barnett Shale. “It’s not just about finding a handful of sites. You need to be looking continuously to keep finding the ones that are malfunctioning.”
The study found that about 2 percent of the oil and gas equipment there is responsible for half of the total methane emissions at any given time.
Malfunctions are one of the major causes of high methane emissions, Zavala-Araiza said. A valve that is periodically supposed to open and vent gas might get stuck and continuously emit methane. Such events are unpredictable.
“If you don’t have frequent monitoring, there’s no way you’re going to know when one of these super-emitters begins spewing,” said Zavala-Araiza.
Texas doesn’t have statewide regulations that require inspections and monitoring for methane emissions, though the RRC does require quarterly inspections for a limited number of facilities in the Barnett region. But other shale formations, such as the Eagle Ford in South Texas, have even weaker regulations.
Last year, the Obama administration announced a goal of reducing methane emissions nationwide by 40 to 45 percent by 2025 and proposed new regulations that require companies to reduce excessive flaring and fix faulty equipment. These regulations, however, apply only to new facilities and do not affect existing infrastructure. Environmental groups and researchers say the proposed federal regulations are a good first step, but in order to truly address the issue, Texas regulators need to establish a program of periodic inspections and require stronger repair requirements that apply to all oil and gas facilities.
TCEQ’s response to the new regulations took a different tack: the agency’s executive director issued a statement to the federal government calling the rules “a substantial administrative and logistical burden.”
Correction, February 15: The story has been corrected to reflect Amy Townsend-Small’s employment as a geology professor at the University of Cincinnati, not Connecticut. The Observer regrets the error.
[Featured image: A fracking operation in the Eagle Ford Shale region, by Scott Towery on Flickr.]To support journalism like this, donate to the Texas Observer.