Freeport LNG plant in Quintana.

The Five Foulest Texas Environmental Stories of 2016

Lowlights include failing to track chemical spills during floods and rejecting the link between earthquakes and fracking.

The Railroad Commission allowed the Texas Westmoreland company to self-bond its 35,000-acre Jewett Mine till mid-2016.
The Railroad Commission allowed the Texas Westmoreland company to self-bond its 35,000-acre Jewett mine.  Texas Railroad Commission

Texas government isn’t exactly known for championing environmental causes. Republican elected officials are proud deniers of climate change, when they’re even acknowledging it at all. When Denton and other cities tried to regulate fracking, Republicans and plenty of Democrats in the Legislature stumbled over themselves to help out the poor, beleaguered oil and gas industry. Texas Congressman Joe Barton once apologized to BP for all the trouble their Gulf oil disaster had caused.

But there are always new creative ways to be mean to green. Thanks to investigative reporting (there’s still some here), this year we learned of new ways the powerful in this state are messing with Texas. From failing to oversee toxic waste injection into potential water sources and giving billions in tax breaks to natural gas companies, here are five 2016 environmental stories that uncovered regulators trying to protect polluters.

Seismic denial

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In a major feat of reporting, Steve Thompson and Anna Kuchment of the Dallas Morning News detailed the lengths the Railroad Commission went to in order to downplay the link between earthquakes and injecting wastewater from fracking into the ground. Over a two-year period, the agency attacked university researchers for their findings and hired an industry-friendly seismologist to give the appearance of embracing science, the reporters found.

The piece seems to have hit a nerve. Three weeks after the story was published, Railroad Commissioner Ryan Sitton, who has shaped the agency’s response to fracking-induced earthquakes, wrote an op-ed calling the piece an attack on him personally “for not toeing the Leftist line on energy.”

Oilfield waste failure

In 1982, Texas promised to monitor which underground aquifers oil and gas companies were injecting with toxic materials. In 2016, when an environmental activist asked the Railroad Commission when and where waste had been injected, the agency didn’t know.

As the Texas Tribune reported, it turns out that the agency hadn’t been keeping track of where or how often toxic waste had been injected over the years. Its best estimate is that it permitted injections into a “handful” of underground sites. The agency recently hired a geologist to find where companies might have injected pollutants, so for the sake of Texans drinking water from aquifers close to those sites, let’s hope he’s able to do his job quickly.

Millions in tax breaks to Big Oil

The Texas Economic Development Act, the state’s largest corporate welfare program, has doled out $7.1 billion in tax breaks to companies since its inception 10 years ago. The program has provided significant tax breaks to clean energy projects such as wind turbines in West Texas, but has also propped up liquified natural gas plants on the Gulf Coast and oil and gas processing facilities across the state.

The comptroller’s office is required to look at whether the tax break is “a determining factor” in a company’s decision to locate its facilities in Texas, but in practice that’s hard to figure out. In practice, a statement from the company that without the tax break it wouldn’t invest in Texas is sufficient to qualify for the program.

The Observer documented that companies that couldn’t have located anywhere else but Texas were granted big tax breaks. In one case, Energy Transfer Partners, the company behind the Dakota Access Pipeline, seems to have actively misled the comptroller’s office to secure a $5.6 million tax break.

For handing out millions in tax deductions to multimillion-dollar oil and gas corporations, the comptroller’s office and the Texas Legislature are included in this list.

Failing to track spills during floods

After Marty Schladen of the El Paso Times discovered dozens of photos showing fracking chemicals and oil leaking into floodwaters earlier this year, the Texas Department of Safety quietly took them down. Since then, the Railroad Commission and Texas Commission on Environmental Quality — the two state agencies responsible for spill prevention and environmental protection — have denied any wrongdoing and squabbled over jurisdiction.

In at least one case, however, the Railroad Commission ignored a spill in the Red River, choosing instead to prioritize spills that had been in the news. In another case, after a report of a spill in Lake Houston, the agency does not appear to have tracked down the company responsible or penalized it.

The Sunset Commission has recommended broad changes to the Railroad Commission’s penalty structure for violators. None of those recommendations specifically pinpoint increasing scrutiny of spills during flooding or require the agency to develop more stringent policies to address the issue.

Mine Games

The Observer tracked how the state is allowing coal companies to pledge $250 million in IOUs for mine cleanup. Environmental regulators typically require coal mining companies to set aside bonds or cash to pay for the cost of mine cleanup. But the Railroad Commission allows four companies to “self-bond,” essentially taking them at their word that they’re good for the money.

If these companies go bankrupt — a legitimate possibility, considering the rapidly declining state of the coal industry — the state will be left holding the bag. Texas’ decision puts taxpayers at risk.

Naveena Sadasivam is a staff writer covering energy and the environment at the Observer. She has a degree in chemical engineering and a master’s in environmental and science reporting from New York University.

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Published at 8:15 am CST
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