Ef­forts to curb meth­ane may hit bumps

Ad­vo­cates fear strong oil pro­duc­tion may mean less fo­cus on emis­sions.

Austin American-Statesman - - FRONT PAGE - By Lon­don Gib­son lgib­son@states­man.com

In the lead oil-pro­duc­ing state in the coun­try, en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists have been push­ing for state meth­ane re­stric­tions for years. Now, fac­ing an in­dus­try that is pro­jected to beat na­tional pro- duc­tion records this year, those ad­vo­cates fear their ef­forts could have even less trac­tion when the Leg­is­la­ture re­con­venes next year.

En­vi­ron­men­tal ad­vo­cates say the state al­lows un­safe lev­els of meth­ane emis­sions, a po­tent green­house gas that also poses a threat to pub­lic health. Ac­cord­ing to the En­vi­ron­men­tal De­fense Fund, meth­ane in the at­mos­phere in­creases a per­son’s risk of get­ting can­cer and can harm res­pi­ra­tory and im­mune sys­tems.

Texas cur­rently does not mon­i­tor meth­ane emis­sions from oil and gas drilling com­pa­nies, un­less they are con­sid­ered a ma­jor source of air pol­lu­tion. Texas Com­mis­sion on En­vi­ron­men­tal Qual­ity spokes­woman Martha Otero said the ma­jor­ity of oil and gas pro­duc­tion fa­cil­i­ties are not con­sid­ered ma­jor sources.

“It should be noted many oil and gas pro­duc­tion fa­cil­i­ties are

sub­ject to con­trols for volatile or­ganic com­pounds that also re­sult in re­duc­tions of meth­ane emis­sions,” Otero said.

A re­cent study by Earth­works, Clean Air Task Force and FracTracker Al­liance found that in 116 Texas coun­ties, oil- and gas-re­lated air pol­lu­tants sur­pass the EPA’s thresh­old for in­creased can­cer risk. Those coun­ties are home to 3 mil­lion peo­ple and make up half of the coun­ties na­tion­ally iden­ti­fied as hav­ing an el­e­vated can­cer risk. Cald­well County is among the high-risk Texas coun­ties.

The study was com­piled with in­for­ma­tion from En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency re­ports, cen­sus data and res­i­dent in­ter­views.

“As in­dus­try is ex­pand­ing into our neigh­bor­hoods and ur­ban ar­eas, they are build­ing these fa­cil­i­ties right next to homes, even on school prop­erty,” said Sharon Wil­son, se­nior or­ga­nizer for the Oil and Gas Ac­count­abil­ity Project at Earth­works. “These fa­cil­i­ties are per­mit­ted to re­lease so many tons per year of these volatile, or­ganic com­pounds. You’re al­most guar­an­teed ex­po­sure, depend­ing on which way the wind is blow­ing.”

The Texas en­vi­ron­men­tal com­mis­sion cur­rently lists only five coun­ties on its air pol­lu­tant watch list — coun­ties with el­e­vated con­cen­tra­tions of air pol­lu­tants. Otero said the com­mis­sion can­not com­ment on an­other study’s data.

Meth­ane traps sig­nif­i­cantly more heat in the at­mos­phere than car­bon diox­ide, the most com­mon green­house gas, but its ef­fects are shorter-lived. The oil and gas in­dus­try ac­counts for about a third of all meth­ane emis­sions in the U.S., ac­cord­ing to an EPA re­port.

Lo­cal con­trol

Wil­son was first per­son­ally af­fected by drilling-re­lated pol­lu­tion when she lived in Wise County in North Texas, where the process of hy­draulic frac­tur­ing, or frack­ing, was born.

“Even­tu­ally, my air turned brown and my wa­ter turned black. And I moved to Denton, think­ing I would be safe from that in a city,” said Wil­son, who worked as a data an­a­lyst for 12 years for En­erTrade, an oil and gas mar­ket­ing com­pany.

But she didn’t find it in Denton, one of the towns with the most frack­ing in the state. Shortly af­ter Wil­son’s move, she be­came part of the cit­i­zen-led ef­fort that made Denton the first Texas city to ban frack­ing in 2014. The Leg­is­la­ture passed House Bill 40 a year later, lim­it­ing lo­cal con­trol over drilling and re­vers­ing the Denton frack­ing ban.

“The in­dus­try got greedy,” saidColinLey­den,se­nior­man­ager for state reg­u­la­tory and leg­isla­tive af­fairs with the En­vi­ron­men­tal De­fense Fund. “HB 40 was an over­re­ac­tion to the Denton ban. I think some in the in­dus­try saw the Denton ban as an op­por­tu­nity to take more (con­trol).”

Ley­den said tighter air qual­ity reg­u­la­tions have been im­ple­mented in other states, such as Colorado, Penn­syl­va­nia and Wy­oming, with­out ma­jor eco­nomic im­pact.

“Right now, the po­lit­i­cal lead­er­ship of Texas is not at all in­ter­ested in hold­ing the in­dus­try to the high­est stan­dards,” Ley­den said. “The truth is that states that do hold in­dus­try to a higher stan­dard do not see a down­turn in the in­dus­try.”

Ac­tivists say with the state’s fos­sil fuel in­dus­try booming once again and pump­ing bil­lions of dol­lars in taxes into state cof­fers de­mands for in­creased reg­u­la­tion will face se­ri­ous head­winds at the Capi­tol. The num­ber of ac­tive oil rigs in the Per­mian Basin, for ex­am­ple, will in­crease from 276 in Jan­uary 2017 to an av­er­age of 371 in 2018 to ac­com­mo­date pro­duc­tion de­mands, ac­cord­ing to the Texas Oil and Gas As­so­ci­a­tion.

Obama-era rules

Texas of­fi­cials joined the lead­ers from a num­ber of other states in su­ing the EPA when then-Pres­i­dent Barack Obama re­leased his meth­ane emis­sion re­duc­tion plan in 2013, which would cap the amount of emis­sions al­lowed by fa­cil­i­ties na­tion­wide.

Texas At­tor­ney Gen­eral Ken Pax­ton called that “a gross demon­stra­tion of fed­eral over­reach.”

Un­der the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion, EPA of­fi­cials froze en­force­ment of the rules. En­vi­ron­men­tal ac­tivists sued, and a fed­eral ap­peals court nine months ago sided with the en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists. Fed­eral of­fi­cials still haven’t is­sued meth­ane reg­u­la­tions, how­ever, prompt­ing a law­suit filed last week by 14 states ac­cus­ing EPA chief Scott Pruitt of putting the in­ter­ests of oil and gas com­pa­nies ahead of the agency’s obli­ga­tion to pro­tect air qual­ity.

John Hays, a lawyer who rep­re­sents oil and gas com­pa­nies in front of the Texas Rail­road Com­mis­sion, the state’s oil and gas reg­u­la­tor, said the Obama-era meth­ane rules might have been too re­stric­tive, caus­ing con­cern over in­dus­try prof­its.

“It’s like ev­ery­thing else; there’s an ap­pro­pri­ate bal­ance between the mon­i­tor­ing and the cost of it, be­cause it can be very costly” to pre­vent emis­sions, Hays said. “It has been an is­sue with some of the EPA reg­u­la­tions that want to take it down, whether it’s meth­ane or sul­fur diox­ide, to take it down es­sen­tially to zero. And in most sys­tems that’s sim­ply not prac­ti­cal.”

Some state politi­cians do sup­port in­dus­try re­form. State Rep. Terry Canales, D-Ed­in­burg, pro­posed HB 3403 last year, which would re­strict oil and gas drilling within 1,500 feet from a school or child care fa­cil­ity.

“I know the im­por­tance of the oil and gas in­dus­try for Texas, but as big an ad­vo­cate as I am, I’m a par­ent first ... and it is no se­cret that drilling for oil is not the safest thing to do,” Canales told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram last year. The bill was left pend­ing in the House En­ergy Re­sources Com­mit­tee and never re­ceived a hear­ing.

Hays said he thinks some of the reg­u­la­tions be­ing pushed by en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists are rea­son­able and could po­ten­tially make head­way in the fu­ture, mainly be­cause con­serv­ing emis­sions and stop­ping leaks will be more eco­nom­i­cal for oil and gas com­pa­nies.

“The in­dus­try is tend­ing to do more (meth­ane reg­u­la­tion) on its own, in part be­cause meth­ane is valu­able,” said Hays, who is also a Univer­sity of Texas ad­junct law pro­fes­sor. “I’d say it’s def­i­nitely pos­si­ble that we’ll see more of it . ... I’m op­ti­mistic about the fu­ture of the Texas oil and gas in­dus­try.”


Texas cur­rently does not mon­i­tor meth­ane emis­sions from oil and gas drilling com­pa­nies, un­less they are con­sid­ered a ma­jor source of air pol­lu­tion. Texas Com­mis­sion on En­vi­ron­men­tal Qual­ity spokes­woman Martha Otero said the ma­jor­ity of oil and gas...


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