With more than 7,000 oil and gas wells and 5,500 more already approved, the Eagle Ford shale play in Texas is one of the most active drilling sites in the nation. But according to a new investigation, Texas is failing to adequately monitor the site’s emissions, which is leading to health concerns for nearby residents.
An eight-month investigation by InsideClimate News, the Center for Public Integrity, and the Weather Channel documented the effects that pollution is having on people living near Eagle Ford, a 20,000 square mile region with only five permanent air monitors. They found that despite fumes that sometimes blow into residents’ homes, thousands of the oil and gas facilities don’t have to report their emissions data to the state, and instead are allowed to self-audit their emissions. There’s also little punishment for oil and gas companies that do violate emissions standards — the investigation found that out of 284 oil and gas industry-related complaints in the Eagle Ford region between Jan. 1, 2010, and Nov. 19, 2013, only two resulted in fines.
The emissions near Lynn Buehring’s South Texas home have gotten so bad that she can’t sit on her porch some days, and her eyes burn and head regularly aches. Buehring lives within 2.5 miles of 50 wells, but 25 miles away from the closest air monitor, according to the investigation. The lack of air monitoring in Eagle Ford shows a sharp contrast with the wealthier Dallas-Fort Worth region, where residents are supplied with air monitors and a recent law mandates that no wells can be drilled within 1,500 feet of homes, schools, churches and other locations.
But despite the health complaints of Eagle Ford residents, the investigation found a Texas state legislature unlikely to be in favor of stricter regulations on the oil and gas industry, because many have such close ties to it.
“Energy wins practically every time,” Robert Forbis Jr., an assistant professor of political science at Texas Tech University, said. “It seems cynical to say that, but that’s how states see it — promote economic development and minimize risk factors.”
Eagle Ford isn’t the only region to have inadequate emissions monitoring and reporting. A recent report found that large oil and gas facilities across the U.S. are releasing 8.5 million tons of chemicals into the environment each year without having to report their emissions to a public EPA database, meaning that information about these emissions can be difficult or impossible for residents who live near these facilities to find. And it’s not the only region where residents are reporting health effects that they think could be tied to oil and gas development — a report from Pennsylvania last year documented the range of health problems affecting residents living near natural gas operations, including skin rashes, infections, headaches and chronic pain, but a gag order in the state prevents doctors from telling their patients what chemicals from fracking solutions might be the cause of their problems.