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Texas oil boom has environmental advocates choosing between 2 unwelcome scenarios

Environmentalists face an unsettling choice in the area, where the shortage has sparked an uptick in gas flaring.

A worker in the oil industry walks through an area where a new pipeline is being laid in the Permian Basin oil field on January 21, 2016 in the oil town of Midland, Texas. CREDIT: Spencer Platt/Getty Images
A worker in the oil industry walks through an area where a new pipeline is being laid in the Permian Basin oil field on January 21, 2016 in the oil town of Midland, Texas. CREDIT: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

With the United States eyeing both a boom in oil production and a widespread pipeline shortage, large oil companies are growing increasingly nervous about meeting demands. At least one, ExxonMobil, is looking to oil-rich Texas to solve that dilemma, setting opponents up to make an unwelcome choice: either prioritize the hazards posed by pipelines to humans and the environment, or those caused by a pipeline shortage.

Exxon announced on Tuesday that the oil giant will join with the Houston-based Plains All American Pipeline in an effort to construct a pipeline stretching from West Texas all the way down to the large state’s southeastern region.

The multibillion dollar project would see 1 million barrels of crude oil pass daily from the Permian Basin, near Midland, to the Gulf Coast area, where the sprawling metropolis of Houston is located. Originating in Wink, delivery points on the coast include Webster, Baytown and Beaumont.

“The proposed common carrier pipeline would be designed to ship more than 1 million [barrels per day] of crude oil and condensate, providing a safe, efficient and cost-effective option to transport ExxonMobil and other third-party production to market destinations in Texas,” a statement from Plains All American said.

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The announcement also comes in the midst of a national pipeline crisis. The United States is on track to bypass Russia as the world’s largest oil producer after passing Saudi Arabia earlier this year, but a lack of pipeline capacity has hindered those efforts.

That holds especially true for the Permian Basin region. The area has struggled amid rising oil prices and increasing production demands, all despite a lack of pipelines. That region, spread out between Texas and New Mexico, has the capacity to transport 3.1 million barrels of crude oil per day — but currently has a daily production of 3.3 million barrels

Incentivizing an uptick in production are rising oil prices and soaring demand, factors that are encouraging companies to expand. After spending $6.6 billion last year to double its Permian Basin acreage last year, Exxon has said the company plans to triple oil and gas production in the Permian Basin region by 2025. This week’s announcement carried no indicator of how long the planned pipeline would take to construct, but according to the Dallas Morning News the project is unlikely to open prior to 2020.

Exxon isn’t alone in its efforts. Plains All American also announced the Cactus II pipeline in February, which will carry at least 585,000 barrels per day from the Permian region across the state to Corpus Christi, located on the Texas coast. Phillips 66 and EPIC have announced pipelines charting similar paths and set to open in 2019.

For environmental advocates, the construction of new pipelines poses a conundrum. Those concerned about climate change and other environmental impacts of fossil fuel production are faced with two, equally unwelcome scenarios.

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The first scenario is the construction of additional pipelines, which pose a health risk to neighboring communities, as much as to animal and plant life. Oil spills, for example, can contaminate waterways and expose large areas to potentially deadly health ramifications.

More broadly, an increase in pipelines means more oil. So what happens if the pipelines aren’t built?

This is the second scenario. However, in an area where oil production sees no signs of slowing down, this has its own set of impacts. Natural gas can be unearthed as a byproduct of crude oil extraction. But due to the price of oil, natural gas isn’t always as lucrative. It also can’t be easily transported without pipeline infrastructure. Companies often deal with an excess of gas by burning it off, or gas flaring. This can release harmful methane emissions — putting both people and the environment at risk.

In announcing the new pipeline this week, Plains All American emphasized that “priority would be placed on using existing pipeline corridors to help limit potential community and environmental disruptions.” But experts are concerned the Permian Basin is a health hazard — a problem worsened simultaneously by both the oil boom itself and the current pipeline shortage.

Amid the Trump administration’s onslaught of environmental regulatory rollbacks, issues like methane leaks in the Permian Basin have gone largely ignored despite their public health consequences, which include skin irritation and headaches, as well as long-term damage to the body. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is expected to announce sometime this month an end to Obama-era regulations guarding against methane leaks and gas flaring.

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That decision isn’t good news for millions of Texans. Approximately 2.3 million Texans live within a half mile of potentially hazardous oil and gas operations. That encompasses almost a fifth of the nation’s second-largest state. At least 900 schools and 75 medical facilities are also compromised, according to the Texas Observer.

Much of that concentration is found in the Permian Basin, where emissions are a fact of life. Sharon Wilson, a Dallas-based organizer for the environmental nonprofit group Earthworks, told the Texas Observer that during a tour of the region last week she noticed methane leaks that resembled a dripping faucet in some areas — in others, “methane was gushing like a fire hose.”

“It’s just crazy what I‘m seeing. It’s the worst emissions I’ve seen anywhere,” she said.

Rather than addressing such leaks, the Texas government may look to move in a different direction. In the next few months, state oil and gas regulators will decide whether or not to allow fossil fuel producers to flare more natural gas in an effort to address the oil surplus.

The oil byproduct in the Permian Basin has proven hard to sell and has weighed down oil production. The Texas Railroad Commission currently allows oil producers to flare gas for up to 10 days following oil well completion, with additional permits lasting up to 45 days occasionally granted.

That’s disconcerting for environmental advocates, who traditionally have no love for pipelines but also have reservations about gas flaring.

“We have serious concerns about the increased risk of excessive gas flaring in the Permian basin due to poor planning and investment by some operators,” said Colin Leyden, who serves as senior manager for the Environmental Defense Fund in Texas.

According to an Environmental Defense Fund report on gas flaring in the Permian Basin released last November, certain oil and gas producers in the region are wasting close to 10 percent of their produced gas through flaring. The report notes that in addition to being harmful for the environment, that practice can cause health problems ranging from eye and throat irritation to deadly illnesses including cancer.

“Unfortunately, we have heard that some companies that have not planned appropriately and are unable to get their gas to market are lobbying the Railroad Commission to relax the state’s flaring rules,” Leyden told ThinkProgress via email. “This would be a huge mistake. It would lead to more unnecessary pollution, undermine the credibility of the agency, and punish those companies that have planned and invested to follow the rules and minimize their waste.”

Many environmentalists staunchly oppose additional allowances for natural gas flaring, but at least one Railroad Commission member, Ryan Sitton, has indicated his approval, according to E&E News.

“What they’re [oil companies] asking for is, hey, if we run into these natural gas capacity issues like we’re forecasting, we’d like some more broad flexibility,” Sitton said earlier this week.

The back-and-forth over pipeline expansion and gas flaring coincides with growing concern throughout the oil and gas industry which is at the same time facing a seven-year low in employment. With fewer young people interested in working for the oil and gas industry, controversial pipelines, and shifting environmental regulations, the Texas oil boom is facing uncertain new territory.