Lucas Jasso, 66, has seen a lot of changes in Karnes County, Texas, since oil and gas companies first began flocking to his part of the state several years ago.
“I call it Flare City USA — every time I go into the countryside, I see flares,” Jasso said. “It used to be paradise.”
Once mainly fields and ranchland, Karnes County is now a top crude oil producer in Texas, due to its location on top of the Eagle Ford Shale play. But long-term residents like Jasso say they are concerned about whether the oil boom, which helped to fix up their highways and put money into their children's schools, was also responsible for their migraines, dizziness and shortness of breath.
“A lot of them noticed there had been a lot of changes in the community. A lot of people, when they talk about their health issues, were saying, 'We weren't feeling this before all this,'” said Priscilla Villa, a community organizer with the environmental group Earthworks.
Her outreach is part of the Washington-based nonprofit's newly expanding national effort to help people around the country living near oil and gas development hold polluters and governments accountable.
Those efforts could take on added significance under the Trump administration, which has moved to halt implementation of methane regulations, a potent greenhouse gas that has 25 times the heat-trapping capability of carbon dioxide. Not only would these regulations have helped address climate change, they would also have helped stop emissions of other pollutants like volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that are linked to respiratory and cardiovascular problems.
Examples of some known hazardous air pollutants include benzene, a carcinogen, which comes from burning oil. Chronic exposure to toluene, used to produce benzene, can lead to upper respiratory tract irritation, dizziness, sore throat and headaches. VOCs also have indirect health impacts when it forms chemical reactions with nitrogen oxides in sunlight and creates ground-level ozone, the main component of smog. Exposure to smog can lead to asthma, wheezing and cardiovascular effects, according to U.S. EPA data.
Collecting evidence state by state
About 12.4 million people in the United States live within the “threat radius” — about half a mile away from active oil and gas wells, compressors, and processors, according to the Oil and Gas Threat Map compiled jointly by Earthworks, the Clean Air Task Force and FracTracker Alliance. The estimate is based on data from industry, EPA, recorded methane leaks and resident interviews.
The groups say the figure is a conservative estimate of the area where people are exposed to toxic air pollution. The actual figure, they argue, is likely much greater. The threat map also identifies 238 counties in 21 states where the cancer risk exceeds EPA's threshold of 1 in 1 million.
Earthworks is aiming to go into as many of these affected areas as it can around the country. The organization has been tracking both anecdotal and empirical evidence about pollution levels from the oil and gas sector around the country as part of its Community Empowerment Project and has worked with communities to help file complaints both against the companies themselves and state environmental regulators.
The goal is to improve state oversight and “systematically reducing oil and gas pollution from all operations in those states,” said Alan Septoff, strategic communications director at Earthworks.
While other groups are also working at the community level, none is working at quite the same scale, environmental groups say.
As the South Texas fracking organizer, Villa is educating community members about the health risks associated with emissions from the oil and gas industry. The forums also encourage residents to talk to each other about their concerns, she said.
“Generally, communities contact us and tell us there is a problem and they invite us to go in and help them,” said Sharon Wilson, a certified optical gas imaging thermographer with Earthworks' Oil and Gas Accountability Project. She periodically tracks emissions levels in Karnes County.
“A community member will contact us because they are experiencing odors and health impacts, and the industry says, 'Oh, it's not us,'” she said.
Nausea, headaches, asthma
After receiving a complaint, Wilson will either tour with someone from the area or use residents' photographs to guide her through a thorough survey of as many oil and gas facilities as possible. She uses a specialized infrared camera to record evidence of methane leaks and VOCs coming from the facilities, and then sends the videos to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality as part of a formal complaint. The footage helps identify where methane and VOCs are escaping into that atmosphere.
“We can't say which VOCs or how much. We can say there is a dense plume, and we can see emissions are crossing the fence line and going into the neighborhoods,” Wilson said. “Some of these events that I have captured are stunning.”
Jasso, who once thought of Karnes County as paradise, is cautious about laying blame for his health problems on the oil flare at the edge of his property or the oil wells on private land around his home. The retired postal work had a bout with cancer last year and experiences with severe nausea.
“I'm going to be 67 years old, I have one foot in the grave or one foot out,” he said.
Other residents have similar questions about their health. A Karnes County resident who declined to give his name for fear of backlash said his wife experienced debilitating headaches that made her forehead and sinuses throb after their neighbor leased part of his land to the oil industry about four years ago. He has had his own troubles with headaches and trying to keep his asthma in check. Meanwhile, his three grandsons, who also live nearby, always seem to be coming down with something.
“The federal government is not going to protect us from anything. They are interested in money, and these oil companies are pumping tons and tons of money,” the 67-year-old man said.
“They don't care about the regular Joe Blow, the regular guy. They don't care in the environment, they don't believe in global warming or any of this stuff. Our politicians are turning a blind eye.”
Oil industry emphasizes communication
Oil and gas companies say they are working to reduce their emissions to prevent harm to the environment and want to increase transparency and dialogue between companies and local communities.
While they did not speak directly to the situation in Karnes County, in a recently published report, the American Petroleum Institute included eight paragraphs in a 64-page report about the need to work with communities affected by oil and gas development.
“The industry understands that operating daily in a manner that protects the safety, environment and health of the community, employees and contractors is critical to building trust, as is open, two-way communication through a number of channels,” the report read.
Chris Ashcraft, vice president of the South Texas Energy and Economic Roundtable (STEER), said preserving the environment in the Eagle Ford Shale region is a “top priority.” The organization is meant to ensure that energy development in the region is “mutually beneficial to industry and communities throughout South Texas.”
Ashcraft noted in an email that the oil and gas industry had partnered with the Environmental Defense Fund in their methane leak detection program and is currently testing “cutting edge” technology for detecting and reducing methane leaks and other pollutants. The industry had also worked with the Alamo Area Council of Governments, providing emissions data to enable the creation of a regional emissions inventory.
Because air pollution is a regional problem, he said, everyone needs to work together to address it.
“In addition to our partnerships with outside organizations, STEER members are continually implementing voluntary steps to reduce emissions,” Ashcraft said. “Companies have implemented leak detection and repair (LDR) programs and are sharing the data to learn how and when equipment fails in order to prevent leaks.”
Earthworks recently received a three-year, $3 million grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation to expand its work in the six states that emit about half of the methane emissions from oil and gas.
The group is still fine-tuning a strategy for using the funding across the country, but it plans to base its work in part on efforts it has already made to help residents in places like Karnes County.
It's an approach that Paul Billings, senior vice president of advocacy at the American Lung Association, said has been an important one to combating pollution from the oil and gas industry in particular.
“I think that's really true that community by community, neighborhood by neighborhood, that is how you drive change — change the community, change the state, I think it's very important for that change to be going together with strong advocacy at the state, local and federal level,” he said.
“You need continued research of the problems and innovation to craft solutions, but it does start at the basic community level,” Billings added.
Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from E&E News. E&E provides daily coverage of essential energy and environmental news at www.eenews.net.