Energy & Environment

How Researchers Are Keeping Tabs On Oil And Gas Emissions In West Texas

Houston-based drillers are finding record amounts of oil in West Texas, but environmentalists say they’re finding methane, benzene, and other vapors escaping from oil and gas facilities.

Sharon Wilson checking out an oil and gas facility near Balmorhea.

Funky smelling fumes, dimmer skies, and increased health concerns have all been reported by residents in the Southwest corner of the Permian Basin as the oil and gas industry expands. Growth has been happening north of the Davis Mountains over the last two years.  

Concerns about greenhouse gases and toxic emissions have spurred some citizens — like Sharon Wilson — to try to keep oil companies accountable themselves, one rig at a time.

During a recent drive along roads in Reeves County near Balmorhea, Wilson is hunting for oil and gas emissions.

Specifically, hydrocarbons like methane, benzene, and other vapors escaping from oil and gas facilities. Today she’s checking out sites owned by the Houston-based Apache Corporation.

As she gets out of her car, Wilson points out the odor.

“Can you smell it? It’s definitely pretty stinky.”

Wilson is a part of Earthworks, an environmental advocacy group that says oil and gas operations are threatening the health of people who live in the South Permian Basin and the environment. Other than her nose, she uses a special infrared camera to find chemicals the human eye can’t see.

Sharon Wilson using an FLIR camera to track oil and gas emissions.

At a glance, a pipe at a natural gas site may not seem like much until Wilson points her camera at it. She says, “I’ll show you in the camera. All of this equipment along here, you’re going to see a lot of air pollution. It’s pretty alarming.”

Wilson’s camera can reveal plumes of smoke pouring into the air, though the camera can’t tell the difference between say, steam or toxic chemicals. But, Wilson is pretty sure what she’s seeing is pollution.

“If you’re seeing something and it’s coming from the equipment on an oil and gas site then the gases are most likely going to be hydrocarbons. No matter what the industry tries to tell us. It’s certainly not cotton candy.”

There is a certain amount of emissions oil and gas sites are allowed to legally discharge. Apache Corporation maintains they stay within emission standards. But, in general, Wilson and Earthworks say operators in Texas aren’t being monitored enough.

“Nobody’s measuring it. The state does not go out and measure it. The state is not out here doing air testing.”

Sharron Wilson on the side of a Reeves County road.

Professor Gunnar Schade of Texas A&M University agrees. “I often get asked why are we not finding these [leaks], supposedly there are so many leaks out there,” he said. “Well, the dominant leaks occur where you’re not looking.”

Schade has a doctorate in natural sciences and his research focuses on the transfer of gases to the atmosphere. He says regulators aren’t keeping up with the Texas oil industry when it comes to hydrocarbon leaks. The Texas Commision on Environmental Quality, or TCEQ, disagrees. It’s the department in charge of monitoring emissions discharged by completed wells and refineries.  

In a statement, TCEQ told Marfa Public Radio it does routine inspections of oil and gas sites and has air quality monitoring stations around the state. In the Permian Basin, the commission has four stations to assess the general air quality of the region, which spans thousands of miles.

TCEQ also allows companies to do their own assessments. If a company performing a self-evaluation reports a violation it is immune from any penalties. To Schade, these safeguards aren’t doing the job. He says there’s evidence that too many greenhouse gases and toxins are escaping from facilities.

Schade also thinks this is a situation that has a simple solution. “Fixing this problem is easy. You do what the prior administration had a suggested. Mainly you look for where the biggest leaks are and you fix those,” he said.

For this to work, regulators, like TCEQ, would need to go to every site and do inspections, but Schade says, “Right now, that’s not being done.” According to him, if people want TCEQ to respond to oil and gas sites they’re worried about they need to make their voices heard.

“There’s not going to be much response from the regulatory side unless people speak up and say this pad over here I think has a lot of emissions because I wake up with a bloody nose every morning or I smell it all the time.”

In an email, a TCEQ official wrote if a leak is an “imminent threat to health or to the environment” they’ll respond within 24 hours or less.

Balmorhea’s water tower.

Before late 2016 there wasn’t really any oil development around Balmorhea. It was known for its pristine natural springs and clear skies. Now, some individuals are claiming emissions are affecting their health and the region’s skies are getting murkier as oil development ramps up.

Alfredo Gutierrez is a truck driver from Chicago who hauls freight all over the country. While driving through the Southern Permian Basin for the first time he says he spotted something.

“When the sun was going down I saw like the smoke on the air and it was like a clear sky, but this was a different kind of smoke.”

Gutierrez is describing the dense haze that sometimes hangs low in the sky around Balmorhea, which he wasn’t expecting to see.

“You see this in like a city like Dallas [or] Houston, but not in here with nothing around,” he said. “This is probably like a really contaminated place.”

There is no way to tell where the haze is coming from because there is little to no data on the air quality in the Southern Permian Basin and Big Bend. That’s about to change though. Later this month, Dr. Gunnar Schade will begin a year-long project, tracking emissions around Reeves County.  

This study should establish a baseline record of air quality for future research and help form a better picture of how the oil and gas industry is affecting the South Permian Basin.

Diana Nguyen contributed to this report. This article was originally published on Marfa Public Radio

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