Energy & Environment

Report: Permian Basin Oil Producers Are Releasing High Amounts of Harmful Emissions

A report by the Environmental Integrity Project concluded sulfur dioxide is mainly being released when oil and gas companies use flares to burn off excess natural gas.

A flare burns on May 24, 2018, atop a drill pad on land near Carlsbad. The oil-rich Permian Basin straddles West Texas and southeastern New Mexico.

A report released Thursday by the Environmental Integrity Project shows there are high levels of sulfur dioxide being released from oil and gas operations in the Permian Basin.

Sulfur dioxide, or SO2, is harmful to humans and the environment. The exposure to the chemical has been linked to asthma and heart attacks.

The Environmental Integrity Project concluded SO2 is mainly being released when oil and gas companies use flares to burn off excess natural gas — a practice used throughout the region.

Director of the Environmental Integrity Project in Texas, Ilan Levin, also said the study shows state and federal regulators aren’t doing enough to track these emissions. 

“We’re calling on the TCEQ to get out there and monitor the air quality,” Levin said. “That’s the first thing. That seems like a no-brainer.”

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, or TCEQ, tracks emissions across the state with automated air monitors. In the Permian Basin though, the agency only has three monitors assessing the air quality and only one of the monitors, located in Big Spring, measures SO2 levels.

According to Levin, more needs to be done to track and curb these emissions in the Permian Basin. But, he said, “TCEQ really has not taken, really, any steps to address this problem.”

Using data that oil and gas companies released, the report found between 2014 and 2017, residents in Ector County were exposed to levels of SO2 that exceeded federal standards. The study also found that some of the largest oil companies in the Permian Basin, by their own admission to TCEQ, have been releasing illegal amounts of SO2.

This includes companies like Occidental Petroleum, Chevron, XTO Energy and Conoco Phillips. Levin said the Environmental Integrity Project found, in past research, only a small amount of companies exceeding emission standards are held accountable by regulatory bodies.

Levin said the new report is recommending that more air monitors be set up across the Permian Basin, and that laws that are already in place be enforced.

TCEQ refused to comment on its monitoring of air quality in the Permian Basin. 

The former head of the TCEQ, Bryan Shaw — who now works for the pro-industry group Texas Oil and Gas Association — told News 88-7 in a statement the method the environmental group used to reach its findings “inherently overestimates” pollution concentrations.

A version of this story was originally published on Marfa Public Radio.

Levin also spoke with Houston Matters. Listen to his full conversation on Houston Matters in the audio below:

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