Environmentalists Settle Pollution Case Against Texas Gas Plant

A natural gas flare is pictured near Orla, Texas, in 2018. (Photo by TRAVIS BUBENIK/Courthouse News Service)

(CN) – An environmental group reached a tentative settlement Tuesday in a federal air pollution lawsuit targeting a natural gas plant in the heart of the nation’s largest oilfield.

The James Lake Midstream facility gathers and processes natural gas near the West Texas town of Odessa in the epicenter of the booming Permian Basin oil patch. The Sierra Club first notified the plant of its intention to sue over alleged Clean Air Act violations in March.

In a lawsuit filed in Odessa federal court Tuesday, the same day as the proposed settlement agreement, the environmental group accuses the plant of releasing large amounts of sulfur dioxide pollution since 2014, when the facility was built.

The pollution allegedly stemmed from more than 200 instances when the plant failed to route excess gas into an underground disposal well and instead burned it off into the air, a process known as flaring.

Under the settlement, which still has to be approved by a federal judge in the Western District of Texas, the plant’s owners would pay a $100,000 fine, install a variety of new pollution controls to reduce flaring, and keep the Sierra Club informed of the progress. The agreement also calls for the plant to spend $275,000 on various environmental mitigation projects in the area and pay fines for any future pollution spikes.

The James Lake plant was owned by Houston-based Canyon Midstream Partners until October, when it was sold to Woodland Midstream, another Houston company.

Woodland declined to comment on the lawsuit and proposed settlement. A person who answered the phone at Canyon’s office hung up when asked if the company had a press contact and the company did not respond to an emailed request for comment.

The organization that represented the Sierra Club in the lawsuit hailed the agreement as a victory, but also pointed to larger, looming concerns.

“With this settlement, we’re securing reductions of dangerous sulfur dioxide emissions and funding for environmental projects that will benefit the areas impacted by James Lake’s unlawful pollution,” Ilan Levin, an attorney with the Environmental Integrity Project, said in a statement. “But this settlement is only a first step because there are many other oil and gas operations illegally flaring dangerous pollution throughout the Permian Basin, and we need to hold them accountable.”

In Texas, flaring has hit record highs because of a glut of natural gas supplies and a lack of pipeline capacity to move the gas to markets. With nowhere to go, the gas is routinely burned off. It’s a practice that regulators allow under certain circumstances, but one that critics say is wasteful and raises environmental concerns for oilfield communities.

Green groups aren’t the only critics.

Last month, a subsidiary of the Oklahoma-based pipeline firm Williams Companies sued oil and gas regulators at the Texas Railroad Commission, claiming the commission should not have granted an extended flaring permit to an oil and gas producer that does business with Williams.

The excess flaring was not warranted, Williams claimed, because the oil and gas company’s wells were connected to Williams’ pipeline system and the gas could have been transported that way instead.

“This approach to flaring exceptions effectively guarantees an exception if an operator applies for one, thus eviscerating the protections of [state rules on flaring] and resulting in the needless waste of natural gas,” the company alleged.

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