Texas Oil Boom Linked to Spike in Air Pollution

This Oct. 9, 2018, file photo shows an oil rig and pump jack in Midland, Texas. (Jacob Ford/Odessa American via AP, File)

(CN) – A huge, seemingly unquenchable oil play in West Texas, the Permian Basin is producing 4 million barrels a day and reviving the cities of Odessa and Midland. But there’s a dark side to the drilling: Air pollutants are proliferating and endangering residents’ health, an environmental group said Thursday. 

The Permian Basin geological formation covers nearly 65,000 square miles in West Texas and southeastern New Mexico, and extends 29,000 feet underground, the Environmental Integrity Project said in a report.

Though oil companies have been drilling in the area since the 1920s, production took off in 2010 as horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing came into vogue and hit warp speed after the U.S. lifted a ban on crude exports in 2015, the Washington, D.C. nonprofit says in the report.

Major investments by industry heavyweights Chevron, Exxon Mobil and BP have analysts predicting the Permian Basin could eclipse the Ghawar field in Saudi Arabia to become world’s most productive formation by 2022, and projecting it will be pumping out 5.4 million barrels a day by 2023. 

Permian drillers are paying some workers six-figure salaries amid a labor shortage, and the flush pockets of laborers, who often work two-week straight hitches at remote drill sites surrounding Odessa and Midland before driving home to bigger cities like Houston and Dallas, has given rise to some eye-popping inflation.

For instance, barbers are also reportedly making six-figures with impatient oil workers paying $75 to skip past others waiting to get their hair cut.

But environmental monitoring has not kept pace with the drilling boom, according to the Environmental Integrity Project.

“Due to the small population in the Permian Basin (approximately a quarter of a million people live in Midland-Odessa), neither Texas nor EPA has seen fit to monitor sulfur dioxide levels associated with Permian Basin oil and gas production,” the report states. (Parentheses in original.)

Due to a lack of pipeline capacity, Permian drillers burn off natural gas that’s extracted alongside much more valuable crude oil, and the combustion produces sulfur dioxide. This so-called flaring is also used during power outages or when plants are shut down for maintenance.

“According to EPA, short-term exposures to sulfur dioxide can harm the human respiratory system and make breathing difficult. . . . Studies show correlations between short-term exposure to sulfur dioxide and increased visits to hospital emergency rooms,” the report states.

Dr. Sari Nabulsi, chief medical officer for the Odessa-based hospital operator Medical Center Health System, told Courthouse News that he and his colleagues did a study in November 2018 that found area residents die from asthma attacks and lower respiratory infections at much higher rates than in other Texas regions.

The Environmental Integrity Project says there is a lack of air pollution data in the Permian Basin because it only has three air monitors, compared to the 50 in the Houston region, home to the nation’s largest concentration of refineries and chemical plants.

The report calls for the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, or TCEQ, and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to install more air monitors in the area, and for the TCEQ to withhold operating permits for drillers unless they show their sulfur dioxide emissions fall below the EPA’s health-based standard of 75 parts per billion.

According to the report, the worst Permian offender is Occidental Permian Ltd., whose operations at 74 drilling sites produced more than 10 million pounds of sulfur dioxide in 2017.

The Environmental Integrity Project calculated Occidental’s sulfur dioxide pollution by analyzing the company’s own emission reports.

But Occidental’s Permian communications manager said in an email Thursday the figure is overblown.

“In reviewing EIP’s report, we have determined some of our analytical data used in the calculations were inaccurate and the values are significantly less than reported,” Merritt Talbot said. “We appreciate this information and will file revised reports to TCEQ. Occidental actively engages in programs to control, monitor and minimize emissions across our operations. We take emissions control seriously and will continue to address these issues in a safe and responsible manner.”

The TCEQ said Thursday afternoon it is still reviewing the report and will respond with a statement.

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