Texas Oil and Gas Plants Quadruple Air Pollution as Systems Freeze Up

Texas Oil and Gas Plants Quadruple Air Pollution as Systems Freeze Up
Photo: David J. Phillip, AP

It’s been a hard week for everyone living in Texas as blackouts, boil notices, and bone-chilling cold rattle the state. But data shared with Gizmodo shows the suffering maybe be particularly acute for the millions of Texans living near oil wells and refineries.

Over the past week, refineries, pipelines, and other fossil fuel infrastructure have been polluting at four times the rate that they were before the cold snap. And much of this pollution can be directly traced back to the cold weather and the industry’s failure to prepare.

Earther looked at pollution event reports pulled from the Texas Department of Environmental Quality, which logs voluntary reports on emissions and flaring submitted by the owners of fossil fuel facilities. From February 11 through February 18, the state received reports of 174 so-called “emissions events” from fossil fuel sites. By comparison, there were only 45, 37, and 46 events logged in three seven-day periods throughout January and February before the cold weather hit.

Reading through some of these reports is a toxic emissions nightmare. A Valero refinery in Port Arthur, a majority-Black town where residents have been fighting environmental injustices for years, leaked 25,855 kilograms of sulphur dioxide in a single day. ExxonMobil’s refinery in Baytown, a city in the Houston metropolitan area, spewed 31,298 kilograms of carbon monoxide over the course of two days as it struggled with the cold. (Exxon said this week that it had shut down the Baytown facility, the company’s largest in the U.S., due to the storm.) A Shell facility in the Houston suburb of Deer Park reported that more than 2,948 kilograms of the carcinogen isoprene leaked while the facility was managing the cold conditions.

Data from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality for reported emissions events over the past three weeks shows a sharp uptick during the cold weather outbreak.Data from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality for reported emissions events over the past three weeks shows a sharp uptick during the cold weather outbreak.

Thanks to the proliferation of fossil fuel infrastructure in the Lone Star State, the specific health impacts of this kind of pollution on Texans is well-documented. One analysis found that air pollution in 2015 was responsible for more than 5,000 excess deaths in Houston alone, while a study released in December shows that Texans living near oil refineries have higher rates of cancer. Add these worries to no access to power, a water shortage across the state, and an ongoing pandemic creates a perfect storm of public health crises and failure to regulate powerful special interests.

While fossil fuel producers are not mandated to report the cause of problems at their facilities, around 70 of these event reports directly mentioned issues with the cold weather, said Sharon Wilson, a Texas-based senior field advocate at Earthworks, which first noticed the deluge of incident reports and compiled the data.

“Everything with oil and gas starts with a hole in the ground,” Wilson said. “That hole in the ground does not know the compressor station is frozen, so it keeps pumping gas. Somewhere along the line a pipe is frozen, so everything gets released into the air. And it does not stop getting released into the air — it just keeps going.”

Wilson said that some reports noted glitches from the cold weather as tiny as a frozen switch that stalled operations and forced excess gas to be released into the air.

“If [the industry] had winterised their equipment, this wouldn’t be happening,” she said.

One important pollutant left out of many of these reports is methane, the pollutant that can both harm human health and is 84 times more harmful to the atmosphere over the short term than carbon dioxide. “In Texas, we don’t count methane [in pollution reports],” Wilson noted, saying that while some producers report natural gas leaks — which includes methane — they are not mandated to specify breakdowns of specific chemicals, even though leaks almost always include methane. So in addition to the immediate harm of carcinogens and air pollution documented in the state’s records, it’s also likely that unreported methane emissions are worsening the climate crisis.

As the natural gas industry has exploded in Texas, regulators have been slow to control pollution. These reports themselves illustrate the laissez-faire existence of the industry: Texas regulations say that fossil fuel facilities can’t be held responsible for certain types of emissions, including those that were out of their control. As a result, the industry self-reports excess pollution that it claims was unforeseeable as a way to protect itself. While this month’s weather was unusual, the industry often logs routine-yet-worrisome leaks and fires as unforeseeable with little to no pushback from regulators. That Baytown facility that closed after leaking all that carbon monoxide this week, for example, also caught fire a few years ago.

Last year, the U.S. Environmental Defence Fund estimated that methane was escaping from oil and gas production in the Permian Basin at nearly three times the rate allowed by federal regulations. And while industry sites technically need to apply for a permit before burning off excess gas for an extended period of time — a process known as flaring — the commission in charge of regulating flaring has approved tens of thousands of permits with almost no refusals since 2013. An Earthworks investigation conducted earlier this year found that 75% of flaring on public lands in Texas was conducted illegally without a permit.

As politicians continue to falsely blame frozen windmills for the power outages and industry claims the problems from the cold weather were unavoidable, Wilson said more attention to how fossil fuel facilities prepare for different weather conditions is necessary.

“We need someone in the Texas legislature to file a bill requiring the oil and gas industry to thoroughly winterize all their equipment,” she said. “The bill probably won’t pass in Texas, but that will create some more scrutiny about it.”

But regulators’ loose leash on the industry and achingly slow response to other pollution problems doesn’t give Wilson much hope.

“Texas regulators, even if they wanted to, cannot keep up with what’s happening [with the industry],” she said.