The production of oil and natural gas in West Texas is booming but it's coming at a cost to residents who are regularly exposed to unhealthy levels of air pollution, according to a report issued by an environmental group.
The Environmental Integrity Project noted in a report released Thursday that the Permian Basin, which extends into New Mexico , is one of the most productive hydrocarbon regions in the world, thanks largely to the advent over the past decade of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing. In another two years the basin will account for about 40 percent of all U.S. production, the group said.
But a consequence of that production is dangerous levels of sulfur dioxide in the air around Odessa and other locations, according to the report, which adds that pollution levels in much of Ector County, where Odessa is located, exceed standards set by the federal Environmental Protection Agency.
"Controlling air pollution in West Texas has not been a priority for the state, as evidenced by the scarcity of air pollution monitoring stations in the Permian Basin," the report said. "And yet, the type of air pollution in the Permian Basin — dominated by excessive emissions of sulfur dioxide and hydrogen sulfide — is known to have serious environmental and public health consequences."
Ilan Levin, associate director of The Environmental Integrity Project, said regulators such as the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality need to have stricter oversight of air pollution permits while penalizing polluters who violate the terms of those permits.
"It's like they're speeding and the cops out on the beat are not issuing any speeding tickets," Levin said Wednesday.
A spokesman for TCEQ declined to comment, saying the agency hadn't seen the report. The president of the Texas Oil and Gas Association said the industry group also must still review the report but is confident that Permian Basin production will continue to be viewed as a benefit to the state and the nation.
"Upon release to the public we will review the full study, but there is no doubt that the phenomenal growth of energy production in the Permian Basin, which has elevated the United States to become the world's top oil and natural gas producer, is providing undeniable benefits to Texas in the form of abundant, reliable and affordable energy, hundreds of thousands of good-paying jobs, and billions in state and local tax revenues," Todd Staples said. "And all of these have occurred while at the same time the U.S. has led the world in emission reductions, undoubtedly because the oil and natural gas industry is the leading investor in zero- and low-carbon technology, investing billions in advanced technologies that are protecting and improving our environment."
The report asserts that oil and gas facilities are releasing large amounts of unpermitted pollution during equipment breakdowns, maintenance and other so-called "emission events." The unauthorized release of air pollution occurs mainly from flaring, which is a way to burn gas that's released, according to the report, but Levin adds that flaring was meant to be a last resort that instead has "become a business model to get rid of gas that they don't know what to do with."
There's only one functioning air monitoring station measuring sulfur dioxide in the Permian Basin, the report said, and more are needed to better police the release of emissions. Sulfur dioxide forms when substances containing sulfur, including coal and oil, are burned. Exposure can make breathing difficult and harm a person's respiratory system.
There were at least 30 occasions from December 2016 to April of this year that sulfur dioxide levels measured at one location exceeded federal health standards, according to the report, adding that oil and gas operators in and around Ector County self-reported 2,564 unauthorized releases of air pollution from 2014 to 2017.
"We're calling on the regulators to monitor air quality because they're not doing that right now for vast parts of the Permian Basin, especially where most of the people live," Levin said.