Permian Basin Drillers Push Air Pollution Limits. Do Regulators Care?

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Permian Basin drilling is adversely affecting air quality throughout west Texas to a significant degree.

Yet state and federal regulators have shown little interest in monitoring pollution or acting to curb oil and natural gas operations that routinely violate clean air laws.

5.3 Million Pounds of Sulfur Dioxide Emissions in Ector County

Nearly a dozen counties make up the Texas side of the Permian Basin. A recent air quality investigation conducted by the  Environmental Integrity Project focused on just one: Ector County, home to the rapidly growing energy hub of Odessa.

According to the group’s final report, Ector County drillers pumped 5.3 million pounds of sulfur dioxide emissions into the air during 2017, all in violation of federal pollution permits. As a result, more than a third (35%) of the county recorded sulfur dioxide levels well above limits established by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) National Ambient Air Quality Standards.

“We’ve known for some time that there are these huge unauthorized emissions in West Texas,” lead author Ilan Levin told the Texas Observer. “What these results show us is that it is very likely that this entire area of the Permian Basin [violates air quality standards] for sulfur dioxide.”

Sulfur Dioxide a Likely Byproduct of Permian Basin Flaring

Much of that pollution apparently resulted from flaring, which occurs when drillers burn off usable natural gas due to a lack of storage capacity.

Sulfur dioxide can cause respiratory problems in humans, including wheezing, shortness of breath and chest tightness, especially during exercise or physical activity. Continued exposure at high levels increases respiratory symptoms and reduces the ability of the lungs to function.

People with asthma, emphysema, and other chronic lung problems are especially vulnerable, as are children and the elderly.

TCEQ Has Just 3 Air Quality Monitors in Permian Basin

If Levin is correct,  then much of  the Permian Basin is out of compliance with federal emission regulations. That would allow the EPA to declare the area a “nonattainment zone” for sulfur dioxide and force drillers to comply with stricter Clean Air Act standards.

Unfortunately, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) isn’t doing much to police air pollution in the region. In fact, the regulator has installed just three air quality monitors across the entire Permian Basin, and only one of those measures sulfur dioxide.

By contrast, the state has 60 monitors in place to track air quality in the Houston Ship Channel.

It’s Time for Regulators to Crack Down on Permian Basin Pollution

Obviously, a regional air quality monitoring network is long overdue for the Midland-Odessa area, and an EPA investigation is needed to determine if the Permian Basin qualifies as a nonattainment zone.

According to the Environmental Integrity Project, Texas regulators should also take a tougher approach to permitting rules for oil and gas operations, so that only those that can demonstrate compliance with emission standards are issued permits, and penalize any Permian Basin driller that flares pollutants in excess of permitted levels.

“Texans deserve to be informed about the harmful pollutants the oil and gas industry is pumping into the air we breathe,” Neil Carman, Clean Air Program Director for the Sierra Club Lone Star Chapter, said in response to the recent findings. “It’s long past time for state and federal leaders to act to protect our communities from dangerous air pollution.”

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