An environmental watchdog submitted evidence of dozens of violations, but the state’s environmental agency rarely followed up.
It’s no secret that in the Permian Basin, one of the world’s most productive oil and gas fields, pollution is everywhere. Industrial facilities burn off so much excess natural gas that you can see the flares from space. But as all that gas burns off, it releases thousands of pounds of invisible, hazardous air pollution. For years, the environmental advocacy group Earthworks has been trying to make that problem visible: Using thermal imaging, staff has captured hundreds of images of pollution pouring out of broken pipes, tank hatches, and flares. Yet state regulators have done little to address some of the most obvious violations.
Since 2015, Earthworks has sent the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) documentation of more than 140 industrial emissions violations. It’s the agency’s job to investigate whether or not the evidence is proof of a violation, and whether or not to levy a fine or require repairs at the facility. However, only 17 of the complaints, or about one in every eight, that Earthworks filed led to any type of enforcement action by TCEQ or the Texas Railroad Commission, which also oversees oil and gas permits in the state. In 58 of those documented cases, TCEQ sent an inspector to the alleged violator but didn’t issue any citations, according to a new report from the environmental group. Most of the time, Earthworks never received a response from the agency at all.
Texas Observer, 5 November 2020