Midland Reporter Telegram, Sunday, August 30, 2020; Section: Viewpoints, Page: 1C
By Gene Collins and Cyrus Reed
Even months after the coronavirus arrived in the United States, communities across the country, and especially in vulnerable areas of Texas such as the Rio Grande Valley and the Permian Basin, are still suffering from severe impacts of this respiratory pandemic. We know for a fact that Black, indigenous and people of color are suffering the most from this viral illness due to a continued lack of testing and resources.
And increasing air pollution will only make a respiratory pandemic worse. Chronic air pollution spewed by the oil and gas industry, lax regulations and pitiful enforcement by our state and federal agencies are compounding these dire circumstances for low-income and communities of color. To make matters worse, a proposal on new flaring reporting requirements by the Railroad Commission of Texas (RRC), which regulates oil and gas in Texas, falls dangerously short of the protections needed — all while the Trump administration also rolled out two new rules that undercut what little protections we do have from oil and gas air emissions in Texas
According to the Environmental Defense Fund’s (EDF) Permian Map, which depicts aerial observations of methane emissions in the Permian Basin, 11 percent of flares in the study area were malfunctioning, and 5 percent of the flares were completely unlit, or “venting.”
Many of us know that flaring is dangerous — venting is even worse. Venting unburned methane, volatile organic compounds and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons are toxic for human health and the environment. These pollutants exacerbate climate change, contribute to ground-level ozone formation, cause cancer and aggravate respiratory conditions, such as asthma. Addressing these emission sources is even more urgent now, because some of the deadliest symptoms of COVID-19 include respiratory complications.
The Permian Map study shows that there are only a couple of air monitors in the Midland-Odessa area and none in areas like Reeves County. Most of the counties observed in the EDF’s Permian Map have Black, indigenous and people of color populations greater than the national average, with five of the counties ranking in the top 30 in the nation for high incidences of asthma attacks in children linked to oil and gas production. This is a clear example of how environmental racism is a major public health issue, because communities of color are disproportionately impacted by air pollution in the United States and as a result experience increasingly high rates of respiratory illness of asthma.
Nationally, people of color make up the largest portion of COVID-related hospitalizations. This is a direct result of systemic racism and industrial air pollution is compounding risks for many communities of color. Just this month, a new environmental public health study published in Environment Health Perspectives of flaring in South Texas found a prevailing threat for pregnant women who live near the areas where flaring is common. Pregnant women who were exposed to 10 or more flares over the course of pregnancy had a 50 percent higher rate of giving birth prematurely, with the impact of flaring falling almost entirely on Latinx mothers and care-takers.
Right now, while average Americans have only received an inadequate one-time stimulus check of $1,200, the oil and gas industry is asking for multi-billion dollar bailouts and weaker regulatory standards and the administration is haphazardly allowing it. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Andrew Wheeler just finalized new weaker regulations that will rollback leak detection and repair standards for the oil and gas sector, as well as other related standards, allowing significantly more methane and other air pollutants to contaminate our air. Expect future lawsuits on the issue.
As the federal government actively weakens standards, Texans are hoping that the state government will step in to help, and that the RRC will act to reduce flaring and venting. Predictably, they have been doing the exact opposite. Over the last 10 years, the commission charged with regulating oil and gas has increased the number of permits that allow companies to flare by 10-fold, granting about 7,000 permits in 2019.
In fact, the Commission recently unveiled a proposal that would only increase reporting requirements for those companies that seek permission to vent and flare, but does not directly address the flaring and venting itself. Comments on their proposal are due by Sept. 4, but already many organizations and legislators are complaining that the proposal does too little. Commissioners have not responded to community demands to set overall gas capture goals or other requirements to lower emissions. Other states like New Mexico are proposing much more. Better reporting is needed, but it does nothing to actually reduce the climate and health impacts that are burdening communities throughout South and West Texas.
Similarly, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality has done nothing to consider statewide rules on methane capture beyond existing now weakened federal requirements despite community demands. We can, and must, do better. The Railroad Commission should set a policy to eliminate all flaring and venting by 2025, and the TCEQ should add pollution control requirements on oil and gas wells and require quarterly inspections of oil and gas facilities to discover and eliminate any methane leaks. As the leading oil and gas producer, Texas should be a leader in protecting our health, environment and the preservation of its most vulnerable communities.
Gene Collins is the Environmental Justice Chair for the Texas NAACP and lives in Odessa.
Cyrus Reed is the interim director of the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club.