A recent report by the anti-fracking Environment Texas (ET) and the Environmental Integrity Project (EIP) claims to have found abnormally high emissions from certain industrial sites associated with oil and natural gas activities. Specifically, the report looked at air emissions during routine maintenance (often performed to keep operations safe) and malfunctions, based on state documents. By listing off various chemicals and numbers, downplaying the strictness of current regulations, and prioritizing emissions over safety, ET and EIP attempt to portray these events as intentionally malicious as opposed to regulated, permitted, and often unavoidable due to safety issues.
Prioritizing Temporary Air Emissions over Safety
According to the report, operators in Texas must obtain permits for planned maintenance activities, which include a timeframe of when maintenance will occur and estimates of emissions that will take place during that time. Maintenance often includes routine activities to confirm proper equipment functionality and ensure the safety of workers at these sites, such as venting excess gas to alleviate pressure. The authors argue that these maintenance emissions should be measured and capped, but that “lax” laws in Texas allow for operators to exceed these estimated emissions during maintenance, stating:
“Unfortunately, the State of Texas allows for industrial sources to exceed permitted limits when plants undergo planned maintenance, often treating these routine activities as though they are unavoidable malfunctions.”
Luke Metzger, director of Environment Texas wrote in EIP’s press release on the study:
“By their own admission, polluters in Texas are routinely and egregiously violating the law and endangering public health with unauthorized emissions. And too often regulators look the other way when polluters break the law. This lawlessness must come to an end,”
Illegal? Hardly. As the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality’s (TCEQ) operation requirements for scheduled maintenance, startup, and shutdown activities states:
“Unauthorized emissions or opacity events from a maintenance, startup, or shutdown activity that are not unplanned that have been reported or recorded in compliance with §101.211 of this title are subject to an affirmative defense to all claims in enforcement actions brought for these activities, other than claims for administrative technical orders and actions for injunctive relief, for which the owner or operator proves all of the criteria listed in subsection (c)(1) – (9) of this section for emissions, or subsection (e)(1) – (9) of this section for opacity events and the following…” [emphasis added]
In other words, if operators act within the set requirements for reporting and scheduled maintenance, legal action is mitigated for unplanned emissions. The reason for this is simple: safety. If at every industrial site operators were unable to for example, release excess gas from equipment, because that would push emissions associated with the maintenance over the permitted limits, it would be a danger to the hard working men and women at these facilities and sites. This rule is not an intentional attempt to circumvent emissions standards, but instead a safeguard to ensure the health and welfare of workers.
Even when referring to malfunctions the authors misrepresent the actions of operators as skirting emissions laws as opposed to ensuring safety. For example, the authors mention an emissions event at the Keystone Gas Plant in August of last year, where excess sulfur dioxide was released due to an attempt “burn out the blockage” when pollution control equipment fail. In other words, the authors are condemning the company for responding in a way that would ensure safety (a blockage poses a number of hazards) as well as mitigate future pollution by making sure the equipment could function properly. Such criticism is narrow sighted and hypocritical when earlier in the study the authors list the ways a malfunction can occur:
“While some malfunctions may be truly unavoidable, many breakdowns are the result of operator errors, poor plant design, and a lack of preventative maintenance.”
Sounds like EIP and ET would rather vilify the oil and natural gas industry than provide logical solutions or show concern for worker safety.
History of Misrepresentation
Both of these groups have a history of distorting data to deliberately mislead the public on emissions and environmental impacts. For example, in a 2014 report EIP claimed the oil and natural gas industry was ignoring regulations and using diesel fuel in fracking operations across the country. Looking further into their data however, EID discovered that EIP grouped the use of kerosene (at the time, legal to use under the Safe Drinking Water Act) with diesel. By coupling the two substances together under the broad term of “diesel”, EIP tried to argue that the use of diesel was common in fracking – something that is simply not true. In fact, 273 of the 280 instances of “diesel” being used for fracking listed in the report were not using diesel at all, but kerosene. In other words, EIP deliberately misrepresented information in order to portray the oil and natural gas industry as intentionally skirting the law.
Environment Texas too, recently was found to be misrepresenting data. In a report claiming oil and natural gas development on lands owned by University of Texas (UT) is harming the environment, ET inflated numbers and gave no context to the data in an attempt to incite concern. For example, the report pointed to the use of 6 billion gallons of water used from in energy development on UT land between 2012 and 2014 as an example of environmental harm. However, looking just a little deeper, EID found that Texas used 15.8 trillion gallons of water in 2012, 2013, and 2014 combined. This means the six billion gallons of water used in energy development, while significant sounding out of context, was actually 0.03 percent of water used in Texas during that period.
Further, the ET report on UT lands claimed spills during energy development are a major point of concern, citing that “at least 1.6 million gallons of pollutants” have spilled since 2008. Again, while out of context this sounds significant, as the CEO of UT’s university lands told the Austin American-Statesmen, that’s about the same as one can of coke per acre per year.
The authors want to limit regulated maintenance to mitigate emissions, possibly putting working safety in jeopardy. There’s no doubt air quality is a priority, but to claim that companies in the oil and natural gas industry are intentionally acting to bypass emissions regulations is to ignore long-standing safety measures – and the facts.