excerpt from the multi-part series “Big Oil, Bad Air: Fracking the Eagle Ford Shale of South Texas” by Lisa Song, Jim Morris and David Hasemyer, Center for Public Integrity, Feb 18, 2014. Readers’ responses are under the instructive heading “‘Close your doors and go away:’ readers react to fracking investigation.“
Lessons From the Barnett Shale
Texas regulators and politicians had a clear idea of the problems that would arise in the Eagle Ford even before the drilling boom began.
Between 2003 and 2011, some 2,000 wells had been drilled within the city of Fort Worth, which lies atop the Barnett Shale formation, and six times that many were drilled in nearby communities. Tanker trucks rumbled past suburban lawns. Flares burned next to schools and playgrounds. An industry normally hidden in rural areas was suddenly visible to suburbanites, some of whom were frightened and incensed by the intrusion.
Under pressure from residents and the EPA, the TCEQ added more air monitors in the Barnett and agreed to respond to complaints in a timelier fashion. It also tightened its permit-by-rule regulations in the region.
The TCEQ was going to extend the new rules statewide, but in 2011 the legislature stepped in and passed a bill that effectively blocked the plan. The following year, the TCEQ itself limited the rules’ use in the Barnett, restricting them to 15 of its 24 counties.
The Eagle Ford Shale region of South Texas is in the midst of a massive drilling boom that’s generating billions of dollars for oil companies. But a months-long investigation in partnership with InsideClimate News and The Weather Channel finds some residents saying emissions of dangerous chemicals are making them sick, and state regulators have offered little help.
A 2012 agency memo shows the TCEQ was fully aware that drilling companies needed more oversight. Titled “Findings and Lessons Learned from Barnett Shale Oil and Gas Activities,” it said “nearly all of the issues documented [in the Barnett] arose from human or mechanical failure that were quickly remedied and could have been avoided through increase [sic] diligence on the part of the operator.”
Soward said Barnett residents got at least a little protection because they “yelled and screamed” until the TCEQ responded. But yelling—and organizing—doesn’t come naturally to most residents in the Eagle Ford, who tend to have fewer resources and less political power than people in North Texas.
The demographic differences may help explain why the city of Dallas recently passed one of the strictest setback rules in the country: No well can be drilled within 1,500 feet of homes, schools, churches and other sensitive locations. In Colorado, the equivalent rule is 500 to 1,000 feet depending on the type of building; it’s 500 feet in Pennsylvania.
Texas has no statewide setbacks, aside from a 1,320-foot buffer zone for facilities with high levels of hydrogen sulfide. For all other oil and gas sites, it relies on communities to take the lead. Eagle Ford counties like Karnes, LaSalle and McMullen have no restrictions despite a glut of drilling.
read the other parts of the series at Center for Public Integrity