The head of the Texas Oil & Gas Association thinks that any study pointing out the health effects and dangers of fracking and oil refining is “junk science.” Surprised?
Neither are we. But we agree with Mr. Staples that decisions about oil and gas extraction and refining should be based on facts and sound science. So let’s review the facts on what scientists, the industry itself, and regulators policymakers say about the impact oil and gas has on health and the environment.
Fracking uses an enormous amount of water and chemicals. According to data self-reported by industry, oil and gas companies have injected 10 billion pounds of chemicals, including hydrochloric acid, benzene and methanol underground and used 120 billion gallons of water to frack 54,958 oil and gas wells in Texas since 2011.
Those chemicals are harmful. A recent analysis by researchers at the Yale School of Public Health identified 157 chemicals used in fracking that are toxic; the toxicity of 781 other fracking chemicals examined by the researchers is unknown. Toxic substances in fracking chemicals and wastewater have been linked to cancer, endocrine disruption and neurological and immune system problems.
Oil and gas drilling has polluted our rivers, lakes, streams and groundwater. Pollution occurs from surface leaks and spills of fracking fluid, well blowouts, the escape of methane and other contaminants from the well itself into groundwater, and the long-term migration of contaminants underground.
According to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality’s Joint Groundwater Monitoring and Contamination Report, the state documented 557 instances of groundwater contamination due to oil and gas production in 2014. For example, according to the Railroad Commission (the state’s primary regulator of the oil and gas industry), fracking wastewater injected into a disposal well contaminated the Cenozoic Pecos Alluvium Aquifer near Midland.
And people have gotten sick from pollution released by fracking and refining. In 2014, a Dallas County jury found that emissions from 22 gas wells surrounding the family ranch of Bob and Lisa Parr made them and their daughter, Emma, sick. A study by the University of Texas School of Public Health said children living within two miles of the Houston Ship Channel, home to many polluting oil refineries and petrochemical plants, had a 56 percent higher risk of contracting acute lymphocytic leukemia than children living more than 10 miles from the channel.
Much of the pollution released by refineries is unauthorized. According to data self-reported by industry to TCEQ, 679 oil refineries and other industrial facilities released 68 million pounds of mostly illegal air pollution in 2015 due to breakdowns and maintenance work. Last week, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that such emissions from ExxonMobil’s Baytown refinery and chemical plants were violations of the Clean Air Act and subject to penalties.
And then there’s the global warming being fueled by the burning of oil and other fossil fuels. In the last few years, Texas has been hit by historic drought, wildfires and now extreme rainfall and flooding, all conditions scientists, including the entire Atmospheric Sciences Department at Texas A&M, expect in a warming world.
Too often the state of Texas does not employ the “science-based regulation” that Mr. Staples claims they do. The Railroad Commission refuses to accept that fracking wastewater injection can trigger earthquakes, despite strong scientific evidence documented by the U.S. Geological Survey, researchers at Southern Methodist University, and oil and gas regulators in Oklahoma. TCEQ’s chair denies the overwhelming scientific consensus on climate change. He even claims, despite decades of scientific research to the contrary, that reducing smog will make Texans sicker, not healthier!
The science clearly shows that oil and gas development is taking a toll on the health of Texas families and our environment. It’s not surprising, but still irresponsible, that the Texas Oil and Gas Association refuse to acknowledge this.
But we can take steps to rein in the worst impacts of dirty drilling, including by getting the Legislature to make sure oil and gas companies, and not taxpayers, pay to clean up the messes they make and by pressing state and federal regulators to hold violators of environmental laws accountable. Eventually we’ll need to get off oil and fossil fuels completely. Until that day, we need to make sure that the science, and not the profits of Big Oil, prevails in our decision making.
Luke Metzger is the director of Environment Texas, a statewide advocate for clean air, clean water and open spaces. He can be reached at (512) 479-0388 or email@example.com.