New TX Air Quality Investigation Shows Wisdom in NY's Deliberative Approach to Fracking

The agonizingly slow grinding of bureaucratic gears can be a source of frustration. But in New York, where the study of potential impacts of fracking has been moving without noticeable hurry, there’s new reason to see that steady pace as a source of reassurance.

The latest cause for concern about fracking is the much-discussed publication of the findings of an eight-month investigation in the Eagle Ford Shale of South Texas. Three organizations have studied this intensely active formation, where more than 7,000 oil and gas wells have been sunk since 2008, and 5,500 more have won a green light from Texas regulators.

“Big Oil” and “Bad Air” are the key headline words in the online reports by The Center for Public Integrity, InsideClimate News and The Weather Channel. (Last year, InsideClimate News won a Pulitzer Prize for national reporting for its work on flawed regulation of oil pipelines.) Their reporting now shows clearly that Texans in the area of Eagle Ford are having trouble breathing, and regulators are having trouble noticing.

“Texas’ air monitoring system is so flawed that the state knows almost nothing about the extent of the pollution in the Eagle Ford,” says one of the investigation’s major findings. “Only five permanent air monitors are installed in the 20,000-square-mile region, and all are at the fringes of the shale play, far from the heavy drilling areas where emissions are highest.”

Regulators are so confident in the public-spiritedness of the drillers that they have allowed thousands of the facilities to “self-audit” their own emissions, without even having to report them to the state, the investigation reveals. This constitutes an alarming misreading of human nature and a bizarrely rosy view of corporate behavior in the oil and gas industry—plus, let’s face it, a seriously underfunded regulatory agency.

In fact, it could be cynically argued that stricter requirements for reporting all emissions to the state would only further burden the already weakened Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ). The Texas State Legislature, which meets every other year, has found ample time in that limited calendar to display bicameral enthusiasm for weakening the state’s capacity to monitor emissions. The investigation shows that the legislators have cut the TCEQ budget by a third—from $555 million in 2008 to $372 million in 2014—during a time when drilling in Eagle Ford has expanded dramatically. And the already pitiful budget for air monitoring equipment has dwindled from $1.2 million to $579,000.

So perhaps it should not come as a surprise that the emissions-monitoring agency “doesn’t even know some of these facilities exist,” as the report put it. Meanwhile, as the agency’s budget has shrunk, the investigation reported a 100 percent increase in “unplanned, toxic air releases associated with oil and gas production since 2009.”

The human cost of this regulatory laxity and corporate enthusiasm is declining air quality and tougher breathing. Take a look at this brief video by Jim Morris of The Center for Public Integrity, who visited the affected area in Karnes County, which is at the heart of Eagle Ford. In his video report, Morris talks about the benzene, carbon monoxide and formaldehyde in the skies there.

“People in the Eagle Ford say they’re getting sick, and their symptoms match the kinds of problems caused by these chemicals,” Morris says in the video. “There’s no scientific proof that their symptoms are caused by toxic air, because the studies haven’t been done. But as far as we can tell, regulators know almost nothing about what people in the Eagle Ford are breathing.”

This is precisely the kind of regulatory agnosticism that we hope to avoid in New York, where both the Department of Health and the Department of Environmental Conservation are looking into what fracking would mean for the state. That review has been going on since 2008, and months ago, DEC Commissioner Joseph Martens asked the Department of Health to study the potential impacts. On February 3, Dr. Nirav Shah, the health commissioner, told a legislative hearing simply: “We’re looking at all available evidence that could potentially impact on our review of human health.” He offered no timetable for when the review might be done.

Some might find that pace frustrating, but in light of what’s been happening in Texas, we prefer a slow, thorough study to a fast, slipshod one. And, as Governor Cuomo continues to follow the appropriate deliberative approach, we need our agencies to know exactly what the actual effects are so that any final decision is based on the best possible science.

As I wrote in September, polling shows a near majority of New Yorkers opposed to fracking. This is a decision that should be based on science, not polling, but that attitude by New Yorkers does support the governor’s cautious approach. So does the investigation of Eagle Ford.