System Failure

Published — October 27, 2020

Trump’s pullback of pollution controls is even more hazardous than you think

Janeen Jones/Center for Public Integrity

The EPA scrapped the Obama-era rules controlling methane emissions. The fracking-friendly move will also result in the release of hazardous air pollutants linked to cancer.

This story was published in partnership with Vox. The Center for Public Integrity is a nonprofit newsroom that investigates betrayals of public trust. Sign up to receive our stories.


The Permian Basin is one of the most prolific oil and gas plays in the world, responsible for more than a third of the United States’ oil and one-sixth of gas production last year.

The formation in West Texas and southeastern New Mexico that has minted fortunes and transformed the country into a global petroleum supplier is also ground zero for the worst oil and gas air pollution in the country.

“You don’t know what you’re breathing,” said Gene Collins, a minister and community activist in Odessa, Texas.

It could get worse.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in August rescinded controls installed by the Obama administration to curb releases of methane, a potent, planet-warming gas leaked during oil and gas production, processing and transportation.

The action, expected but nonetheless condemned by environmentalists, had a little-noticed side effect: Experts say it could lead to higher emissions of volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, and hazardous air pollutants — chemicals that cause smog and are linked to cancer, respiratory illnesses and a growing list of other ailments.

In documents supporting the rollback, the EPA predicted the industry will save $19 million annually in compliance costs. It acknowledged, however, that the change would likely degrade air quality.

“The EPA expects that forgone VOC emission reductions will degrade air quality and are likely to adversely affect health and welfare … but did not quantify these effects at this time,” the agency wrote in documents supporting the rule change.

Translation: The change will likely worsen air pollution and harm people’s health. But the EPA didn’t bother to estimate the potential extent of the damage, despite what’s at stake for people living in communities like Odessa.

A quick move to unwind the pollution safeguards

The oil and gas sector is the nation’s largest industrial emitter of methane, a greenhouse gas with 28 times more heat-trapping power than carbon dioxide.

Under President Barack Obama, the EPA in 2012 and 2016 finalized rules designed to curb emissions of both methane and VOCs from the oil and gas industry.

“These commonsense steps will help to combat climate change and reduce air pollution that harms public health,” Dan Utech, Obama’s deputy assistant for energy and climate change, wrote when the 2016 rules were proposed.

Many oil and gas groups were unhappy with the new constraints. The Independent Petroleum Association of America, which represents thousands of independent producers and service companies, accused the EPA of siding with “extreme environmental activists” and said the regulations would have “virtually no impact” on reducing global warming. The American Petroleum Institute, the largest U.S. oil and gas trade association, said the rules were duplicative and costly and undermined the progress companies were making on their own to reduce emissions.

President Donald Trump’s EPA moved quickly to unwind the pollution safeguards in 2017, making good on the new president’s promise to remove regulations that stood in the way of the industry’s growth and promote U.S. “dominance” of global energy markets.

The EPA argued that the two Obama-era rules were redundant, since methane and VOCs are often co-emitted. Because methane is the primary ingredient in natural gas, oil and gas companies also had a built-in incentive to limit leaks, the agency said.

“The Trump administration recognizes that methane is valuable, and the industry has an incentive to minimize leaks and maximize its use,” EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler said in a statement announcing the rollbacks. “Since 1990, natural gas production in the United States has almost doubled, while methane emissions across the natural gas industry have fallen by nearly 15 percent. Our regulations should not stifle this innovation and progress.”

Independent research, however, suggests methane emissions in the oil and gas sector are far higher than what the EPA’s data shows.

One 2018 study, published in the journal Science, found that emissions in the oil and gas supply chain could be 60 percent higher than EPA estimates, “likely because existing inventory methods miss emissions released during abnormal operating conditions,” the authors wrote.

In a separate study published in Science earlier this year, researchers using new satellite data found that methane emissions in the Permian Basin likely were more than twice as high as what the agency’s data predicts.

The EPA’s own estimates show that upending the regulations will lead to the release of an additional 850,000 tons of methane, 140,000 tons of VOCs and 5,000 tons of other hazardous air pollutants from 2021 to 2030.

Asked how these numbers square with the agency’s mission to protect the environment and public health, EPA spokesperson Enesta Jones didn’t answer. But she said overall air quality in the U.S. “continues to improve” and average concentrations of ground-level ozone dropped by 21 percent between 1990 and 2018.

‘Covered in a big cloud’

VOCs are gases, some of which pose serious health risks. Benzene, for example, is a carcinogen. Collectively, VOCs contribute to ground-level ozone, or smog, formation, which can exacerbate asthma and cause other respiratory problems. And new research shows VOCs and other hazardous air pollutants may worsen the effects of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.

Lisa McKenzie, a clinical assistant professor at the University of Colorado’s Anschutz Medical Campus, has found that benzene concentrations in the air around oil and gas operations in Colorado are about twice as high as they are in Denver, whose air isn’t exactly pristine. “The closer you live to an oil and gas site, the higher your risk of cancer … and the higher your risk for respiratory and neurological effects,” she said.

An oil and natural gas extraction site outside Rifle, Colorado. (AP Photo/Brennan Linsley, File)

And exposures to VOCs — especially benzene — emitted from oil and gas operations might explain the increased risk of childhood leukemia and congenital heart defects McKenzie and her fellow researchers found near such operations.

David Brown, a toxicologist with the Pennsylvania-based Environmental Health Project, a research and advocacy organization, says VOCs can attach themselves to ultrafine particles and find their way deep into the lungs — and, ultimately, the bloodstream — causing heart disease and other ailments.

Exposures come not only from wells but also from compressor stations, which keep natural gas flowing through pipelines. Someone living near such a station might inhale a potent mixture of gases that includes formaldehyde (a VOC and a carcinogen) and carbon monoxide, Brown said. Airborne exposures can also occur when VOC-rich well water escapes from kitchen faucets and showerheads.

Sharon Wilson, a Texan who has lived in the oil patch, is certified to use an infrared camera to record video of emissions that are invisible to the unaided eye. For the past decade, Wilson has worked with the environmental group Earthworks to document air pollution and file reports with environmental authorities.

There are parts of the Permian Basin where the pungent odor that comes with oil and gas production is inescapable.

“Even driving down the highway, I have to put my hand over my mouth and nose just trying to filter it some way,” Wilson said.

Wilson bristles when she hears oil and gas companies and regulators refer to the emissions she records as “leaks.” This, she said, implies releases that are small and inadvertent, not intentional, large-scale venting or flaring of methane and VOCs.

The Permian Basin, where about 2 million people live on the Texas side alone, “is covered in a big cloud,” she said. “I’m not even worried about the leaks; I’m worried about the geysers.”

Seth Shonkoff, a public health scientist with PSE Healthy Energy, a nonprofit research group based in Oakland, California, co-authored a 2017 study that found 17.6 million Americans lived within a mile of an active oil or gas well and a review of 37 studies last year examining hazardous air pollutants released by upstream oil and gas activities — which identified 61 of these substances, including benzene and the VOCs toluene, ethylbenzene, and xylenes, a toxic brew commonly known as BTEX. The chemicals came from wellheads, storage tanks and other infrastructure.

The EPA’s pullback on methane will likely only make things worse, Shonkoff said. “At the end of the day,” he said, “a loosening of regulations for methane emissions from oil and gas development will result in an increase in health-damaging VOCs.”

A brief respite from air pollution

In August, some oil and gas companies and energy-state politicians cheered as the EPA signed off on final rollbacks, which erased requirements that companies find and fix methane leaks and removed smog and greenhouse gas emission regulation of storage sites, large pipelines and other parts of the transmission system. An agency spokesperson said the move corrected “legally flawed” actions made by the EPA under Obama.

But some large oil and gas companies, including BP, ExxonMobil and Shell, criticized the move amid fears that increasing methane emissions would erode arguments that natural gas is a cleaner alternative to burning coal.

The American Petroleum Institute did not respond to requests for comment.

Jennifer Pett Marsteller, director of public affairs and communications for the Independent Petroleum Association of America, provided a policy document that argued the same technology is used to manage both methane and volatile organic compounds.

“There was never a need nor was there a justification to change the regulated emission for oil and natural gas production operations from volatile organic compounds to methane,” the IPAA wrote in the document.

From a climate change standpoint, 2020 has been especially brutal, with record-setting wildfires on the West Coast and a parade of hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico. Sending more methane into the carbon-soaked atmosphere is unlikely to be well-received by the public.

“At the end of the day, a loosening of regulations for methane emissions from oil and gas development will result in an increase in health-damaging VOCs.”

Seth Shonkoff, a public health scientist with PSE Healthy Energy

In September, a coalition of environmental and civil rights groups sued to block the EPA rollbacks, arguing the agency ignored evidence about methane emissions and their harmful health effects on communities of color. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit last month issued a stay, temporarily preventing the rollbacks from taking effect.

Low oil prices hammered first by the lack of pipeline capacity and then the coronavirus pandemic have slowed U.S. oil and gas production, including in West Texas and southeastern New Mexico, providing some communities a brief respite from air pollution. The Permian Basin was producing around 4.4 million barrels a day of oil in September, down almost half a million barrels from its peak in March, data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration shows. The number of oil rigs in the region dropped by nearly 70 percent during that same period.

But U.S. energy officials expect drilling to pick up later next year. As oil and gas production bounces back, methane and VOC emissions are likely to follow and could climb higher due to the rollbacks, if the stay is lifted.

Ilan Levin, the Austin-based associate director of the Environmental Integrity Project, a nonprofit watchdog organization, says VOCs given off by oil and gas activity in the Permian Basin are generating smog “in places where there didn’t use to be a problem,” such as the Lincoln National Forest in New Mexico.

A major source of this pollution is oilfield flaring — the burning of excess gas for safety reasons. Flares are supposed to incinerate at least 98 percent of VOCs and other pollutants. In fact, Levin said, “They almost never operate as they’re designed to operate” and wind up disgorging much larger quantities. “If you find an unlit flare, that’s a really bad thing,” he said. “That means it’s venting pure, unburned gas.”

A Permian Basin oil field in Eddy County, New Mexico. A major source of VOC pollution is oilfield the burning of excess gas for safety reasons.
A Permian Basin oil field in Eddy County, New Mexico. (blake.thornberry/Flickr)

Flaring in Texas recently reached levels not recorded since the 1950s, state regulators said. And flaring across the Permian Basin peaked in 2019, according to data collected by independent research company Rystad Energy.

Collins, the minister in Odessa, doesn’t think the downturn will do much to reduce air pollution long-term. For decades, he’s pushed local and federal officials to conduct more health studies and do more air pollution monitoring.

For a while, though, when the pandemic first hit and drilling in the Permian Basin slowed, Collins had a little reprieve. He even got to take a break from having to use a nebulizer that makes it easier for him to breathe.

“I never had to use it for the three months that the economy out here was down,” he said.

Jim Morris of the Center for Public Integrity contributed to this story.

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