EPA moves away from crackdown on Permian air pollution

Federal authorities have backed down on a proposal to address high levels of air pollution from the oil fields in west Texas and New Mexico.

Last summer, the US Environmental Protection Agency announced it was considering designating the Permian Basin — the country’s best-producing oil field and one of the largest single sources of carbon emissions on Earth — in violation of ozone standards, which would have required significant local reforms oil and gas operations.

But the proposal was sidelined and downgraded from active to pending in the agency’s annual agenda released last week, first reported by Bloomberg News.

In a statement, the EPA said it moved the article to “focus on non-discretionary measures.”

It’s a win for the oil sector, which has strongly opposed the EPA proposal, saying it would reduce production and cost jobs.

“While it is encouraging news that the Biden administration has backed away from this disastrous plan, Texas remains poised to combat any job-crushing attacks on our vital oil and gas industry,” Texas Gov. Greg Abbott said in a statement the move by the EPA.

Permian ozone standards are the latest setback to the Biden administration’s ambitious climate agenda. Despite promising steep, rapid cuts in CO2 emissions, Biden has overseen expanding oil and gas export capacity, a surge in US shale production and increased drilling on federal land.

While the government has proposed much-needed regulations, big concessions to the fossil fuel sector “run counter to its commitment to stave off climate change,” said Robin Schneider, director of the Texas Campaign for the Environment.

Ozone, also known as smog, forms in the atmosphere when hydrocarbon gases mix with vehicle engine emissions under sunlight. It usually accumulates in large cities with crowded highways. In recent years, ozone levels have increased in the predominantly rural Permian Basin.

Exposure to elevated ozone levels is most dangerous for vulnerable groups, including the elderly, children and those who work outdoors. Ozone aggravates lung diseases such as asthma and emphysema.

Hydrocarbon emissions, including from oil and gas wells, are part of the ozone equation. The other part, nitrogen oxides or NOX, comes mainly from diesel engine exhaust gases.

NOX are the limiting factor in Permian ozone levels, said Gunnar Schade, associate professor of atmospheric sciences at Texas A&M University, because they remain relatively scarce and are mainly produced by the fleets of trucks and compressor engines used in hydraulic fracturing.

“Most of the NOX in the air currently comes from industry and it has been increasing. The satellite data show a clear trend,” said Schade.

The EPA’s most recent assessment, in 2017, found the region to be within acceptable ozone limits. But a lot has changed since then: Daily oil and gas production in the Permian has nearly tripled, and more activity means more emissions.

Most of the available ozone data comes from some air monitors in New Mexico, said David Baake, an environmental attorney in Las Cruces, New Mexico; In Texas, where most of the Permian lies, the EPA does not have continuous air quality monitoring.

“It complicates it that we don’t have more monitors in the area,” he said.

Figures from the New Mexico Department of Environmental Protection show that ozone levels around the city of Carlsbad exceeded federal safe limits between 2017 and 2019. Both the nearby Carlsbad Caverns and Guadalupe Mountains National Parks have “poor” air quality from ozone, according to data from the National Parks Service.

“We are very disappointed,” said Kayley Shoup, 30, a Carlsbad resident and member of local organization Citizens Caring for the Future. “Our air quality clearly exceeds Clean Air Act standards. The data is there; we should be a dead zone.”

If the Permian Basin were designated as such, state regulators in Texas and New Mexico would have to draw up ozone reduction plans.

When the EPA floated the idea last year, the Texas Oil and Gas Association called it an “attempt to undermine domestic production” that would destroy jobs and threaten American security.

Baake said evidence from other areas where ozone is not reached does not support claims that ozone regulations would endanger oil and gas production in the Permian Basin. He pointed to Pennsylvania where ozone depletion zones intersect with productive oil and gas wells.

Reducing Permian hydrocarbon emissions, one of the ingredients for ozone, would require an overhaul of the oil production process, said Sharon Wilson, an optical gas thermographer at Earthworks who oversees fracking operations in Texas.

“Emissions come from all devices,” Wilson said. “You can’t work without releasing methane.”

While methane, a potent greenhouse gas, makes up the bulk of petroleum gas, other hydrocarbons that accompany it play a major role in ozone formation.

The Texas environmental agency, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, confirms extremely high levels of air pollution in the Permian Basin from “volatile organic compounds,” including petroleum gas. In a 2020 assessment, TCEQ reported more VOC emissions in the Midland area than in Houston, Dallas and San Antonio combined.

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Wilson said pressure relief valves commonly vent petroleum gas to prevent equipment from rupturing while extinguishing flare flames and allowing gas to spill into the air. It’s invisible to the human eye, but she sees it through a thermal scope.

“Sometimes the hatches on top of the tanks are left open and any gas in the tanks explodes,” Wilson said. “The whole sky is swallowed up by this cloud of hydrocarbons.”

Air quality violations are common and authorities almost never take action, Wilson said. Enforcing state emissions standards is the responsibility of state regulators—the TCEQ for emissions from tanks and the Railroad Commission for emissions from wells and pipelines.

“I’ve seen absolutely no enforcement,” said Sarah Stogner, an oil and gas attorney in the Permian Basin town of Monahans, Texas. “There is absolutely no one willing to do anything about it.”

In Carlsbad, Shoup saw the EPA’s decision as part of the general reluctance of environmental agencies to deal with Permian oil and gas. The plan, she said, was to “pump oil until the wheels fall off.”

“As we speak, people’s health is being harmed,” Shoup said. “But the federal government says let’s just postpone it.”