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The Race For an Obscure Texas Office Could Have a Lasting Impact on Climate Change

The fight for a seat on the Railroad Commission of Texas may just be the most important environmental election in the country.

Judith Lewis Mernit

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A gas flare in the Permian Basin. Photo: Sean Hannon.

There was once a time in Southeast Texas when you could drive from Dallas to Houston in the nighttime without ever turning on your headlights, so bright were the flames shooting from ubiquitous oil wells. The flames were burning the natural gas that accompanies almost all oil extraction, a practice known as flaring. Controversial then, even though there wasn’t yet much of a market for natural gas, flaring is now at the center of a debate in the Lone Star State that could determine the fate of the industry — and, to some extent, the global climate.

That race, which the state Democratic party is calling the most important environmental race in the country, is for a single seat on the three-person Railroad Commission of Texas, a body that, despite its name dating back to the days when railroads ruled the nation, has nothing to do with railroads and everything to do with regulating oil and gas. For more than a century the commission’s job has been to ensure that the state’s oil-and-gas resources go to good use and sell for a fair price.

Two candidates are vying for the position: an upstart outsider, Republican Jim Wright, who unexpectedly prevailed over incumbent Ryan Sitton in the primary; and Dallas-based oil-and-gas attorney, Democrat Chrysta Castañeda, known for representing T. Boone Pickens in a lawsuit against former business partners. (The National Law Journal ranked the win, which awarded Pickens over $145 million, among its 100 top verdicts in the country that year.)

No Democrat has served on the commission since 1994, when Mary Scott Nabers, appointed the previous year by then-Gov. Ann Richards, lost the seat to a Republican. At any other point in history, Castañeda’s candidacy might have been just a random stab at getting airtime to publicize the state’s regulatory failures. But Wright has handed her an opening: Not only has the railroad commission itself fined the oil-waste disposal company he founded, DeWitt Recyclable Products, $181,000 for violations including allowing toxic waste to pile up and leak into the soil, but other oilfield service operators have sued him for fraud.

“You would think that if you were going to run for a public office,” Castañeda told me, “you wouldn’t have been issued a cease-and-desist letter by that same public office. Right?”
 


“You would think that if you were going to run for a public office, you wouldn’t have been issued a cease-and-desist letter by that same public office.”

– Chrysta Castañeda

 
Wright didn’t return interview requests, but he has claimed he had no involvement with DeWitt during the offending incidents. He sold the company in 2014, though he remained listed as president on agency records. After the buyer fell behind on payments in 2017, the Houston Chronicle reported, Wright took back ownership of the company and agreed to pay the Railroad Commission fine.

He is also on the record defending flaring. “If you do away with flaring today with no other technology, that would shut our oil business down,” Wright told The Texan, a conservative online daily, offering no evidence as to why that would be true. Castañeda, on the other hand, has built her campaign around opposing flaring, both on climate and environmental justice grounds and because flaring wastes what most Texans consider a resource. In 2018, drillers hydrofracturing for oil in the Permian Basin, in West Texas on the state’s border with New Mexico, flared enough gas to power every home in Texas that year, reported Bloomberg News.

And flaring in Texas packs a climate punch. Just in the Permian Basin, an 86,000 square mile area spanning parts of West Texas and southeastern New Mexico, the process emits enormous amounts of carbon dioxide. At its peak in 2019, putting the torch to oil wells’ waste gas added 26 pounds of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere per barrel, according to Rystad Energy, an energy analysis firm based in Norway. Production during the pandemic has dropped off steeply, but in 2019 the field was the world’s top oil producer, bringing forth at its December 2019 peak some 4.7 million barrels of oil per day. If it produced at that rate every month, it would emit the greenhouse-gas equivalent of more than 12,000 passenger cars driven for a year – every day.

Finally, flaring just looks bad for an industry increasingly concerned about its public face. “If you look at the Permian Basin and the sky is on fire, that’s not the vision you want to project,” Colin Leyden, oil and gas state regulatory manager at the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), told me. “People don’t care if Exxon has got a great flaring record or Occidental or Pioneer. They care what the industry as a whole is doing.” Financiers also exert pressure, too. “Someone at a large investment firm might say, ‘Oh, but this company we invest in is great.’ And the response they get back is, ‘Why are you investing in an industry that’s unable to handle its waste and pollution?’”

*  *  *

In theory, flaring natural gas from oil wells is still slightly better than releasing the gas unburned into the atmosphere, or “venting.” Natural gas is mostly methane, and methane warms the planet in the short term with exponentially more force than does carbon dioxide. But that’s true only “if the flare’s functioning,” Leyden said. According to surveys with helicopters and infrared cameras that EDF has conducted over the last five months, “Flares are malfunctioning at a rate of 11 percent,” leaking gas along with the carbon dioxide that results from combustion. Five percent of the flares weren’t lit at all, just venting methane into the air.
 


A UCLA study found pregnant women who lived within three miles of highly active flares had a 50 percent higher risk for preterm birth.


 
Flaring also releases benzene and volatile organic compounds that harm human health. Researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles, studied communities near the Eagle Ford Shale in south Texas and found that women who had “a high level of exposure to oil and gas flaring events” were at a 50 percent higher risk for preterm birth. “And of course, those are mostly Latina women,” Castañeda said. “In general, the people who live around these places are people of color, just like they are near every type of industrial activity.”

Said Leyden: “If this amount of flaring were taking place up in the Barnett [Shale], up near the Dallas-Fort Worth area where you’ve got bedroom communities surrounded by gas fields, we wouldn’t even be having this conversation. It would be taken care of.”

*  *  *

For the remaining time Texas remains an oil state – which may not be that much longer, if current trends continue – almost everyone agrees it would be better to do what the commission ordered operators to do in 1947: Capture the wasted gas and put it to beneficial use. Back then, the Texas Railroad commissioners ordered 615 wells shut down in the South Texas Seeligson Field unless drillers there put an end to their profligate incineration of valuable gas.

“There were big fights over it that went all the way to the Texas Supreme Court,” Leyden said, “which upheld the Railroad Commission’s authority to prevent waste.” Thus flaring was declared illegal – sort of.
 


The McDonald Observatory in Fort Davis found the Permian Basin’s flares have increased sky brightness from 14 percent to 43 percent.


 
“The actual rule says, ‘Thou shall not flare, except,” Leyden said. “The problem is that the except has grown larger and larger to the point of being meaningless.” The wells of the Seeligson Field may no longer be ablaze (although you could read a book at night there well into the 1970s, a former worker, Dan McKenzie, told E&E News), but the Permian Basin’s flares have increased sky brightness at the McDonald Observatory in Fort Davis from 14 percent to 43 percent from mid-2015 to 2018.

*  *  *

When asked how much sway one person on a three-person commission can hold over an industry that in 2019 paid a record $16.3 billion to the state in taxes and royalties, Castañeda said, “a lot.” The “number one job” of the misleadingly named commission “has been for over 100 years to protect against the waste of natural resources.” In fact, the commission could put an end to flaring tomorrow. “All we have to do is enforce the law,” Castañeda said. “The only way flaring isn’t against the law is if [a driller] gets an exception permit.” There were nearly 7,000 permits granted last year, all of them on a “consent” agenda. “And consent,” she said, “takes three people.”

She believes she’s already had an impact. In February, Ryan Sitton, the incumbent who lost in the primary to Jim Wright, published a report calling out the companies that flare the most – the first such report in the commission’s history. The industry has since put together a working group to reduce both flaring and venting. “I believe, and others tell me, that it was [all] in direct response to my campaign,” Castañeda said.

She clearly has the industries’ attention: Wright, who won the primary with barely $12,000 on hand compared with Sitton’s $2 million, now has more than $400,000 in his campaign bank, much of it from employees of the sectors he intends to regulate. (Castañeda has slightly more than $120,000, from a diverse set of donors.)

But Leyden insists that flaring isn’t a partisan issue. “I’ve really never talked to anyone that likes flaring,” he said, “including many operators.” Even if you don’t believe the climate is changing, or you don’t care how many babies are born early, nobody likes waste. “People have a visceral reaction against it,” he said. “It goes against everyone’s values. It goes against Texas values.”

All that means is that flaring is an easy mark among climate solutions. “It’s a fixable issue,” Leyden said. “It takes boots on the ground and planning and foresight,” but it can be done.

“There are companies that already have their flaring well below 1 percent. And they’ve done it by saying, ‘You know what? We’re not going to bring the oil online until we have a destination for the gas.’” Just capturing the gas from Texas oil fields “can drastically reduce the amount of carbon dioxide and methane getting into the atmosphere,” Leyden said. “It’s not going to take some huge new technological leap.”


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