Dec. 14–MIDLAND — Environmental activist Sharon Wilson knows what she’s likely to get from her regular trips to the Permian Basin: a headache and sore throat from the fumes and a dark mood from the bleak industrial landscape. Still, she returns, armed with more than $100,000 worth of camera equipment and righteous anger over what few people see in the heart of the U.S. oil industry.
Wilson, a senior organizer for the environmental group Earthworks and a longtime critic of fracking, is working to prove that those invisible emissions are worse than originally thought. The impact of those gases ranges from exacerbating global climate change to polluting the air.
“Right now, the Permian Basin is the most important place on earth to show what’s happening, and what we have to stop,” Wilson said, referring to oil and gas drilling.
Month after month, Wilson, 66, records infrared video of oil and gas facilities that she says are spewing methane and other hydrocarbons into the air. Some of the emissions are permitted by state law, some are forgiven as accidents and some are noted as violations.
It’s a job, Wilson says, that regulators have all but abdicated. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality has just four air monitors in the Permian Basin, which includes all or parts of 61 counties. Most emissions data is industry-reported.
Alan Septoff, an Earthworks spokesman, described the Texas approach as “drill and then regulate when possible.”
“There’s no one out there trying to quantify this,” he said.
State environmental officials say they are effective at monitoring emissions from Texas’ vast oil and gas industry.
“TCEQ utilizes a broad range of resources to enable and require the regulated universe to comply with environmental rules,” agency spokeswoman Andrea Morrow said in an email.
She said the TCEQ “utilizes innovative technology,” including cameras like Wilson’s, and also hires private contractors for aerial surveys that help with investigations.
And while Morrow said the agency does accept “citizen-collected evidence,” regulators can’t vouch for the quality of the data.
Oil and gas companies say they have made progress in reducing pollution. Mostly, industry executives acknowledge climate change as a man-made threat that needs to be addressed.
That hasn’t convinced Wilson and Earthworks, who say the talk isn’t backed up by action. They say they hope to persuade the public and decision-makers that the nation has stumbled in its efforts to control greenhouse gases.
With each well site, gas-processing plant and compressor station, they want to build their case for stronger regulations against an industry intertwined with Texas’ government, history and economy.
“I would argue we are at the point where rational people are increasingly considering climate change as an existential issue,” Septoff said. “Not just environmentalists.”
On the hunt
Every month or so, Wilson travels to West Texas and sometimes New Mexico with an optical gas imaging camera and tablet computer loaded with a database of oil and gas facilities.
As she drives along Interstate 20 in West Texas, burned rubber and other industrial smells occasionally seep into her black rental SUV. She drives the gas-guzzler to better to blend in and also to navigate the rugged back roads where many oil wells and major facilities are.
Wilson returns to the same sites again and again, monitoring successes and failures at controlling accidental emissions. The facilities have permits allowing them to emit a limited amount of pollution in certain instances. It’s not a blank check.
Earthworks’ high-dollar FLIR GF320 camera captures black-and-white video that looks much like a negative image created with a simple smartphone app. The dramatic moments happen when the camera captures gas that can’t be seen by the naked eye.
The charcoal-colored, smoke-like clouds flow from unlit natural gas flares or improperly secured storage tank “thief hatches” that are used for extracting samples. Industry representatives have argued that some emissions captured in the videos could be steam.
After two years of trips to the Permian Basin, Wilson employs a strategy that includes returning to past violators, finding the newest facilities and responding to resident complaints.
Often, the trail is obvious — the rotten-egg stench of hydrogen sulfide and ill-defined chemical smells pop up across the region.
During one trip last year, Wilson put on a respirator to shield herself from the intense fumes. The mask, however, doesn’t protect against hydrogen sulfide, which, in sufficient quantities, can kill.
She said she left quickly after her hydrogen sulfide meter sounded an alarm. There are some places, Wilson said, where she won’t return.
When she pulls over, she notes the time, geographic coordinates, name and type of facility, air temperature and wind speed. Then she starts recording.
It takes a moment for the eyes to adjust to the scene through the viewfinder and see the emissions billowing or drifting. Sometimes, there is nothing to see.
Wilson carefully notes each detail as a detective would at a crime scene. What she captures often goes onto YouTube. The videos are also posted on an Earthworks interactive map and frequently forwarded to state regulators.
Septoff said sharing the videos with the public is sometimes the most effective strategy for change. He described it as “regulation by social media.”
Workers occasionally glance at Wilson and slow as they pass in their company trucks. But mostly, they pay little attention.
Wilson started her activism while living in Wise County, the heart of the first wave of fracking. New technology, proven in North Texas’ Barnett Shale natural gas field, unleashed the current fracking revolution and allowed it to spread worldwide. The resurgence of the Permian Basin is built upon fracking.
But Wilson actually started her blog, TXsharon’s Bluedaze, as a general-purpose forum to share her thoughts on everything from oddball gifts to the Iraq war.
In the mid-1990s, she owned 42 acres and was fulfilling her dream of living in the country. She was even a mineral rights owner.
Eventually, fracking and its effects began to consume more of her time.
Wilson said her well water turned briefly to black and green goo, although she had no proof it was related to fracking. She also worried that the drilling rigs and the waste pit built near creeks were disturbing the rural atmosphere.
As a new activist, Wilson was caught up in one of the early Barnett Shale publicity battles involving the natural gas producer Range Resources, the Environmental Protection Agency and a Parker County homeowner who believed fracking had polluted his water.
Video of the homeowner’s fiery water, which Wilson posted on YouTube, was a dramatic symbol of homeowners’ fears. Her emails were subpoenaed during the subsequent litigation.
That Range Resources fight led to a lawsuit that was eventually settled without any blame being assigned to the company. The EPA backed off its initial claim that Range Resources was responsible for the water contamination.
In some cases — but not all — natural gas can seep into well water through existing cracks underground.
Wilson compares the transformation of her rural life in Wise County to the experiences in the Permian Basin.
“I know what it’s like to have the night sky taken away from you,” she said. “I know what it’s like to have your water turn black.”
On her blog, Wilson described her old home as “living on the edge of a volcano.”
Now she lives in Dallas, beyond the reach of the Barnett Shale. But she travels regularly to a place she described as “magnitudes worse.”
Wilson’s work is not without pushback.
Critics have called the efforts unscientific and a waste of regulators’ time. Oil and gas backers have questioned whether she is interpreting the FLIR camera’s video correctly.
“FLIR imaging is a valuable tool used in the initial detection of emissions; however, the technology cannot detect the type or volume of emissions nor compliance with regulations,” Castlen Kennedy, an Apache Corp. spokeswoman, wrote in an email. “It is a blunt instrument and is often used improperly, leading to false conclusions.”
Kennedy, who is also certified to use the FLIR camera, said her Houston-based company takes compliance issues seriously, using infrared cameras and regular on-site inspections.
Wilson points out that she took classes and was certified at the Infrared Training Center alongside oil, gas and petrochemical industry inspectors. She said anyone professionally trained with the camera can easily tell the difference between hydrocarbon emissions and steam, which she said dissipates quickly.
But Earthworks does acknowledge its limitations. The FLIR camera allows the activists to see when a facility is emitting gases. But the often dramatic videos can’t measure the amounts or types of emissions.
Activists could make detailed measurements by flying a drone with testing equipment over the facilities. But state law prohibits that.
Septoff said the growing database of videos shows that something is going wrong in the Permian Basin.
Industry associations said the reverse is true.
The American Petroleum Institute reports that U.S. methane emissions dropped nearly 16 percent between 1990 and 2016. Meanwhile, dry natural gas production is up by more than half during that same period.
And the Environmental Protection Agency announced in October that U.S. greenhouse gas emissions dropped 2.7 percent between 2016 and 2017.
All that’s happening as the petroleum industry ramps up production and has hit record levels.
“During the prolific production growth we’ve experienced, there may at times be infrastructure and equipment shortages that can impact operators,” Ben Shepperd, president of the Permian Basin Petroleum Association, said in an email. “Our member companies in production are consistently working with pipeline partners and equipment providers to resolve any issues, and as more infrastructure is developed and additional replacement equipment is available, these occurrences will diminish.”
The latest research on methane is backing up Earthworks’ worries. About one-third of the nation’s methane releases come during natural gas and crude oil production and delivery.
The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that 1.4 percent of the methane produced by industry leaks into the atmosphere. But a Colorado State University study that analyzed aerial sampling by a large team of researchers concluded that the leak rate was 60 percent higher.
The debate about how to handle climate change has ramped up in recent months thanks to a pair of reports, both bearing dire warnings.
In October, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a report saying that global warming was accelerating faster than expected and that its effects could be severe by 2040. And the U.S. government’s latest report, released last month, lists how climate change is already affecting this country. The heating is straining infrastructure and worsening disasters such as droughts, wildfires and hurricanes.
Septoff said he realizes his efforts are an uphill battle. President Trump has said that climate change either doesn’t exist or isn’t serious, despite an overwhelming scientific consensus to the contrary.
But Septoff said he hopes the data that Wilson and other Earthworks employees are collecting will eventually get a hearing in Washington, D.C.
“We need a government that is telling the people that we need to shift away from fossil fuels,” he said.
Wilson takes the opposite view, arguing that the public must be persuaded first.
“You can’t get that government until you get the people to push for that government,” she said.
Wilson’s job in the Permian Basin isn’t an easy one. Some oil and gas facilities have no signs identifying them, making complaints to state regulators more difficult.
In other cases, the signs are far away or difficult to see. And some sites are so far from public roads that Wilson can’t get close enough to monitor them.
Even with those roadblocks, there seemed to be an almost unlimited number of sites to visit.
One day in early November, Wilson and Septoff pulled off to the side of a West Texas farm-to-market road after spotting a a natural gas flare with black smoke streaming from the flame.
That’s a sign something is wrong and evidence that a flare is polluting. It’s also a violation of Texas law, which says a flare can’t smoke for more than 5 minutes in a two-hour period.
In this case, it was an easy violation to spot and report. Septoff used his phone to record video of the smoking flare, while Wilson called the TCEQ to report the violation.
This is a slam-dunk violation, although it’s not one guaranteed to lead to a hefty fine. State regulators offer a lighter touch. They say their goal is to work with producers to fix problems rather than to punish them.
Wilson said she’ll often file 15 or 20 complaints during her weeklong trips to the Permian Basin. In many cases, she never finds out whether any action was taken.
But she isn’t deterred.
“I don’t want my children to suffer the way they are going to suffer if we don’t stop this,” Wilson said. “I will keep fighting to make a difference as long as I can keep doing it. … My mother said I was hard-headed. I think tenacious sounds better.”
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