Environmental Integrity Project Again Twists Data to Deceive Public about Texas Oil and Gas
Fri, May 10, 2019
The United States is now a global leader in oil and natural gas development thanks, in large part, to the record levels of oil and natural gas production stemming from West Texas’ Permian Basin. In Texas overall, oil and gas development directly supports over 350,000 jobs, while oil and gas producers have paid over $133 billion in taxes and royalty payments to the state and local communities since 2007. And, despite this soaring production, emissions intensity in the Permian Basin declined from 2011 to 2017 (the most recent annual data available).
Yet, despite these benefits for the economy and environment, Texas and the Permian continue to be a target for out-of-state environmental groups that oppose oil and natural gas. The latest example of this is a new report from the Washington D.C.-based Environmental Integrity Project (EIP), which misleads the public on emissions from oil and gas development in the Permian Basin by claiming “harmful” levels of sulfur dioxide (SO2) based on a limited reading of air quality events. The report also mischaracterizes operations from oil and gas facilities as “illegal air pollution,” even though such events are codified in Texas law, and operators must submit details on those events to state regulators.
EIP has a history of publishing misleading reports on emissions in Texas. An October 2018 report, for example, incorrectly used permitted emissions levels instead of actual emissions, and thus overstated emissions by tens of millions of tons of carbon dioxide. That report even alleged significant emissions from facilities that had not even been built, a fact that forced the Houston Chronicle to make corrections to its story after covering the report.
Deceptive Reading of Air Quality Standards
In the report, the group lists some alarming “findings” about emissions in the Permian Basin, claiming that residents of the region “are breathing air with excessive levels of sulfur dioxide pollution.” Basing this allegation on SO2 emission data from a Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) air monitor in Big Spring, Tex., from December 2016 and April 2019. The air monitor, the group states, “frequently measures sulfur dioxide concentrations at levels above 75 parts per billion,” the limit set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s National Ambient Air Quality Standard (NAAQS).
But there are several issues with this claim. Notably, for EIP to state that air monitoring data “frequently” measures SO2 levels above 75 parts per billion (ppb) is an exaggeration at best. According to TCEQ data there were 30 instances where 1-hour emissions levels were over 75 ppb, but that is 30 out of the 21,120 1-hour readings from December 2016 through April 2019 – about 0.14 percent of the time. That’s a far cry from “frequent.”
According to the EPA, the SO2 emissions standard is based on the “99th percentile of 1-hour daily maximum concentrations, averaged over 3 years.” But what EIP is doing in its report is taking snapshots in time – which do not reflect the general air quality picture in the region – and using them to frighten the public about a chronic issue. For example, EIP writes:
“In March 2018, the Big Spring air monitor recorded 460 parts per billion of sulfur dioxide – more than six times higher than the 75 parts per billion air quality standard for one hour.”
But as we can see from the chart below – taken directly from TCEQ – EIP was indeed trying to use the exception as the rule.
The report’s inaccurate presentation of emission levels is also significant because it uses these data to claim that Permian Basin residents are “bearing a heavy burden when it comes to health impacts from air pollution.” It goes on to include the health issues that come from high levels of SO2 exposure, the most famous being London’s Great Smog of 1952 which killed 10,000 and hospitalized 200,000.
A closer analysis of Permian emissions, however, proves this to be misleading scare tactics. According to the Center for Disease Control’s National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, SO2 poses a threat to health and life over a direct exposure of 5,000 ppb, with 2,000 ppb and 5,000 ppb being the exposure limits for an 8-hour period and 15 minute period, respectively. For comparison, the highest-level of SO2 recorded by TCEQ at the Big Spring air monitor was 460.1 ppb, with the monthly average being just 4.11 ppb between December 2016 and April 2019.
False Claim of ‘Illegal’ Events
In addition to a deceptive presentation of SO2 emissions in the Permian between 2016 and 2019, the report also falsely refers to unplanned emission events – emissions resulting from a maintenance or a malfunction – as “illegal.” As the report states:
“According to industry reports filed with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ), Permian Basin oil and gas facilities release more illegal pollution during equipment failures, shutdowns, and other non-routine “emission events” than any other part of the state.”
EIP refers to unpermitted emission events as “illegal” four more times in the report. But EIP either misunderstands what illegal means or is intentionally referring to a legal occurrence as “illegal” in order frighten the public into embracing additional restrictions on oil and gas.
The truth is emissions from these events are defined by Texas statute, and are the result of actions taken to mitigate greater emission exposure or to limit risks to workers at these facilities. Proof of this can been seen on the reports filed to TCEQ, where operators are required to identify what went wrong, quantify emissions, and state “actions taken, or being taken, to minimize emissions and/or correct the situation.” As one report from 2017 notes, an “emergency flare” was necessary in order to “minimize the VOC and H2S emissions.” Certainly, EIP would not have preferred that occur, nor would anyone else.
A recent analysis of emissions intensity in the Permian Basin shows oil and gas development increased 125 percent in the region from 2011 to 2017, while methane emissions per unit of oil and gas produced declined 57 percent during that same period. Methane reductions typically occur alongside reductions in other emissions, including VOCs. So, while EIP might claim that the Permian is seeing greater emissions than “any other part of the state,” the real story in the Permian is much different.
EIP’s latest report once again misses the mark. From grossly mischaracterizing unplanned emissions events as “illegal pollution” to using snapshots in time to mischaracterize the typical operating environment in the Permian Basin, it is instructive that EIP had to cherry pick state data to tell its manufactured story of an environmental nightmare in the Permian. The Permian Basin is leading the United States to a level of energy security that we have never seen, and it’s unfortunate that some groups would try to undermine the Texas energy boom with such deliberately inaccurate claims.