Interactive map shows oil, gas health threat in Texas

Earthworks, an environmental group, published an online map showing the threat of air pollution from oil and gas operations.
Earthworks, an environmental group, published an online map showing the threat of air pollution from oil and gas operations. Star-Telegram archives

Roughly 2.3 million Texans live close enough to oil and gas wells, compressors and processors to cause concern about potential health threats, according to an online map published this week by a national environmental group.

The residents live within a one-half-mile radius of 398,787 active oil and gas field facilities spread across Texas, according to the interactive map produced by Earthworks. The Oil and Gas Threat map shows that 904 schools and 78 medical facilities are within the same zone of concern.

In Tarrant County, 51,057 people live, and five schools are located within, a half mile of 326 oil and gas field facilities.

“What we are saying is that there is a bunch of research that shows that proximity to oil and gas facilities is linked to health impacts and it’s most clearly linked at a half mile or less,” said Alan Septoff, strategic communications director for Earthworks.

Facilities on the map are limited to the 1.2 million active wells and their associated operations in Texas because they are the most likely to be governed by federal and state standards to eliminate methane pollution, the group said.

Part of the data for the threat map was culled from U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reports as well as the U.S. Energy Information Administration and the Oil and Gas Journal.

Nationally, 12.4 million people live within the threat radius areas, the group states.

While there are a number of peer-reviewed scientific studies showing elevated levels of harmful air pollutants in and around oil and gas facilities, Earthworks cautions that its zones of concern are not a declaration that those within that area will suddenly get sick.

“The threat radius doesn’t say that if you are with a half mile you are doomed and outside a half mile you’re OK,” Septoff said. “It means there is cause for concern based on available research.”

Last month the EPA finalized a new set of rules aimed at slashing emissions of methane, a gas associated with oil and natural gas production in an attempt to protect public health and reduce pollution linked to cancer and other serious health effects.

An industry spokesman said Earthworks is over-dramatizing the health risks and said what the group really wants is to give more control over drilling to the federal government.

The state of Texas has already sued the EPA for earlier efforts to control ground level ozone pollution.

“I’ve been to several community meetings here in North Texas in recent months. Not a single person said that the drilling slowdown had cleaned the air or improved their health,” said Steve Everley, a spokesman for the industry group North Texans for Natural Gas.

The Texas Railroad Commission, which is responsible for regulating the oil and gas industry, said its highest priority is the protection of the public’s safety as well as the state’s natural resources.

“Commission staff works every day throughout the state to ensure compliance and accountability with the agency’s rules through our inspection and enforcement processes,” said Ramona Nye, a spokeswoman for the agency.

Texas’ oil and gas industry is one of the most regulated in the country and producers have already invested billions of dollars in emission control technologies and new drilling completion methods, said Ed Longanecker, president of Texas Independent Producers and Royalty Owners Association. He said their efforts have already contributed to a 79 percent drop in methane emissions since 2005, as reported by the EPA.

“The rapid deployment of hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling technology is a key reason for the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States,” Longanecker said in a statement. “Unfortunately, there is little room for compromise with organizations whose sole purpose is to stop the development of hydrocarbons in our state and country.”

But environmentalists say residents must be more diligent in seeking protections from the state or federal government with the passage of House Bill 40 by Texas lawmakers last year. The bill reasserts the state’s control over oil and gas drilling and prohibits cities from imposing such a ban, giving them only limited control over the oil and gas process inside the city.

It was put into law after Denton became the first city in Texas to ban hydraulic fracturing. The new law allows cities to regulate ground-level operations with such things as setbacks. But the ordinances must be “economically reasonable” and not prohibit the work of a “prudent operator.”

“The Oil and Gas Threat Map shows that 2.3 million Texans’ health are threatened by living within a half mile of an oil and gas operation, and I’m one of them,” said Debbie Ingram of Denton in a statement. Her house is within 600 feet of two gas wells, she said.

“I’m suffering from headaches, burning lungs, sore throats and nosebleeds. But when Denton voters tried to protect people like me, the state protected oil and gas industry by passing HB40 to gut local control,” Ingram said.

Drilling is no longer confined to rural areas, but is creeping closer to schools, hospitals and homes, said Luke Metzger, Director of Environment Texas, said in a statement. “This map highlights the millions at risk from drilling pollution, especially the most vulnerable Texans.”

This report includes material from Star-Telegram archives.

Max B. Baker: 817-390-7714, @MaxbakerBB