Touring North Texas’ Barnett Shale, EPA officials promise to pay more attention to the area
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ARLINGTON – The Barnett Shale, rich in natural gas, lies inconveniently beneath sprawling suburbs of Dallas-Fort Worth. The fracking boom began here almost 20 years ago, leaving in its wake a mixture of wells and compressors in close proximity to residential neighborhoods and strip malls.
When officials from the Environment Protection Agency followed community members on a tour of the area Thursday with members of the nonprofit Liveable Arlington, the visit was the first for the federal environmental regulators based nearby in Dallas.
“What I did learn is how close the facilities are to the day care center, schools and houses. They’re so close it was striking,” said Earthea Nance, administrator of the EPA’s region six, from a liquor store parking lot between a high school and a gas compressor facility in Arlington on Thursday morning. “We’ll pay more attention to what’s happening here.”
Only Los Angeles County in California has more residents who live near oil and gas wells than Tarrant County, according to the Oil and Gas Threat Map by Earthworks and FrackTracker, with about one million county residents located within a half mile of active oil and gas wells, compressors and processors.
The EPA officials saw drill sites adjacent to a day care and others surrounded by apartment complexes. A large gas compressor station fumed across the street from a high school, and another stood beside a popular fishing spot.
“What’s happened here is a real tragedy. It’s happened in a complete regulatory vacuum,” said Ranjana Bhandari, founder of Liveable Arlington, who hosted the tour. “There are minimal rules; there is no monitoring at all; enforcement is practically nonexistent. If there are severe emissions that make people sick, there are no real remedies.”
Bhandari, a former college professor of economics, moved to Arlington in 1993 following job opportunities for her husband, a particle physicist. More than a decade later, technology unlocked a wealth of hydrocarbons trapped inside porous subterranean shale formations, and the Barnett Shale of North Texas was the first pricked by horizontal drills as a new age of oil and gas production began.
“None of us understood when it began how big their footprint would be,” Bhandari said. “For the longest time I thought somebody would come save us.”
She founded Liveable Arlington in 2014 when she concluded that no one was coming.
Nance, a Dallas native with a Ph.D. in environmental engineering from Stanford University, was appointed in December 2021 to head the region based in Texas, the nation’s top energy producer, where state leadership routinely challenges federal environmental authority.
Bhandari took the EPA contingent, which included the regional chief of staff and head of permitting, to the Mother’s Heart Learning Center, a day care adjacent to drill sites operated by TotalEnergies, a company based in France where fracking is outlawed.
A Fort Worth-based spokesperson for TotalEnergies, Leslie Garvis, said the company acquired its Barnett drill sites in 2016 and hasn’t built any new ones since. Garvis said the company used electric rigs and other technology to reduce noise and emissions and was “a thoughtful and committed community partner operating in an environmentally responsible manner across all our operations.”
“We work diligently to ensure the safety and quality of life for all our neighbors near every one of our sites,” Garvis said.
Wanda Vincent, owner of Mother’s Heart, said work at the drill sites has lately shifted to night hours, lessening its impact on the day care. But she still worries. Previously, she said, workers opening hatches on tanks or trucks could release clouds of fumes that have made her and other center staff nauseous.
She said she reported the situation to state environmental regulators, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. Several weeks later, after requests from multiple advocates in the area, the TCEQ set up a temporary air monitor near the center in December 2021, Vincent said.
“According to what they told me, they didn’t find anything. But this was well after the times that I had been exposed,” she said. “It would be good if there was a way they could monitor it ongoing.”
She is worried, she said, that in five or 10 years she or the children may find out they’re sick from exposure to the gases. Leaking gas infrastructure emits methane and volatile organic compounds, which cause cancer and other harms. The compounds also help form ozone, which produces smog, and particulate matter, both of which can lead to heart, lung and respiratory problems and can cause early death. Short-term exposure to particle pollution can lead to hospitalizations and early death, according to the EPA.
Federal law delegates enforcement of emissions standards to state authorities, who in Texas rely mostly on self-reported data from operators. Activists say most violations go unpunished.
“There are ongoing egregious emissions no matter how many complaints citizens make,” said Sharon Wilson, an optical gas thermographer with Earthworks who has monitored fracking emissions in Texas for a decade.
She pointed her $100,000 gas imaging camera at the smokestacks on a gas compressor facility, located a few hundred yards from a high school, and revealed the invisible plumes wafting from the tops.
“What’s coming out of that smokestack is unreal,” said Nance, the EPA administrator, as she peered at the camera screen. “It’s methane and benzene and everything else.”
Later, at another compressor facility, Wilson pointed the camera to a battery of large tanks and revealed gas bursting from the tops.
“You have really opened my eyes,” Nance said. “It’s as if there’s no lid or roof.”
The Barnett Shale hasn’t been a primary focus for the regional office, Nance said, which has prioritized “emergencies” like “cancer alley” in Louisiana and the Permian Basin of West Texas, where methane leaks have been an EPA focus.
Indeed, the Barnett Shale, the storied ground zero of the fracking era, has largely faded from relevance. The Barnett once accounted for almost 40% of U.S. gas production; last year it fell below 2%.
A spike in global gas prices, caused by the war in Ukraine and a disruption of Russian gas exports to Germany and the European Union, fueled hopes for a second boom here. Last year, authorities issued more drilling permits here than in any year since 2015, though the amount remains a small fraction of the number issued at the peak in 2008.
That boom was short lived and left only one drilling rig in the Barnett Shale in February this year, according to Clark Williams-Derry, an energy finance analyst at the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis in Seattle.
“The price collapse over the past few months has — at least for the moment — deflated hopes for a new drilling boom in higher-cost basins,” he said.
Today, Barnett gas feeds utilities, power plants and industrial operations near North Texas. Although this shale play has moved out of national attention, local residents continue to push back against industrialization of neighborhoods.
Rosalia Tejeda, a mother of three who has lived in Arlington for 16 years, said she helped campaign against three facilities proposed around her neighborhood in 2021.
Companies often locate their developments, she said, in low-income neighborhoods where residents are typically less equipped and connected to push back compared to homeowners in wealthier parts of the region. She said city leaders had done too little to defend the interests of vulnerable communities.
“I guess I just naively thought those elected officials were there to protect us somehow,” Tejeda said. “Money talks much louder than us measly little taxpayers.”
A spokesperson for the city of Arlington, Susan Schrock, said the City Council does “factor in public health and many other considerations when making a decision about the location of natural gas well drilling zones.”
“The council balances all of those considerations with its limited authority to regulate gas well drilling in a manner that is commercially reasonable,” she said. “However, regardless of the reason, Arlington may not enact a ban on drilling within the city.”
That’s because the state of Texas in 2015 prohibited cities from banning fracking, following an ordinance in Denton, another city located in the Barnett Shale.
For Tejeda, there is still more that authorities could do. In the absence of independent monitors, she said, the facilities can emit without consequence. That’s where she thought the EPA could offer help.
“We want regulations in place [so] that they can’t just do whatever they want,” Tejeda said. “We need someone overseeing them, not them regulating themselves.”
Nance said that a new collection of grants created with the Inflation Reduction Act will soon be available to help communities conduct their own monitoring activities.
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