EPA withdraws from air pollution control in the Permian Basin

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The federal authorities have abandoned a proposal to combat high levels of air pollution from oil fields in West Texas and New Mexico.

Last summer, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced that it was considering listing the Permian Basin — the country’s largest oil field and one of the largest sources of carbon emissions on Earth — in violation of ozone standards, which would require significant reforms to local oil and gas operations.

But the proposal was sidelined in the agency’s annual agenda released last week, reclassified from “active” to “pending”, first reported by Bloomberg News.

The EPA said in a statement that it moved the item to “focus on non-discretionary activities.”

This marks a victory for the oil sector, which has actively opposed the EPA’s proposal, saying it would lower production and lower the cost of jobs.

“Despite the encouraging news that the Biden administration has abandoned this disastrous plan, Texas remains ready to fight any attacks that are killing jobs in our critical oil and gas industry,” the Texas governor said. Greg Abbott said in a statement following the EPA motion.

The Permian ozone standards are the latest setback for the Biden administration’s ambitious climate program. Despite promises of drastic and rapid cuts in carbon emissions, President Joe Biden watched the growth oil and gas export potentialUS shale production surge and increase drilling on federal lands.

While the administration has proposed much-needed regulations, the large concessions to the fossil fuel sector “contradict their commitment to climate change,” said Robin Schneider, director of the Texas Environment Campaign.

Ozone, also known as smog, is formed in the atmosphere when hydrocarbon gases mix with emissions from car engines when exposed to sunlight. It usually accumulates in large cities with busy highways. In recent years, ozone levels have increased in the predominantly rural areas of the Permian Basin.

Exposure to elevated levels of ozone is most dangerous for sensitive groups, including the elderly, children, and people working outdoors. Ozone exacerbates lung conditions such as asthma and emphysema.

Hydrocarbon emissions, including from oil and gas wells, are part of the ozone equation. The other part, nitrogen oxides or NOx, comes mainly from the exhaust gases of diesel engines.

According to Gunnar Schade, Associate Professor of Atmospheric Science at Texas A&M University, NOx are the limiting factor for Permian ozone levels because they remain relatively scarce and are produced primarily from a fleet of trucks and compressor engines used in hydraulic fracturing.

“At the moment most of the NOx in the air comes from industry and the amount is increasing. Satellite data shows a clear trend,” Sade said.

The latest EPA assessment in 2017 found that ozone levels in the region were within acceptable limits. But a lot has changed since then: daily oil and gas production in Perm has increased. almost tripledand more activity means more emissions.

According to David Baake, an environmental lawyer in Las Cruces, New Mexico, most of the available ozone data comes from a handful of air monitors in New Mexico. in Texas, where most of Perm is located, the Environmental Protection Agency does not continuously monitor air quality.

“It complicates that we don’t have more monitors in the area,” he said.

Data from the New Mexico Department of the Environment shows that ozone levels around the city of Carlsbad exceeded federal safety guidelines between 2017 and 2019. According to the National Park Service, both the nearby Carlsbad Caverns and the Guadalupe Mountains National Park have “poor” air quality due to ozone.

“We are very disappointed,” said Kaylee Shoup, 30, a Karlovy Vary resident and member of the local Citizens with a Future. “Obviously our air quality is already exceeding Clean Air Act standards. The data is there; we have to be a zone of non-achievement”.

If the Permian Basin were defined as such, state regulators in Texas and New Mexico would have to develop plans to reduce ozone.

When the EPA floated the idea last year, the Texas Oil and Gas Association called it “an attempt to undermine domestic production” that would lead to job losses and threaten America’s security.

Baake said data from other areas where ozone targets have not been met does not support claims that ozone regulation will jeopardize oil and gas production in the Permian Basin. He pointed to Pennsylvania, where ozone depletion zones intersect with productive oil and gas drilling.

Reducing Permian emissions of hydrocarbons, one of the components of ozone, will require an overhaul of the oil production process, said Sharon Wilson, an optical gas thermographer at Earthworks who oversees hydraulic fracturing operations in Texas.

“Emissions come from all parts of the equipment,” Wilson said. “They can’t operate without emitting methane.”

While methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, makes up the bulk of petroleum gas, the other hydrocarbons that accompany it play a large role in ozone formation.

The Texas environmental authority, the Texas Environmental Quality Commission, recognizes the extremely high levels of “Volatile Organic Compounds” air pollution in the Permian Basin, including petroleum gas. In the 2020 TCEQ assessment informed more VOC emissions in the Midland area than in Houston, Dallas and San Antonio combined.

Wilson said pressure relief valves typically vent petroleum gas to prevent equipment from rupturing while the flare is extinguished and the gas is vented into the air. It is invisible to the human eye, but she sees it through a thermal imager.

“Sometimes the hatches at the top of the tanks are left open and any gas in the tanks is blowing out,” Wilson said. “The whole sky is swallowed up by this cloud of hydrocarbons.”

Air quality violations are common, Wilson says, and governments almost never take action. Enforcement of federal pollution standards rests with state regulators—TCEQ for tank emissions and the Texas Railroad Commission for well and pipe emissions.

“I saw absolutely no enforcement,” said Sarah Stogner, an oil and gas attorney based in the Permian city of Monaghans. “There is absolutely no one who wants to do anything about it.”

In Carlsbad, Shoup saw the EPA’s decision as part of a general reluctance on the part of environmental authorities to deal with Permian oil and gas. The plan, she said, was to “pump oil until the wheels fall off.”

“People’s health is being harmed as we speak,” Shope said. “But the federal government is saying, ‘Let’s just put it off.’

Disclosure: Texas A&M University and the Texas Oil and Gas Association provided financial support to The Texas Tribune, a non-profit, non-partisan news organization funded in part by donations from members, foundations, and corporate sponsors. Financial sponsors play no role in Tribune journalism. Find the complete list them here.

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