This boom is engulfing the rest of
What’s happening is unprecedented. In December, companies in the
In late 2015, Congress cut a deal to lift 40-year-old restrictions on the export of crude oil. Three years later, the
This story is part of a collaboration between the Center for Public Integrity, the Texas Tribune, The Associated Press and Newsy.
Hydraulic fracturing — better known as fracking — made this boom technologically possible, but exports are the reason there’s so much new drilling.
The lifting of export restrictions “is tantamount to one of the most important things that’s ever been done for the industry,” said
But the country is not “energy independent” in the way most Americans would conceive of the idea. Nor can anyone promise that America, as Abbott put it in a recent tweet, “will NEVER AGAIN depend on Foreign Oil Cartels for energy.”
That’s because the
The country will keep buying oil from other nations indefinitely even as it sells more abroad, the U.S. Energy Information Administration forecasts.
The Texas Tribune and the Center for Public Integrity investigated the scope and impacts of energy exports as part of a collaboration with Newsy and The Associated Press.
Still, climbing production hasn’t boosted local tax revenues fast enough to address the problems that come with it, from crowded classrooms to wrecked roads. Schools, police departments and hospitals are struggling to keep employees lured by better-paying oilfield jobs.
And the industry is consuming water in an arid region at an unsustainable rate.
People with no say in these decisions are stuck with the consequences, said Coyne Gibson, who lives in a part of the Permian that had little oil and gas activity until a few years ago.
“The bitter, cynical way to look at this is,
Globally, there are major trade-offs, too. Scientists warn this drilling rush almost certainly will worsen climate change by increasing the world’s fossil fuel use at a fraught time. They say drastic reductions in greenhouse gases are needed to avoid intensifying climate-linked disasters.
Two massive wildfires in
“Every additional gigaton of carbon that we produce as a global society carries with it a very real cost,” said Katharine Hayhoe, who directs the Climate Science Center at
Meanwhile, companies are building oil and gas infrastructure meant to last decades — including more than 8,000 miles of pipeline in
The new infrastructure makes it “very unlikely that we can dramatically curtail fossil fuel use,” said Richard York, an environmental studies and sociology professor at the
‘I JUST HAD TO STOP BREATHING’
The headaches come almost every day. Some mornings Suzanne Franklin wakes with a nose full of dried blood, her voice filled with gravel. Her husband Jim suffers from respiratory problems, too.
When Franklin moved to
A sign near one of the new wells, less than a mile from the Franklins, warns of the presence of hydrogen sulfide, a contaminant in crude oil and natural gas. In high concentrations it can kill almost instantly; at low levels it can cause chronic illness.
A chemical stench hangs in the air here.
“When we went past that site yesterday, I could not believe how bad it was,” Suzanne Franklin said in April. “I just had to stop breathing.”
Complaints like hers are common among people who live near gas sites, academic research has found. Flares burning off gas spew pollutants that assault the respiratory system.
Sites flaring natural gas — a fossil fuel hitchhiker that comes up with the oil here — are everywhere in the region. From 2016 through May of this year, the Texas Railroad Commission — which oversees oil and gas production, not railroads — issued more than 6,300 permits allowing companies to flare in the Permian, compared to 571 in the entire state from 2008 through 2010.
Railroad Commission Chairman Christi Craddick thinks the flaring is a shame — a waste — but not an urgent reason for a regulatory crackdown. She called the rules sufficient and well-enforced, adding: “Certainty in regulation is important for industry.”
In addition to flaring, oil and gas sites release pollutants during “air emission events” — pollution releases they characterize as unforeseeable, prompted by equipment malfunctions or other problems. If the state agrees they were unavoidable — and it almost always does — they don’t count against limits established in state permits that companies must obtain.
“These are off-the-books — they’re not levels that are authorized in their air pollution permits, but they’re happening routinely,” said Ilan Levin, associate director of the Environmental Integrity Project, a research and advocacy group.
Last year, businesses in
Yet punishment is rare. A 2017 investigation by The Texas Tribune found that the agency that regulates air pollution, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, hardly ever fines companies when they bust air permit limits. And only four air pollution monitors are stationed in producing areas of the Texas Permian.
The commission said its monitoring and enforcement comply with state and federal law.
“Any violations that are documented during TCEQ investigations are addressed using standard agency protocols and are handled consistently statewide,” the agency said in a written statement. It declined to make officials available for interviews.
THE DESERT’S WATER
But now producers have come for the fossil fuels. Two years ago,
Worries about the ancient springs that feed the pool and supply water to
“We spent considerable time and effort conducting baseline air, water and soil studies and cultural, historical and surface impact assessments before development began,” Apache spokeswoman Castlen Kennedy said in a written statement.
The company promised not to drill within the city limits or the state park, but it isn’t waiting for the results of all the studies to exploit its new oil and gas play, known as Alpine High. It plans to drill 5,000 wells in the coming decades.
Contamination isn’t the only water fear. Some worry the industry will use too much in a region already struggling with drought.
Oil and gas companies consumed nearly 58 billion gallons to frack and drill last year in the entire basin, the consulting firm
There isn’t a state agency policing groundwater use. That’s left to local conservation districts with differing opinions about how much to limit water withdrawals or even whether, in cases involving oil and gas, they have any authority to regulate.
And substantial parts of
The consequences of the increased water use are unclear: Major data gaps hinder such investigations, said Bridget Scanlon, a senior research scientist for the
A 2017 study by researchers at the University of Texas found that more than enough contaminated water, known as “produced water,” was flowing up from oil and gas wells to meet industry demand — if it had been recycled. Instead, most producers inject it into underground disposal wells, which have been linked to earthquakes.
Some Permian producers are now recycling. Apache says it’s already reusing 80 percent of its produced water in Alpine High and is aiming for 100 percent.
But the state doesn’t require recycling. The Railroad Commission merely tweaked its rules to make the practice easier.
“I call it the carrot —?not the stick —?approach,” said Craddick, the commission’s chairman. “Water protection and, frankly, protecting the environment is a priority for us.”
Toyahvale resident Neta Rhyne thinks that’s a complete misrepresentation.
“Why are they destroying our beautiful desert oasis to send oil to
THE OVERWHELMING BOOM
The superintendent of
Student enrollment has doubled in six years. Classrooms are overcrowded. Staffers keep leaving for oilfield jobs; the district is a few hundred teachers short and new hires can’t find anywhere they can afford to live. Homelessness among students spiked 26 percent last academic year, with more than 2,100 living in shelters, doubling up with other families or otherwise displaced as housing costs outpace wages.
“The thing that really keeps me up at night is, are we giving the kids everything they deserve?” then-Superintendent Tom Crowe said in an April interview, a few months before he retired. “I get emotional about it. I’ve been doing this a long time and every day I worry, is there a kid out there who slips through the cracks?”
The boom is straining communities across the Permian.
Then there’s the traffic — outright frightening in some places as heavy trucks have multiplied. In
Oil-related traffic is also chewing up pavement on roads and bridges that weren’t designed to carry such heavy loads.
Oil and gas companies, along with firms that serve them, have responded by paying for some road safety projects and providing housing for their workers.
As they confront the boom’s downsides, local leaders across the Permian must make educated guesses about the best ways to respond, laying their bets on how much Permian oil and gas the world will snap up — and for how long.
Craddick, the Railroad Commission chairman who grew up in
The city at the center of the export boom is trying to settle in for the long haul. Leaders have choices to make — uncomfortable ones.
In April, Midland City Council members looked tortured as they discussed a new drainage fee based on how much concrete covers a property — common in
They reluctantly voted in favor.
Defending the decision, council member Scott Dufford put into words the fear of every town strapped to a rocket it can’t steer, powered by companies selling Permian crude to the world: “If we do nothing, we’re going to be in even more trouble in 10 years.”
Texas Tribune journalists Brandon Formby and Chris Essig, and Center for Public Integrity news developer Pratheek Rebala contributed to this article.