TEXAS — Over the past two years, we have practically seen it all. A deadly freeze. Record rainfall and floods. Scorching heat, followed by raging wildfires. Texas is home to some of the most extreme weather in North America.   

Is it coincidence, or can we point to something else? Mother nature’s awesome fury, or are we in Texas the co-authors of our own tragic tale? 

Spectrum News 1 spent months talking to leading experts about the role methane originating from Texas is playing in the global climate crisis.  

Measuring Methane   

The state of Texas is not only the oil and gas mecca of the United States, but the fourth highest producer of fossil fuel in the world. Most of the production is done in the Permian Basin, a plot of ground covering 75,000 square miles in far west Texas.  

Beneath the surface sits the largest oil and gas reserve in the United States. More drilling occurs in Texas than anywhere else in the country. According to Climate Trace, a consortium of independent researchers studying greenhouse gas pollution around the world, the Permian Basin is the largest single source of greenhouse gas pollution on earth. 

“We really don’t want methane escaping anywhere in our supply chain,” Geeta Persad, a climate scientist at The University of Texas at Austin, said.  “Whether in these leaks or through flaring that might be converting that methane into carbon dioxide, all of them are bad outcomes from a climate perspective.”  

Persad is just one of many experts from around the globe studying the harmful effects of methane gas.  

We also spoke with one of the most renowned trackers of methane pollution in Texas: Sharon Wilson with Oilfield Witness. She’s a former Senior Field Advocate for the nonprofit organization, Earthworks, and has provided evidence and testimony to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).  

Wilson and her colleagues travel the state with infrared cameras, documenting something the human eye cannot see: clouds of methane and natural gas billowing into the atmosphere. Wilson is convinced, after more than a decade of research, the problem is worse than ever. She says, even advanced filtering technology installed by many operators is not helping. 

“We were in the Permian and we observed 26 sites - all of them were emitting,” Wilson said. “Of the 26 sites, 14 had observable vapor recovery systems and of the 14,100% were failing in a big way.” 

Other organizations, such as the Environmental Defense Fund, first began collecting aerial methane data in 2019. It conducted over 100 flights across the Permian Basin for two years using airplanes and helicopters, documenting methane leaks from thousands of wells and production facilities.  

The Environmental Defense Fund and Earthworks Texas claim as much as 84% of the flaring activity in Texas is unpermitted and unchecked. They say state regulators are doing little or nothing to measure how much flaring is occurring or how much methane, carbon dioxide or toxins are being released into the air.  

The question becomes, if we have the data - what’s being done to stop the flow of greenhouse gases? Texas has no rules prohibiting methane releases, but the gas must be burned off or flared. The state regulatory agency for the oil and gas industry is the Texas Railroad Commission. Plant operators must obtain a permit from the Texas Railroad Commission, and at that, only limited amounts are supposed to be flared. 

Railroad Commission officials declined to comment to Spectrum News about the findings but is on the record calling the Earthworks analysis “flawed” and “based on incomplete data or inaccurate assumptions.”    

The Impacts   

Raquel and Lonjino Lara of Kenedy, Texas live modestly on a 20-acre ranch on the rolling hills of Karnes County about an hour southeast of San Antonio. In 2010, they say their peaceful life in this rugged countryside dramatically changed.  

A large oil and gas processing plant moved in next door, disrupting their lives with a persistent roar, noxious fumes and a methane vent stack with an eternal flame. 

“When that plant came we smelled all kinds of stuff,” said Raquel. “We were told it was volatile organic compounds coming out of that stack.” 

Volatile organic compounds are an invisible brew of toxic chemicals often released into the air during the processing and delivery of crude oil. Chemicals such as Benzene, Toluene and Xylene are known to cause a variety of health problems common to Texans who live close to oil and gas processing plants.  

Just months after this plant moved next door, the Laras say their health and physical abilities began to erode. Lonjino says it started with nose bleeds, then congestion, headaches, rapid weight gain and difficulty breathing. He says he was soon forced to stop working on his ranch. 

“Before I was like up and down and I would work 14 hours a day, no problem,” Lonjino told us. “I would sleep fine and I wasn’t overweight, not like I am now.”   

Lara says his doctor has been unable to pinpoint the source of his sickness. But the Lara’s say it’s not just them. They say first their daughters got ill. One went into early labor and lost a child.   

The Laras had always suspected the oil and gas operation next door was affecting their health. They were not alone. State records show numerous complaints against the plant have been filed with air quality regulators at the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. 

TCEQ records show a litany of complaints, 67 dating back to 2014. TCEQ officials say each one of them was investigated, unsubstantiated and closed.  

Until recently, the plant was owned by Validus Energy, which took over operations three years ago. Validus strongly denied the allegations, saying, “we have received four complaints since that time and all have been investigated and cleared by the TCEQ.” 

Validus says it “has never detected major issues and has several safety measures in place, including daily monitoring of flaring volumes and voluntary monthly inspections.”  

In multiple visits to the same plant, the environmental group Earthworks has done its own inspection. To the human eye, the plant appears calm and clear. But when Earthworks zoomed in with their infrared camera, they say they quickly found evidence of massive clouds of methane flowing out of the stacks and tanks. 

Environmental consultant and former TCEQ investigator Tim Doty has also inspected the site. Today Doty patrols oil fields looking for polluters using his infrared camera. 

“I’ve been near the site and adjacent to it,” said Doty. “I’ve smelled it, I’ve seen it. I would not want to live next to it. It’s just hard to fathom.”  

Doty explained, based on his years of experience with the agency, that, in his opinion, the TCEQ does not have a strong compliance and enforcement program.  

“I was on the inside of this agency for 28 years and did the mobile monitoring and managed that program, so I saw a lot of the end results back in those days.” Doty said.  

Spectrum News 1 reached out to many oil and gas operators to get an understanding of the environmental difficulties they face in drilling and processing oil and gas. No one was willing to talk on the record. 

Jack McDonald, who, along with Sharon Wilson, co-authored the study, “Flaring in Texas: A Comprehensive Government Failure”. McDonald says he’s not surprised at TCEQ’s passive approach to enforcement. 

“It tells me that the violation system that currently exists just isn’t effective,” said McDonald. “I think the reason for that is because the TCEQ and the Railroad Commission have deprioritized fining operators so often times them getting a violation does little more than just alert them that people are watching them.  

When we shared that allegation with the TCEQ, they declined to respond. 

Virginia Palacios is among the Railroad Commission’s most vocal critics. She’s the Executive Director of Commission Shift, the Texas nonprofit devoted to holding the oil and gas regulators accountable and questioning their relationship with the industry they regulate. 

According to Commission Shift’s research, from 2014 through 2020, four different Railroad Commissioners campaigning for office raised over 10-million dollars from industry insiders. That’s more than half of all their contributions.  

“We found that two-thirds of the campaign contributions came from the same companies that they oversee at the RRC,” said Palacios. “Companies are allowed to give to Commissioners campaign dollars at any time of year of any amount, even if they have a case pending before the commission. And it’s common for us to see companies giving to the Commissioners at key decision-making moments.”  

In its 2021 report, “Flaring in Texas, A Comprehensive Government Failure”, Earthworks Texas accused the Railroad Commission of failing to accurately grant and track flaring permits at around the state. The report accuses the agency of not enforcing its own pollution policies and rubber stamping the flaring permit requests. 

When Earthworks pressed Railroad Commissioners for more records, they say all they received were excuses. 

“At one point we asked for certain reports and the main office told us they are kept at the district office,” said environmentalist Sharon Wilson, who played a leading role in crafting the report. “The district office told us they are kept at the main office, and nobody keeps these records.” 

When our attempts to get commissioners to respond to the report were unsuccessful, we showed up to the Railroad Commission’s monthly public meeting in Austin. 

Commission Chairman Wayne Christian declined our request for an interview. Christian’s office later issued a statement, calling Commission Shift “…an anti-oil and gas special interest group… funded by out-of-state liberals”.  

Christian dismissed the Earthworks pollution reports calling the nonprofit, “a radical environmental group.” Christian says, “It’s in their financial interest to perpetuate the lie that there is a flaring crisis in Texas.” 

Commission Shift has also criticized another Railroad Commissioner, Christi Craddick, for having close ties with oil and gas industry she regulates, citing “several instances where she failed to recuse herself from decisions impacting companies in which she had financial interests.” 

Craddick responded with this statement.  

“Commissioner Craddick has a proven history of taking principled votes that consider fact and merit alone. Maintaining public trust is of utmost importance.” 

The Laras say they have tried to sell their land, but there are no takers. They believe they are now stuck with 20 acres of wasteland that yields nothing but sickness and sorrow. 

“It’s like when you’ve been so active all your life and somebody deprives you of that, you can’t do nothing about it,” Lonjino told us. “I used to be able to work. Now I can’t work, and she has to work, and that’s what hurts me, that’s what kills me the most.” 

Raquel then interrupted her husband, who had begun to sob. 

“Our faith stands on God to keep us safe every night,” said Raquel. “You never know, you never know what’s coming out of that plant, but we can’t go anywhere.”