Flare-ups in Texas and Environmental Protection for All

Equal treatment under the law is an American ideal, though a multitude of historic and recent examples indicate that it’s not always easy to achieve. This concept is also extremely relevant when it comes to environmental issues and their resulting impacts on human health and well-being. The effort to insure people are treated fairly and equally in environmental decision-making has been dubbed the Environmental Justice movement.

What is Environmental Justice?

Environmental justice is defined by the US Environmental Protection Agency as “the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income with respect to the development, implementation and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations and policies.”* In short, it strives to prevent the disproportionate exposure of underprivileged communities to environmental risks and ensure that those communities have a voice in decision-making processes. An example of environmental injustice could be locating chemical waste emission or disposal facilities closer to a lower-income community. A study conducted by researchers from the US EPA’s National Center for Environmental Assessment found that people living in poverty were exposed to particulate matter (a type of air pollution) levels 1.35 times higher than the average US population, while non-white communities were exposed to 1.28 times higher levels.** Attention to environmental justice issues started to grow during the civil rights movement in the 1960s but really gained steam during the 1980s. It finally manifested into a federal program with the establishment of the Office of Environmental Equity (later renamed the Office of Environmental Justice) in 1992. A timeline of developments in this movement can be found here. Environmental Justice is still very much an issue today; current focus areas for the Office of Environmental Justice include: lead exposure, access to clean drinking water, air quality, and hazardous waste sites. There is also a growing concern over environmental justice issues surrounding climate change, or climate justice

Another Environmental Justice Flare-up

Researchers at the University of Southern California and San Francisco State University recently published a study in the academic research journal Environmental Science and Technology focused on environmental justice issues in the oil and gas industry. Specifically, they focused on the exposure of Hispanic populations to natural gas flares associated with fracking along the Eagle Ford shale play in South Texas. Flaring is a technique for disposing of unwanted flammable gasses during natural gas and oil exploration, production, and processing in which the gas is simply burned into the atmosphere.  A flaring event can last for days and sometimes weeks, and can release a variety of air pollutants (such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, nitrous oxides, sulfur dioxides, and heavy metals) into the surrounding area. These pollutants have been associated with health and environmental issues including asthma, cancer, acid rain, and smog. Why is this gas burned instead of used for energy? Some flaring is the safest way to quickly vent gas pressure build-up and prevent explosions. However, excessive flaring is used because it is not economically feasible to transport and sell the gas at the rate it is being produced. Transporting the gas would require pipeline infrastructure and/or compression of the gas into a liquid form. Both solutions are costly and time-intensive to implement, and cannot keep pace with fracking activity unless regulations are in place to limit fracking and/or flaring. 

In order to collect data needed for this study, the researchers compiled population data from the 2010 US census (which shows how important the 2020 Census will be for accurately assessing environmental justice issues like this in the future!), oil and gas well location information from various industry sources, and flaring data from a database compiled by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) from 2012-2016. The NOAA database compiles nighttime satellite images sensitive to detect combustion sources like these flare-ups. Figure 1 shows the locations of flare-ups and oil and gas wells in the study area.


Figure 1. Location data for (a) flares and (b) oil and gas wells along the Eagle Ford shale play in south Texas. Reprinted (adapted) with permission from Johnston et al. Copyright (2020) American Chemical Society.

The census provided population data that was broken into different blocks, which the researchers used to interpret their results. They looked at the ethnic composition, specifically the Hispanic fraction, of each block, and calculated the proximity of each block to oil wells, gas wells, and flares. Using a 5 kilometer distance threshold from each block, the researchers found that even though there were fewer oil and gas wells near census blocks with higher Hispanic populations, there was an increase in flare activity. The disproportionate flaring activity is indicated in Figure 2, showing that census blocks where >60% of the population is Hispanic experienced ~2x the flaring activity than census blocks with <20% Hispanic population. This trend became even stronger when the distance threshold was reduced to 3 km.


Figure 2. How the number of flares differs with ethnicity. Left: Census blocks exposed to the most nearby flares were largely dominated by Hispanic populations. Right: The average amount of nearby flares increases with an increasing fraction of Hispanic population. Reprinted (adapted) with permission from Johnston et al. Copyright (2020) American Chemical Society.

The study authors concluded that their results present evidence that the health and environmental burden of the flaring from fracking wells is being disproportionately borne by Hispanic residents along the Eagle Ford shale play. They point to the dramatic increase in the practice of flaring in Texas over the past decade due to the deregulation of unconventional US oil and gas production. They also suggest that low income and minority communities possess less social and financial resources to reduce their exposure to flaring by lobbying for increased regulation, infrastructure projects, and/or increased environmental monitoring.

The research team cites that community concern was successful in driving state regulations to slow conventional oil and gas production until infrastructure could be built to dramatically reduce flaring. However, the expansion of unconventional fracking technologies has led to a relaxation of these state regulations. Perhaps a resurgence in community action could once again reduce the frequency of flaring.

Environmental Justice is a Global issue

Ensuring environmental justice is an ongoing challenge, and public awareness, attention, and involvement can make a large difference in equally protecting human health from environmental threats. More information about regional environmental justice issues and efforts in the US can be found here. Although this study focused on a specific example in the United States, environmental justice remains an issue all over the world. Some of the world’s top environmental justice issues are described here, and a more in-depth compilation of global issues can be found using an interactive EJAtlas online tool. 

Source Article: J. Johnston, K. Chau, M. Franklin, and L. Cushing. Environ. Sci. Technol. (2020). https://pubs.acs.org/doi/10.1021/acs.est.0c00410

Cover image source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/wildearth_guardians/15638777475

Other sources:

*https://www.epa.gov/environmentaljustice/learn-about-environmental-justice 

** https://ajph.aphapublications.org/doi/full/10.2105/AJPH.2017.304297

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Mary Davis

I earned my PhD in Chemical Engineering from Princeton University in 2018, where my research focused on nanoscale polymer systems and how their properties change with geometry. I am now applying my background in polymers to environmental systems as a postdoctoral research associate at the U.S. EPA. This involves studying the breakdown of plastics and the generation of microplastics in the environment, as well as their interactions with other pollutants. When I’m not working in the lab, I enjoy crafting, cooking, and being outside.

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