Reflections from the Permian: an industry that can’t be bothered to fix pollution

Recently I had the opportunity to visit the Permian Basin with Sharon Wilson and Miguel Escoto for the first time. Unfortunately, being out in the field makes it even more clear just how much of a problem oil and gas production is.

The Optical Gas Imaging (OGI) that Earthworks uses to show emissions is great for creating a visual of pollution, but there is something so much more visceral about being in the field and driving up to a site and getting hit with the overwhelming smell of rotten eggs (that would be the smell of poisonous hydrogen sulfide gas, dear reader) and have your eyes begin to burn. We saw more than a dozen sites with emissions that were severe enough to warrant a complaint to regulators — the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. I could do a run down on each site we visited and why we opted to submit complaints, but Earthworks has already extensively documented the litany of problems at various sites throughout the Permian Basin. 

Instead, I want to relay one particularly bizarre interaction we had with an oil and gas employee. We were in the Permian from Saturday April 27th through Wednesday the 31st. On Sunday the 28th we visited a string of Primexx sites that are all located right on a county road. We documented tank emissions from an improperly sealing thief hatch at the first Primexx site we stopped at (Primexx Red Unit). Primexx Red Unit was one of the major wells responsible for the problems outlined by Jim and Sue Franklin in this video: 

After we recorded the footage at Primexx Red Unit we drove up the road to the plot of land that used to belong to the Franklins before the emissions from the sites around them became too much to bear and the company was embarrassed into buying them out. That plot is now owned by Primexx who operates a well on the land. We pulled off onto the shoulder of the road while Sharon got out the OGI camera.

While we were recording OGI footage at the site a Primexx employee pulled up behind us. He got out of his truck and walked up to me. At first, he was cordial as he asked us what we were doing. However, as soon as I got close enough to him to respond he saw my Earthworks hat and his tone immediately changed. He began loudly berating Earthworks for our use of OGI and talking about how all Earthworks cares about is the economy (I’m still not sure what he meant by this) as well as how Earthworks wants to make a show of complaining to the TCEQ. He told me we had to leave. I responded that we were on a public road and he made up a law about how you can’t video anything unless you were hired and because Earthworks is a non-profit we were not hired and therefore couldn’t video. While his arguments were not very clear we decided to move on to the next site. However, before we did I walked back to the employee and told him that the thief hatches at Primexx Red Unit were leaking, thinking that Primexx might fix it without the need for TCEQ intervention. The employee continued to shoo me off saying they would handle it.

Rather than trying to fix the leaking tanks, the employee followed us to the next site. When we pulled off to take some video of the next site (which wasn’t even a Primexx site), he got out of his car to talk to Sharon. I did not hear that conversation but based on Sharon’s recounting he largely said the same things to her as he did me. Eventually, Sharon showed him that she was recording him which prompted him to change his tone again. He became much more polite with her but still attempted to block the camera from taking any footage, before eventually giving up and walking off.  

The day before we left the Permian Basin (three days later), we returned to the sites. The tanks at Primexx Red Unit were still leaking and clearly had not been addressed, but that employee was still prowling the sites this time with his phone to take pictures of us. 

Two things stood out to me from these encounters. First, the Primexx employee continued to harass us even at a non-Primexx site. The employee apparently decided it was more important to “protect” another operator from having its pollution documented than it was to address his own company’s pollution. It was interesting to see operators who seem to view each other as compatriots in the fight against environmentalists. You would expect that operators would like to see other operators held accountable in order to bolster their own credibility, but the reality is that the entire industry is so rife with pollution that operators see any attempts to hold any other operator accountable and worry about what that means for themselves. 

Second, it stood out to me that three days later the thief hatches at Primexx Red Unit were still leaking, but that employee was still out seemingly patrolling for us. It’s disappointing but not altogether shocking to see that for Primexx (and many other operators) it is more important to try to cover up their pollution than to actually fix it. It’s interesting that the employee expressed his displeasure with Earthworks’ regulatory complaints to TCEQ, yet when I provided an opportunity to address pollution and prevent TCEQ notification and potential intervention, Primexx did nothing. 

Visiting the field reaffirmed for me that oil and gas is not an industry that is going to be regulated successfully. The only option is a full transition renewables and a freeze on further permitting.