Deep in the heart of Texas, some residents who see the environmental effects of the hydraulic fracturing industry still can’t seem to imagine a world without it.
By: Tori B. Powell
For Mark Rainey, the hydraulic fracturing industry was more than a job. It was what he described as a lifelong goal with special generational ties. Seventeen years ago, Rainey achieved his goal when he became an oil drill worker at BJ Oilfield Services in Tomball, Texas.
“I’ve been in all aspects of the oil field through the booms and through the busts,” Rainey said in a phone interview. “It’s much more than just oil in Texas…it’s our livelihood.”
He said that the derrickmen who used to sit atop drilling rigs and the floor hands that repaired equipment have since become like family, even after his retirement from the industry years ago. Throughout Rainey’s career, the oil veteran said that he came across hundreds of “loyal and honest” workers that impacted his life in an abundance of different ways.
“It’s a whole lot of people involved and they’re more than just guys that work on the oil rig,” the now Odessa, Texas resident said.
Rainey’s strong emotional ties to hydraulic fracturing is what fuels his political judgement. When it comes to climate reform and regulation, he has one slogan: “Don’t mess with Texas.”
Ever since the oil and gas industry took off in the late 1940s, the lone star state has been a key player in fueling the country. Of the seven regions that account for 92% of the entire country’s shale oil production, the Permian Basin has drilled the most barrels per day in recent years, according to the United States Energy Information Administration. The region – which is located mostly in Texas – is also the second largest oil and gas producer in the entire world. Eagle Ford Shale, is also completely in Texas.
Hydraulic fracturing, also commonly known as fracking or fracing, is the process of injecting liquid into the earth’s subterranean layer at high pressure in order to open up fissures of trapped gas or oil, according to Encyclopedia Britannica. The extracted oil is then used for commodities such as transportation fuel, heating, electricity, asphalt, road oil, plastics, and more throughout the world.
Over the past five years, fracking in the Permian Basin has seen what the Odessa Development Corporation’s (ODC) Director of Economic Development, Wesley Burnett, said is an economic boom.
“We’ve been outstandingly successful in all industries, particularly oil and gas,” Burnett said in a phone interview. “For years we’ve been doing this, and we’ve had relatively little instances of issues, but overwhelmingly positive support locally and throughout our community and the business community.”
He isn’t wrong about the region’s recent economic success either. From 2017 to 2019 the 75,000 square miles of what makes up the Permian Basin attributed to some of the country’s lowest costs of oil, which increased power over foreign competitors and brought the nation closer to its energy independent goal, according to the Texas Independent Producers and Royalty Owners Association.
Even with the coronavirus pandemic that continues to introduce economic challenges across many industries, oil and gas production has slowly began to pick up where it left off as some states start to reopen again to the public.
The Washington Post reported that more than 1 million passengers went through airport security on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving this year, making it the busiest day of air travel since March. Data from the Maryland Transportation Institute also showed that Americans this summer were taking road trips at the same rate as they were before the pandemic, utilizing gas that keeps oilrigs in Texas alive and well.
“When the vaccine comes, or however this pandemic is finally addressed, and we get back to normal, people are going to start getting back on airplanes and doing the traveling, and that only means that the oil and gas industry is going to be back pretty strong,” Burnett said. “We’re going to be back in really good shape again. There’s no doubt about that.”
But the fracking industry’s economic success over time comes at what climatologists and activists say are detrimental environmental costs.
“We’re being locked into paying for future dependence on an energy system which is destroying human society and life – indeed – life itself,” a speaker on behalf of the BIPOC-led and New York based anti-fracking group, Mi Casa Resiste, said at a virtual town hall meeting on November 15. “One pound of methane released into the atmosphere produces 86 times as much global warming temperature increase as the same amount of carbon dioxide over a 20-year period.”
And from 2012 to 2018, the Environmental Defense Fund found that 13 million metric tons of methane were released by wasted leaks from the oil and gas industry.
Fracking has also been linked to increased arthquakes in regions that otherwise wouldn’t have been prone, according to a 2019 study by the Seismological Society of America (SSA). Major complications to air and water quality due to fracking have also been reported by the SSA as well, citing connections to asthma, birth defects, and cancer.
Researchers at the University of California in Santa Cruz also discovered that a single injection into the earth through hydraulic fracturing can induce earthquakes up to 6 miles away, potentially affecting those in radius of any of the 1.7 million active oil and gas wells in the U.S.
These environmental dangers are why groups like Mi Casa Resiste demand legal climate justice through regulation sooner rather than later. At the recent town hall meeting, leaders explained that Black and Brown communities are typically those who bear the brunt of fracking’s climate cons.
For longtime Odessa resident, Curtis Ramsey, he said that he understands these cons first-hand.
“Back in February my dad almost died because of the air,” Ramsey said in a phone interview. “He went on life support twice and he just couldn’t breathe because he was so sensitive to all the pollution in Odessa from fracking. He’s out there in Natalia, Texas now and man…the air out there is just so much different. He don’t (sic) even have to be on a respirator no more or on an oxygen tank.”
Since the pandemic hit, Ramsey – who typically works in the consulting business – has been receiving unemployment benefits from the government’s Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act in order to take care of his fiancée and one-year-old daughter. He said that his family’s wellbeing is what dictates his prioritization of a clean planet over maintaining and rebuilding the economy.
“I’m absolutely terrified of the water and the air, and that’s not for me but for my daughter and for her future,” Ramsey said. “You’ve got to think about what life will look like for her. Will she be able to breathe?”
Ramsey identifies himself as an independent political party member, voting only for candidates that he aligns himself with on a case-by-case basis. He said that he isn’t so sure as to whether President-elect Joe Biden will clamp down on climate reform as strongly as he believes is necessary.
Throughout the former vice president’s campaign, Biden has gone back and forth with his plans on fracking: In 2019 at a Democratic primary debate, Biden promised that he would “make sure [hydraulic fracturing] was eliminated and no more subsidies” for any fossil fuel. When later challenged by competitor President Donald Trump at the final presidential debate in October 2020, Biden said that he never opposed fracking. Running mate, Vice President-Elect Kamala Harris also stated Biden’s revised claim days earlier at a televised debate against challenger Vice President Mike Pence, saying “Joe Biden will not ban fracking. That is a fact.” The Biden Administration’s most recent written plan instead states that the incoming president opposes “new fracking,” and proposes “banning new oil and gas permitting on public lands and waters.”
Odessa resident Floro de Guzman of Midland, Texas who works for an industrial inspection company that services the oil and gas industry said that Biden’s inconsistent fracking outlook has left him apprehensive and confused.
“I feel like he’s flip-flopping in order to basically side with what his audience likes to hear,” Guzman said in a phone interview. “When he said he was going to get rid of fracking, he didn’t list the alternatives and now that he’s denying that he said that it’s still pretty unclear.”
For Guzman – who typically strays away from politics – outlines like the Green New Deal are more effective to comprehend. The proposition sponsored by Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Senator Ed Markey (D-MA) is a fourteen-page draft of legislation that suggests how the country could economically move towards solely sustainable energy in order to combat climate change.
“I could definitely see things changing in the future, moving towards more wind and solar energy soon with things like the Green New Deal,” Guzman said. He mentioned the recent progress that California has seen with renewable energy as proof. “Whether that ‘clean’ energy that they’re talking about is actually really clean…well, I don’t know about that.”
The concept of “clean” and “renewable” is exactly why Burnett of ODC said that legislation like the Green New Deal is unlikely to ever take shape.
“No matter how green we get, and how renewable we get, there’s always going to be oil and gas,” Burnett said. “I understand that the environment is very important, but I think that the answer is to clean up the current form of providing our energy because all of our answers for energy cannot be addressed through green energy no matter how or what we do.”
Rainey agrees, mentioning that oil and gas will still have to transport parts and maintain the potential machines that would produce renewable energy like windmills and solar panels. The Odessa resident said that he can’t and refuses to imagine a world without hydraulic fracturing, regardless of what climatologists suggest. Even though he no longer works in his beloved industry, Rainey said that he’ll always be a part of it.
“The future of fracking with the laws and what not is still yet to be determined, so I guess we’ll just have to wait and see, won’t we?” Rainey said.
Whatever does happen, something has to give, whether it’s the economy or the climate. Some oil town residents have already placed their bets on what they hope will come.