GOOD

Mess in Texas: Holding Big Oil Accountable in the Lone Star State

In unincorporated West Texas, where oil derricks dominate the landscape, locals aren't sure about "drill, baby, drill" anymore.

As I approach Midland, Texas from the southeast the rolling hills give way to large, engine-revving trucks, their menacing grills reflecting the setting sun into my rearview mirror. The asphalt beneath my white Toyota Corolla seems to be melting into the petroleum-laden ground from which it had emerged: Not even the road was prepared for the heavy vehicles that showed up with the recent oil and gas boom.


My plan for the summer is to report on the important energy and environmental issues in the Southwest where I’ve spent most of my life. With frugality in mind, I’d arranged to spend my first nights on the road in the town of Odessa in the spare bedroom of a middle-aged couple I’d found on Couchsurfer.org. My hosts informed me that the nearby suburb of Gardendale was a flashpoint for oil drilling gone wild. A few quick searches and there it was: The Gardendale Accountability Project, a community effort of about 30 members to document the actions of oil and gas companies in Gardendale. Their website, GARDAP.org, provides an outlet for distressed citizens to share their experiences dealing with the oil industry. I filled out the website’s contact form and moved onto another investigation: my host’s pantry. Before I even finished my Honey Bunches of Oats, I’d heard back. We made plans to meet for dinner two miles down the road.

"We used to be all 'Drill baby, drill' until it came into our neighborhood," says Paul Wood between bites of greasy Thai food. Wood, a small business owner and influential member of GARDAP, is easygoing and eager but with a bit of a wandering mind, like a cartoon hero's sidekick. His mustache, oversized sunglasses, Hawaiian shirt, loose jeans, and boots give the impression of a modern-day cowboy whose parents let him watch too much Magnum P.I.

After Berry Petroleum Company drilled a well on his property, Wood wanted to know what remained in the drilling pit, the area in which flowback from the fracking process is left out to dry before being buried.

"They were about to cover up that nasty sludge and I said, 'Guys I want to know what's in that pit,'" the lifetime West Texan recalls. "Because I live on the land. I've drunk well water for 29 years. They said, 'Oh it's nothing, just drilling mud and cuttings.' Lie number one."

Wood had a sample tested by a third party, Xenco Laboratories, the results of which showed more than just mud and cuttings. Benzene, a known carcinogen, was present at 206 parts per billion. The EPA's maximum contaminant level for benzene in drinking water is five ppb. Other possible carcinogens, an EPA classification of carcinogenicity beneath known carginogens, included xylene isomers and naphthalene.

"In Texas, cities have the right to regulate oil and gas development," says Wood. "We aren't a city, we're an unincorporated portion of the county."

Because of this Gardendale has no ordinances dealing with where drilling can or cannot take place. Nearby Odessa has an ordinance that prohibits drilling within 150 feet of a residence while Midland prohibits drilling within 500 feet. To give me a better image of the impact this has, Wood offers to take me up in his two-person plane for an aerial view the next day. From the ground Gardendale is made up of low, hardscrabble vegetation holding fast to sandy soil. Occasionally a tree or minor structure impedes the flat expanse. The people living there like to feel as if they are still out on the range, and most lots are counted in tens of acres.

The next morning Wood gently pulls the single prop plane out of the garage and onto one of the three runways he's worn into his property. The plane's interior is compact, and after struggling to get in I struggle further to find a place to put my bag. Any similarities to commercial flying ended there; the flight was more reminiscent of a jenky amusement park ride.

From the air, I see derricks within 100 feet of homes, moats of mud discharge and drilling mix surrounding a massive drilling rig and rows of caliche patches pockmarking areas of past mineral excavation. One of the most unsettling views is a pit full of water to be used for fracking. West Texas is already suffering serious water shortages and these immense reservoirs of clean water go not to people or agriculture, but to freeing fossil fuels thousands of feet underground.

"I don't like to see the land being destroyed," Wood tells me during a reflective moment after we land. "When you talk to the guy doing the mineral thing he says he's not destroying anything; he's actually creating stuff. I don't see it that way. Pulling minerals out by injecting high-pressure toxic chemicals into the ground that might someday migrate into the water I drink and that my grandkids will drink. That's not a bar I’m willing to jump over."

GARDAP is not set on taking on the oil industry. In fact, the industry is the longtime employer of many of its members. For them, the industry's conduct is a concentrated community issue. Wood gets visibly distressed and starts energetically gesticulating when recounting how he's been lambasted as being anti-drilling—because he's not. He's against drilling happening in neighborhoods like Gardendale when it doesn’t have to.

A memory from when workers were on his property distracts him. "I got a bucket of human waste on my land."

This is the first of four pieces exploring energy and the environment in the American Southwest.

Articles
via Alan Levine / Flickr

The World Health Organization is hoping to drive down the cost of insulin by encouraging more generic drug makers to enter the market.

The organization hopes that by increasing competition for insulin, drug manufacturers will be forced to lower their prices.

Currently, only three companies dominate the world insulin market, Eli Lilly, Novo Nordisk and Sanofi. Over the past three decades they've worked to drastically increase the price of the drug, leading to an insulin availability crisis in some places.

In the United States, the price of insulin has increased from $35 a vial to $275 over the past two decades.

Keep Reading Show less
Health

Oh, irony. You are having quite a day.

The Italian region of Veneto, which includes the city of Venice, is currently experiencing historic flooding. Venice Mayor Luigi Brugnaro has stated that the flooding is a direct result of climate change, with the tide measuring the highest level in 50 years. The city (which is actually a collection of 100 islands in a lagoon—hence its famous canal streets), is no stranger to regular flooding, but is currently on the brink of declaring a state of emergency as waters refuse to recede.

Keep Reading Show less
The Planet

Since the International Whaling Commission banned commercial whaling in 1986, whale populations have been steadily recovering. However, whales in the wild still face other dangers. In the summer of 2018, four Russian companies that supply aquariums with marine animals captured almost 100 beluga whales and killer whales (aka orcas). After a public outcry, those whales are swimming free as the last of the captive whales have been released, the first time this many captured whales have been released back into the wild.

In late 2018 and early 2019, a drone captured footage of 11 orcas and 87 beluga whales crammed into holding pens in the Srednyaya Bay. The so-called "whale jail" made headlines, and authorities began to investigate their potentially illegal capture.

Keep Reading Show less
The Planet
via Twitter / Bye,Bye Harley Davidson

The NRA likes to diminish the role that guns play in fatal shootings by saying, "Guns don't kill people, people kill people."

Which is the same logic as, "Hammers don't build roofs, people build roofs." No duh. But it'd be nearly impossible to build a roof without a hammer.

So, shouldn't the people who manufacture guns share some responsibility when they are used for the purpose they're made: killing people? Especially when the manufacturers market the weapon for that exact purpose?

Keep Reading Show less
Business
via Gage Skidmore / Flickr

The 2020 election is a year away, but Donald Trump has some serious ground to cover if he doesn't want it to be a historical blowout.

A Washington Post- ABC News poll released Tuesday shows that Trump loses by double digits to the top Democratic contenders.

Vice President Joe Biden (56%-39%); Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts (54%-39%); Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont (56%-39%); South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg (52%-41%); and Sen. Kamala Harris of California (52%-41%) all have big leads over the president.

Keep Reading Show less
Politics