Industry games system, regulators look the other way
March 1, 2017
This week, the Trump Administration suggested slashing the budgets of some government agencies, in particular the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Around the same time, Earthworks--along with partners Clean Air Council, Clean Water Action, and Moms Clean Air Force--released an in-depth report showing how inadequate state oversight and enforcement of the federal Clean Air Act harms the public rather than protecting it.
Permitted to Pollute: How oil and gas operators and regulators exploit clean air protections and put the public at risk, is the result of more than a year of research focusing on three natural gas processing and transmission facilities in southwestern Pennsylvania.
We started the project because of a question that oil and gas field residents often ask: What exactly is going on here? We found answers through two types of research:
- Infrared videos of pollution and air sampling to identify chemicals in the pollution.
- Analysis of permits, operator applications, PA Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) approvals, and other documents.
Earthworks has a long track record of documenting the oil and gas industry’s air, water, and health impacts, gaps in oversight, and regulatory enforcement. Yet even we were surprised to see just how methodically companies are able to expand operations without having to account for pollution over time. It was particularly appalling to find that the DEP tended to look the other way, rather than apply the federal Clean Air Act as it was intended, to protect the public.
Caught in these trends are the communities surrounded by a growing spider web of industrial oil and gas operations. As our videos and air sampling revealed, gas facilities continually release dozens of chemicals associated with asthma, headaches, cancer, neurological changes, and other health problems. Given that emissions data used to secure permits are based on averages and estimates, not real-time measurements, it’s very possible that oil and gas pollution is worse for local residents than operators and regulators ever acknowledge.
Permitted to Pollute focuses on events in one part of Pennsylvania, but its conclusions are certainly not limited to a particular state or region. Washington DC, Harrisburg, and other state capitals are gripped by political fervor to weaken protections for people and the planet and increase the oil and gas industry’s influence over government.
Regulators too often forget that their job is to safeguard the environment from negative impacts of industry—not to make it easier for industry to get permits and pollute. More than ever, it is the job of many people and advocates nationwide to constantly remind them.
For more information:
- Permitted to Pollute report and summary.
- Earthworks' Community Empowerment Project, featuring infrared videos of oil and gas pollution.
- Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project resources on air pollution.