A Fracking Boom Where There Is No Fracking

On the Texas coast, the state’s fracking boom has sparked an industrial surge and new fears about pollution.

Weld County, Colo., is one of the most drilled counties in the country, with almost 20,000 wells. Ninety percent of new wells in the state are fracked.
National Journal
Ben Geman
May 19, 2014, 1 a.m.

PORT OF COR­PUS CHRISTI, Texas — For John LaRue, sand was the har­binger of the change. Sev­er­al years ago, LaRue, the Port of Cor­pus Christi’s ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or, began see­ing the smooth quartz grains ar­riv­ing in bulk from Wis­con­sin and Min­nesota. It’s used in frack­ing, one of the ma­ter­i­als in­jec­ted in­to shale-rock form­a­tions to free oil and nat­ur­al gas and coax it top­side.

None of that frack­ing is hap­pen­ing in this in­dus­tri­al port city down the Gulf Coast from Hou­s­ton. In­stead, Cor­pus Christi is the way­po­int for the sand that’s trucked in­land to the sur­ging Eagle Ford Shale form­a­tion.

The in­land en­ergy boom is send­ing more than sand through the na­tion’s fifth-largest port. On a re­cent May morn­ing, not far from from an air­line-hangar-sized build­ing filled with frack­ing sand, long rows of steel drilling pipe from Korea awaited ship­ment to Eagle Ford sites.

But what’s now com­ing from the Eagle Ford back in­to and through Cor­pus Christi is trans­form­ing the re­gion even more. The trickle of crude oil flow­ing from the port has turned to a flood: Between 2010 and 2011, the port went from ex­port­ing 274,000 bar­rels to more than 2 mil­lion. Last year, the num­ber of crude bar­rels headed out­bound to oth­er parts of the U.S. was 122.5 mil­lion and the port has ex­pan­ded its docks to handle it all.

Bil­lions of dol­lars in in­vest­ment is pour­ing in­to the re­gion. Un­em­ploy­ment in Cor­pus Christi is down, and it was 5.1 per­cent in March com­pared with 6.3 per­cent na­tion­wide. More jobs are on the way. Bey­ond the crude oil ex­ports, com­pan­ies are plan­ning new man­u­fac­tur­ing and chem­ic­al plants that will use Eagle Ford’s nat­ur­al gas.

Asked how much of the port’s re­cent ex­pan­sion can be chalked up to the Eagle Ford, LaRue replied, “I don’t want to say 100 per­cent.” He adds: “I’d say 90 per­cent.”

In sum, Cor­pus Christi is rid­ing the frack­ing boom without do­ing any frack­ing of its own.

But just as the city is get­ting an eco­nom­ic jolt from Eagle Ford Shale de­vel­op­ment, new pol­lu­tion sources are also ar­riv­ing, cre­at­ing fears of new ex­pos­ure in poor and minor­ity neigh­bor­hoods that are already shoul­der­ing more than their fair share.

While there is air-pol­lu­tion-mon­it­or­ing in the re­gion, act­iv­ists non­ethe­less fear that the rap­id new de­vel­op­ment will out­pace any­one’s abil­ity to un­der­stand its over­all im­pact and safe­guard against dan­ger­ous air tox­ics.

“There is no pro­cess where you really get a good cu­mu­lat­ive look at what people are be­ing ex­posed to,” said Kelly Har­agan, who dir­ects the en­vir­on­ment­al clin­ic at the Uni­versity of Texas law school and works with Cor­pus Christi act­iv­ists.

The list of new pro­jects — and pol­lu­tion sources — that are un­der­way or planned is long.

New oil stor­age tank farms dot the port re­gion. Two com­pan­ies have pro­posed li­que­fied-nat­ur­al-gas ex­port pro­jects. And com­pan­ies in­clud­ing Magel­lan Mid­stream Part­ners are plan­ning to build in­dus­tri­al fa­cil­it­ies called “split­ters” to lightly pro­cess con­dens­ate — a very light oil from the Eagle Ford — in­to pet­ro­leum products for ex­port.

Out­put from the Eagle Ford — where oil pro­duc­tion is near­ing 1.4 mil­lion bar­rels per day — is prompt­ing re­finers Valero and Flint Hills (a Koch In­dus­tries sub­si­di­ary) to in­vest in hand­ling more light Texas crude.

Aus­tri­an steel gi­ant Voes­talpine and M&G Chem­ic­als are build­ing new plants in the area that will take ad­vant­age of Eagle Ford nat­ur­al gas. An­oth­er chem­ic­al com­pany, Ly­ondell­Basell, is ex­pand­ing its plant near the city’s re­finer­ies to en­able more pro­duc­tion of ethyl­ene, a build­ing block for an ar­ray of products. The list goes on.

Some of these fears about new pol­lu­tion sources are crys­tal­liz­ing around yet an­oth­er big pro­ject: Plans to re­place the aging har­bor bridge at the mouth of the port’s ship chan­nel. In mid-March Har­agan coau­thored a com­ment let­ter to state trans­port­a­tion reg­u­lat­ors on be­half of three en­vir­on­ment­al groups.

It ac­cuses state plan­ners of es­sen­tially fly­ing blind by fail­ing to weigh the “cu­mu­lat­ive” air pol­lu­tion ef­fects of the bridge and high­way pro­ject in con­junc­tion with the on­go­ing in­dus­tri­al build-out and ex­pan­ded ship­ping, rail, and vehicle traffic at the port.

“This is,” the let­ter states, “an as­ton­ish­ing amount of growth in in­dus­tri­al fa­cil­it­ies and their re­lated trans­port­a­tion and en­vir­on­ment­al im­pacts in a short peri­od of time.”

Su­zie Canales, dir­ect­or of the Cor­pus Christi group Cit­izens for En­vir­on­ment­al Justice, makes largely the same point in more col­or­ful terms.

“What is go­ing to hap­pen to Cor­pus Christi? Is it go­ing to end up like the story of the Lor­ax?,” she says, re­fer­ring the 1971 Dr. Seuss par­able about over­in­dus­tri­al­iz­a­tion and eco­lo­gic­al col­lapse. “Where it was just a dead zone, and noth­ing?”

“We are not say­ing we are against Eagle Ford shale,” says Canales, who foun­ded the group in 2000. “We are say­ing we are against … adding more to the bur­den of already over­burdened com­munit­ies.”

Still, there are pos­it­ive en­vir­on­ment­al signs. Late last year Canales’ group and the En­vir­on­ment­al In­teg­rity Pro­ject reached an agree­ment with Flint Hill’s to with­draw their op­pos­i­tion to per­mits for its pro­ject to handle more light Eagle Ford crude. In ex­change, the com­pany agreed to re­duce haz­ard­ous volat­ile or­gan­ic com­pounds and oth­er pol­lut­ants, among oth­er pledges.

Already, emis­sions of ben­zene, a nasty tox­ic pol­lut­ant linked to can­cer, re­pro­duct­ive prob­lems, and short-term skin and res­pir­at­ory woes, from the city’s six oil re­finer­ies has come down over the last dec­ade, ac­cord­ing to in­dustry-sup­plied data in EPA’s Tox­ics Re­lease In­vent­ory. And on Fri­day, EPA pro­posed new tox­ic-pol­lu­tion and mon­it­or­ing reg­u­la­tions for the na­tion’s re­finer­ies.

But there’s also mis­trust in a re­gion with a his­tory of en­vir­on­ment­al vi­ol­a­tions by the re­finer­ies and a huge in­dus­tri­al foot­print even be­fore the cur­rent de­vel­op­ment wave.

Canales made her com­par­is­on to the Lor­ax on a re­cent drive around the Hillcrest and Dona Park neigh­bor­hoods where people live a stone’s throw from re­finer­ies and res­id­ents have long com­plained of burn­ing eyes, fa­tigue, head­aches, rashes, and more. She calls it a “tox­ic tour.”

“Look, there’s no con­tain­ment,” she says at one point as we drive with­in sight of a freshly cre­ated pile of black pet­coke, a re­finery byproduct, at one of the plants. “It just blows with the wind.”

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