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2015 The Al Neuharth Innovation in Investigative Journalism Award, Medium Newsroom finalist

Up in Flames

 

About the Project

As hydraulic fracturing for oil revolutionized production in the United States – no more so than in South Texas – gas flares spread across the oil patch, wasting untold amounts of natural gas and spewing pollution.

During a year-long investigation, journalists at the San Antonio Express-News used innovative computer searches and old-fashioned shoe-leather reporting to document for the first time just how much gas was being burned, and how much pollution was being released in a region already flirting with ozone violations.

Amid glowing industry reports of oil production that has reached more than 1 million barrels a day in the Eagle Ford Shale formation, our series, “Up in Flames,” showed that flares burned enough natural gas between 2009 and 2012 to power every gas-fueled residence in the San Antonio area for a full year, and emitted more pollutants than six large oil refineries in Corpus Christi.

The series also showed how the agencies charged with regulating flares were failing at the task – and didn’t even know about the largest polluters that burned flares without permits.

Flaring loses hundreds of millions of dollars worth of natural gas and robs the state of millions in lost severance taxes. Moreover, it affects lives. Reviewing hundreds of complaints and records, we tracked down residents near drilling sites with breathing and health problems they believe are linked to the roaring flares.

The total volume of natural gas burned in flares wasn’t known – by residents, companies and even the regulators – because the information is contained in a database that is so user-unfriendly and large that no one had tried to analyze it. Projects Reporter John Tedesco requested a copy of the database from the Railroad Commission of Texas in the spring of 2013. Written in an arcane version of Oracle, we discovered we had to convert the data into a format that could be easily searched and analyzed. The process took months to convert more than 85 million records, filling 25 gigabytes of space.

After weeks of work and troubleshooting, the newspaper had preliminary results. The database showed that the volume of flared gas in Texas had increased by 400 percent since the early days of the energy boom in 2009. Most of the gas came from the Eagle Ford Shale, where rates of flaring reached 20 to 30 percent in some rural counties.

To show how the boom in flaring was affecting people, Tedesco, energy-beat reporter Jennifer Hiller and photographer Kin Man Hui made numerous trips to the shale fields. The oil drilling is largely supported by the ranchers and towns benefiting from the shale play, but many of the residents said the flaring makes them sick, is disruptive, loud, and when the flares falter, releases clouds of putrid smoke into the air.

Production data doesn’t measure the level of pollution. But, by obtaining emails from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, the team discovered formulas used to estimate levels of compounds emitted by flares. Based on the formulas and flaring volumes, we determined how much sulfur, volatile organic compounds and other pollutants were being released.

We presented the analysis in ways the public could use. The Express-News published interactive maps of flaring levels by county and well site. The maps allowed readers to check the level of flaring in their communities. Interactive charts identified flaring sites and companies by name.

We also fact-checked claims from the Railroad Commission that all major flaring sites must go through an automatic permitting process. But that often didn’t happen. Some of the top users of flares in the shale had never applied for required permits – and they weren’t checked by the Railroad Commission. Our investigation found that the state rarely upholds public complaints, and almost never fines companies that violate or fail to get temporary permits.

After publication of Up in Flames in August 2014, readers and even members of the oil and gas industry praised the series, saying they had no idea that flaring was so pervasive in the Eagle Ford. The state regulators didn’t challenge the accuracy of our findings. And Lee Tillman, president and CEO of Marathon Oil Corp., said the industry needs to address key “legitimate issues” including air quality, water management and roads — with a sense of urgency.

The stories had an impact. After publication, the top Bexar County official, Nelson Wolff, cited the series and called for tighter regulations and less flaring in the Eagle Ford, whose pollution reaches the county. The state environmental agency also installed the first air monitor in the shale formation after the series reported that no monitors were in the oil field, and the closest one already had detected more petroleum-related pollution than found in the industrialized Houston suburb of Deer Park.

The newsroom kept digging. In September, Database Editor Joe Kokenge scraped updated production data from the Railroad Commission to see whether flaring in the shale declined in 2014. Kokenge discovered the volume of gas kept going in one direction – up. From January to July this year, gas flares in the Eagle Ford burned more than 20 billion cubic feet, a new record for the seven-month period.