U.S. Environmental Protection Agency officials visit the Barnett Shale in Texas, the epicenter of the hydraulic fracturing boom

ARLINGTON, Texas. The natural gas-rich Barnett Shale is inconveniently located beneath the vast suburbs of the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. The fracking boom began here almost 20 years ago, leaving behind a mixture of wells and compressors in close proximity to residential areas and shopping malls.

When officials from the EPA followed community members and representatives from the nonprofit Liveable Arlington on a tour of the area Thursday, the visit was a first for federal conservation agencies based nearby in Dallas.

“What I really learned is how close the institutions are to kindergarten, schools and residential buildings. They’re so close it’s amazing,” said Earthy Nancy, US EPA region six administrator, from the liquor store parking lot between the high school and the gas compressor plant in Arlington. “We will pay more attention to what is happening here.”

Only Los Angeles County, California has more residents near oil and gas wells than Tarrant County. compressors and processors.

EPA officials saw drilling sites adjacent to kindergartens and others surrounded by housing estates. There was a large gas compressor station smoking across the road from the high school, and there was another next to a popular fishing spot.

“What happened here is a real tragedy. It happened in a complete regulatory vacuum,” said Ranjana Bhandari, founder of Liveable Arlington, who took part in the tour. “There are minimum rules, there is no control at all, there is practically no law enforcement. If there are strong emissions that make people sick, there are no real cures.”

Bhandari, a former college economics professor, moved to Arlington in 1993 when her particle physicist husband found work. About a decade later, new technology uncovered many hydrocarbons trapped in porous underground shale formations, and the Barnett Shale in North Texas was the first to be horizontally drilled as a new era of oil and gas production began.

“None of us realized when it started, how big their footprint would be,” Bhandari said. “For a long time I thought someone would come and save us.”

She founded Liveable Arlington in 2014 when she realized no one was coming.

Sharon Wilson, an optical gas thermographer at Earthworks, shows EPA officials Thursday images of gas emissions from a gas compressor in Arlington.  Credit: Dylan Baddur
Sharon Wilson, an optical gas thermographer at Earthworks, shows EPA officials Thursday images of gas emissions from a gas compressor in Arlington. Credit: Dylan Baddur

Nancy is a Dallas native with a Ph.D. received a bachelor’s degree in environmental science from Stanford University and was appointed in December 2021 to head a region based in Texas, the nation’s largest energy producer, where the state’s leadership routinely challenges the federal environmental agency.

Bhandari led the EPA contingent, which included the Regional Chief of Staff and the Chief of Air Permits, to the Mother’s Heart Training Centre, a day care center located next to drilling sites operated by TotalEnergies, a company based in France where fracking prohibited.

Fort Worth-based TotalEnergies spokesman Leslie Garvis said the company acquired its Barnett drilling sites in 2016 and has not built new ones since. Garvis said Total has used electric drilling rigs and other technologies to reduce noise and emissions and has been “a thoughtful and committed public partner operating in an environmentally responsible manner in all of our operations.”

“We are working hard to ensure the safety and quality of life of all of our neighbors near each of our properties,” Garvis said.

Wanda Vincent, owner of Mother’s Heart, said work at the drilling sites has recently shifted to night hours, which has reduced her impact on day care. But she still worries. In the past, she said, workers opening hatches in tanks or trucks could release clouds of smoke that made her and other center staff sick.

She said she reported the issue to state environmental regulators, the Texas Environmental Quality Commission. A few weeks later, after requests from several local activists, in December 2021, TCEQ installed a temporary aerial monitor near the center, according to Vincent.

“According to what they told me, they did not find anything. But that was much later than the time I was exposed,” she said. “It would be nice if they could keep an eye on it all the time.”

She says she worries that five or ten years from now, she or the children may find they are sick from exposure to gases. Leaking gas infrastructure releases methane and volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, which cause cancer and other diseases. VOCs also contribute to the formation of ozone, which forms smog and particulate matter, which can lead to heart, lung, and respiratory problems and can cause premature death. Short-term exposure to particle pollution can lead to hospitalization and early death, according to the EPA.

Federal law delegates enforcement of emission standards to state governments, which in Texas rely heavily on data provided by operators themselves. Activists say most violations go unpunished.

“There are egregious blowouts, no matter how many citizen complaints are filed,” said Sharon Wilson, an optical gas thermographer at Earthworks who has tracked fracturing blowouts in Texas for a decade.

She aimed her $100,000 gas chamber at the chimneys at a gas compressor plant a few hundred yards from the high school, revealing invisible plumes coming from the peaks.

“What comes out of that chimney is unreal,” Nancy said, looking at the camera screen. “It’s methane, benzene and everything else.”

Later, at another compressor facility, Wilson pointed his camera at a battery of large tanks and saw gas escaping from the top.

“You really opened my eyes,” Nancy said. “It’s like there’s no lid, no roof.”

Sharon Wilson's gas chamber captures otherwise unseen gas compressor emissions in Arlington on Thursday.  Credit: Dylan Baddur
Sharon Wilson’s gas chamber captures otherwise unseen gas compressor emissions in Arlington on Thursday. Credit: Dylan Baddur

The Barnett Shale was not the focus of the regional office, which prioritized “emergencies” such as “cancer alley” in Louisiana and the West Texas Permian Basin, where methane leaks were the focus of the EPA, Nancy said.

Indeed, Barnett Shale, the legendary epicenter of the fracking era, has largely lost its relevance. Barnett once accounted for almost 40 percent of US gas production; last year it fell below two percent.

The surge in world gas prices, caused by the war in Ukraine and the disruption of Russian gas exports to Germany and the European Union, fueled hopes for a second boom here. Authorities issued more drilling permits here last year than in any year since 2015 (although this is still a fraction of the number issued at its peak in 2008).

That boom was short-lived, and only one rig remained in the Barnett Shale in February of this year, according to Clark Williams-Derry, an energy finance analyst at the Institute of Energy Economics and Financial Analysts in Seattle.

“The collapse in prices over the past few months – at least for now – has dispelled hopes for a new drilling boom in more expensive pools,” he said.

Today, Barnett gas supplies utilities, power plants, and industrial plants near North Texas. Although these shale deposits have fallen out of the sight of the country, local residents continue to resist the industrialization of the neighborhoods.

Rosalia Tejeda, a mother of three who has lived in Arlington for 16 years, said she campaigned against three properties proposed in her area in 2021.

Companies often locate their developments in low-income areas, where residents tend to be less prepared and less connected to fight back, compared to homeowners in wealthier parts of the Metroplex, she says. She said the city has done too little to protect the interests of vulnerable communities.

“I think I just naively believed that these elected officials were there to somehow protect us,” Tejeda said. “Money speaks much louder than us pathetic little taxpayers.”

City of Arlington spokeswoman Susan Schrock said the city council “takes public health and many other considerations into account when deciding where to locate natural gas wells.”

“The Board balances all of these considerations with its limited power to regulate gas drilling in a commercially reasonable manner,” she said. “However, regardless of the reason, Arlington cannot impose a ban on drilling within the city.”

This is because in 2015, the state of Texas banned cities from banning hydraulic fracturing following a ruling from Denton, another city located in the Barnett Shale.

As for Tejeda, the authorities can do even more. According to her, in the absence of independent observers, objects can radiate without consequences. That’s when she thought that the Environmental Protection Agency might offer help.

“We want to put in place rules where they can’t do whatever they want,” Tejeda said. “We need someone to oversee them, not they regulate themselves.”

Nancy said a new collection of grants created under the Inflation Reduction Act will be available soon to help communities conduct their own monitoring activities.

Correction: This article has been updated after an earlier version gave the wrong date for Ranjana Bhandari.move to Arlington. The move took place in 1993, not 2004.

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