Please invest in Our Daily Planet today, by making a one time or monthly contribution.
We do not charge our readers a subscription fee for our content. We want to continue to grow our readership, particularly among millennials and public servants. Voluntary contributions from readers will help us employ interns and freelance journalists, expand our content, and reach a larger audience.
Despite over four million Texans losing power during the recent deep freeze, oil refineries released an increased amount of pollution into the air. In a state that leads the nation in both power production and carbon emissions, experts say that failure to winterize power infrastructure resulted in harmful releases of toxic air pollution. The excess emissions produced during the freeze were caused by controlled flares that were needed to prevent damage to gas processing units. Jane Williams, chair of the Sierra Club’s National Clean Air Team, told Reuters that “these emissions can dwarf the usual emissions of the refineries by orders of magnitude.”
Why This Matters: Texas is the nation’s leading power producer, and to achieve this, the state has heavily deregulated not only its power grid but the fossil fuel industry as well. As of 2016, Texas was producing 653 million metric tons of carbon emissions every year, almost twice that of the next highest, California. The consequences of these emissions impact air quality across the state, but primarily impact communities of color and poor communities that often live near refineries. Those affected have reported symptoms from asthma to neurological issues, and experts say that communities plagued by low air quality may even be at a higher risk of severe COVID-19.
By the Numbers
Many refineries were forced to perform these controlled burns to protect their existing, (and flawed) infrastructure, leading to a disastrous spike in emissions that darkened skies in east Texas. According to the Texas Commission on Environment Quality (TCEQ), toxins released into the atmosphere included benzene, carbon monoxide, hydrogen sulfide, and sulfur dioxide.
Valero Energy Corp reported that it released 78,000 pounds over 24 hours.
Motiva’s Port Arthur refinery reported 118,100 pounds of excess emissions, more than three times the amount reported for the entire year of 2019.
Marathon Petroleum Corp’s MPC.N Galveston Bay Refinery reported releasing 14,255 pounds of pollutants in just 5 hours.
Exxon Mobil Corp reported that its Baytown Olefins Plant released nearly one ton of benzene and 68,000 tons of carbon monoxide.
These burns are harmful, but they wouldn’t have been necessary had the state winterized its infrastructure as it was advised to in 2011.
Most of the state operates on its own privatized power grid which is managed by a single company, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT). After facing similarly devastating deep freezes in 1989 and 2011, several national organizations came together to advise ERCOT on how best to winterize its infrastructure, but despite encouraging private energy providers to upgrade, ERCOT never made the changes mandatory. This time, over two dozen people died in relation to the freeze, and poor communities and communities of color were left with no power or water while richer, whiter communities stayed warm with the lights on. All the while, conservative pundits and politicians blamed renewable energy, completely ignoring the real reasons they found themselves in this crisis: an overreliance on natural gas and a failure to learn from past mistakes.
As the Biden administration is readying a reversal of the Trump policies loosening rules on auto emissions, many states have started tightening their laws to align with the California clean car standards. Case in point: the Virginia legislature last week passed a law that toughened its emissions standards.
Gas flaring was responsible for Texas’s recent increase in oil refinery pollution, but it’s hardly a new problem. We’re less than a decade away from the UN’s goal of Zero Routine Flaring by 2030, but refineries still flare 150 billion cubic meters of natural gas each year, releasing 400 million tons of greenhouse gasses and other pollutants into the atmosphere.
Why This Matters: Companies have historically practiced gas flaring as a convenient and inexpensive way to “dispose of ” gas that was extracted alongside oil, as opposed to storing paying to store it.
Our Daily Planet is your daily dose of the stories shaping our world and the ways that you can take action. From the climate crisis to the protection of biodiversity, if these issues matter to you then please subscribe & stay informed!
Your privacy is Important! We promise never to use your email address to send you spam or advertisements.