Report: Texas Clean Air Project

Illegal Air Pollution in Texas 2020

Released by: Environment Texas Research and Policy Center

Executive Summary

From the oilfields of West Texas to the industrial facilities of the Gulf Coast, Texas is home to an abundance of oil, gas, and petrochemical operations, which frack and refine natural gas, ship oil across the state, manufacture plastic, and more. Every year, according to documents the companies file with the state of Texas, these facilities release millions of pounds of pollution in violation of their permits through “upsets” or “emissions events.” These unauthorized air pollution events emit known toxins such as butadiene, benzene, particulate matter, and hydrogen sulfide, and they often do so in close proximity to residential neighborhoods, schools, and other populated areas, putting Texans at risk of harmful health impacts.

According to our analysis of violations self-reported by companies to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, industrial facilities released over 174 million pounds of unauthorized air pollution in 2019, an increase of 155 percent since 2015.

  • In 2019, companies reported 4,086 breakdowns, malfunctions, and other unauthorized air pollution events that resulted in the release of over 174 million pounds of illegal air pollution. 
  • Carbon dioxide emissions composed nearly half of this pollution, or approximately 74 million pounds. A single facility -- Beaumont Gas to Gasoline Plant in Jefferson County -- was responsible for over 71 million pounds of all unauthorized carbon dioxide emissions statewide.
  • Unauthorized carbon dioxide pollution, as discussed in this report, is a relatively new phenomenon as facilities start to get greenhouse gas permits. For example, the Beaumont Gas to Gasoline Plant only opened in 2018 and is responsible for the vast majority of total unauthorized carbon dioxide emissions. However, even when Beaumont Gas to Gasoline Plant is excluded, air pollution increased 50% from 2015 and 100% from 2016.

Pollution linked to cancer and other health problems

  • Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found in a 2013 study that more than 14,000 Texans lose their lives each year due to air pollution, including 3,583 Texans who die prematurely due to particulate matter released by authorized and unauthorized industrial emissions. 

  • Scientists at Environmental Defense Fund and Harvard University found that in the Greater Houston area, 5,213 Texans died prematurely due to particulate matter exposure in 2015 and that this pollution resulted in over $49 billion in associated economic damages.

  • According to the UT School of Public Health, children living within two miles of the heavily industrialized Houston Ship Channel face a 56 percent greater risk of contracting leukemia, which researchers link to oil refineries and chemical plants.

Pollution increases have coincided with weakening of federal air protections 

  • EPA enforcement is at a record low nationally. And in Texas, EPA levied just 15 clean air enforcement actions each year on average from 2017 to 2019, compared with 24 per year from 2014 to 2016, a drop of 38%. 

  • Since 2017, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has repealed or significantly weakened more than a dozen air quality and chemical safeguards for industrial facilities, including weakening air pollution monitoring requirements for refineries and rolling back safety standards adopted after a chemical plant exploded in Texas in 2013. 

  • The EPA withdrew its plan to end the “affirmative defense” loophole, which allows polluters to escape financial penalties if they meet certain criteria. In 2019, companies claimed the affirmative defense 97% of the time, according to TCEQ data.

Texas acknowledges enforcement efforts have been lagging

  • The EPA shares joint regulatory oversight of Texas industrial facilities with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ), whose Executive Director admitted last month that enforcement efforts in Texas have “been lagging.” He described the rash of high profile chemical disasters in 2019 as “incompatible with TCEQ’s mission.”

  • In contrast to the decline in EPA enforcement, TCEQ enforcement actions doubled from 2017 to 2019. Still, less than 3%  of emissions violations drew any penalties from TCEQ or the State of Texas.

Illegal air pollution events happen daily across Texas.

  • Every single day in 2019, at least one industrial facility was responsible for an unauthorized air pollution event somewhere in Texas.

  • In TCEQ’s Midland region, one or more unauthorized air pollution events happened every single day in 2019. TCEQ’s Houston and Corpus Christi regions had unauthorized air pollution events on 357 and 351 calendar days out of the year, respectively. 

Oil and gas facilities top lists of worst illegal polluters in 2019

  • The Intercontinental Terminals Deer Park Terminal facility in Harris County released more benzene, particulate matter and volatile organic compounds as a result of a fire at its facility in March of 2019 than the total annual volume of unauthorized emissions of any other facility in the state during 2019. This single event -- which lasted from March 17, 2019 to July 1, 2019 -- released 15 million pounds of unauthorized air pollution, double the pollution from all unauthorized emissions in the Houston region in 2018. 

  • The TPC Port Neches facility released 664,184 pounds of pollution when it caught fire and exploded in late 2019. According to the company’s report to TCEQ, the emissions event from the TPC explosion lasted from November 27, 2019 to March 30, 2020, and over half of the pollution released was particulate matter, or soot. 

In order to reduce illegal air pollution and hold violators accountable, the state and federal governments should:

  • Eliminate the “affirmative defense” loophole

  • Adopt mandatory minimum penalties for unauthorized air pollution events including from upset events, as well as unscheduled MSS (Maintenance, Startup and Shutdown) activities or planned MSS activities such as equipment maintenance 

  • Increase inspections and monitoring

  • Improve the TCEQ STEERS database reporting system and instructions so that facilities report uniformly, accurately and in a way that enables citizens to easily determine the amount and type of pollution released during unauthorized events 

  • Require that polluting facilities share information and emergency response plans with neighbors in case of explosions or chemical disasters