A pipeline break in Webb County, Texas, sent around 900 metric tons of methane into the atmosphere last month, according to a Bloomberg report. The rupture of a section of the Big Cowboy pipeline, a 16-inch natural gas pipeline that spans 45 miles in Webb—which includes the city of Laredo—and Zapata counties and delivers gas to an Exxon operation emitted plumes large enough to likely be seen from space. In addition to methane, the pipeline also emitted greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide and contained chemicals that may be dangerous to humans, like n-pentane, though there is not enough research to definitively quantify its effects. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) categorizes n-pentane as a class D carcinogen, which means more research must be done before issuing a decision on its harm to humans.
Lack of research on leaks such as the one that occurred on March 17 points to the unequal impact of environmental damages that occur from the fossil fuel industry. Until EPA head Michael Regan pushed for more environmental justice in monitoring polluters, few communities had quantifiable data as to how the industrial giants around them were impacting their health. Webb County has existed as a region of opportunity for the oil and gas industry, but that fossil fuel boom has done little to uplift its residents. Numerous pipelines criss-cross the county, which is considered part of the Eagle Ford Group known for its fossil fuels. Yet, like many communities that bear the brunt of polluters, Webb County is a vulnerable one. According to recent census data, more than 95% of residents are Latino and nearly 20% of residents live in poverty.
What is rare is accountability. The Texas Railroad Commission (RRC), which oversees a bevy of oil and gas projects in the state, told Bloomberg it was investigating the pipeline break—though even Energy Transfer, the company that operates the line itself, admits that the Big Cowboy pipeline is unregulated. Complaints have abounded from advocacy groups like Commission Shift over the RRC’s lack of oversight in fossil fuel matters, though it’s no surprise as to why the RRC usually fails to act until after the fact at best. According to a Commission Shift report, the four most recent commissioners of the RRC received 67% of their campaign funds from the oil and gas industry. Seemingly no politician with ties to the region has their hands clean of donations from polluters: Sens. John Cornyn and Ted Cruz both have received thousands from Energy Transfer as well as executives with Kinder Morgan, the company that entered into partnership with Energy Transfer for its Big Cowboy project.
In the meantime, the EPA is awaiting answer from the Texas Commission of Environmental Quality, which didn’t receive a report about the Big Cowboy pipeline break until March 30. Similarly, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration also hasn’t received any information about the incident, though new onshore reporting requirements for pipelines like Big Cowboy are set to take effect on May 16. Under those guidelines, all gas-gathering lines are subject to the mandatory disclosure to the agency of incident reports, closing a previous loophole that made it harder for “unregulated” pipelines to be monitored. It’s a step in the right direction on the federal level, but it still allows for errors to pile up on a state and county level.