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Episode 4: Regulator Whistleblowing Part 2

Sheila Serna joined the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) right out of college because it seemed like an opportunity to be a part of something that could actually make a difference. Within months of being there and learning what air regulations look like, however, she began to question why more violations weren’t given to more operators. 

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Episode Transcript


Miguel Escoto: Welcome back to our show. We are continuing our conversations with ex TCEQ employees who have left the agency and opened up about the pro fossil fuel nature of the commission. This episode we will interview Sheila Serna. Sheila currently works with RGISC or Risk, the Rio Grande International Study Center. She talked to us about her experience working in the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, what she learned there, and why she ultimately left. Sheila, thank you for joining us in this podcast. You are currently Climate Science and Policy Director at the Rio Grande International Study Center, and you used to work at the TCEQ as an inspector. But you ultimately decided to leave because it did not align with your values. And we want to talk to you about that, about your decision, about your experience there in the TCEQ. So, the first question for you here is: what was your impression of the TCEQ when you first joined? What were your expectations? What was your image of this agency?

Sheila Serna: Well, I was really young. I was fresh out of college. And there were not a lot of environmental jobs in my area. And so when I found out about TCEQ, I went to their public website and started kind of… trying to get an idea of what the work would be like. And I thought, great, wow, this all sounds so amazing. And, what an opportunity to be a part of something that could actually make a difference and have an impact. And so I was really like, just… I had this really great image in my mind of what it would be like to work at the agency. And very quickly, within months of being there and learning what air regulations look like, I was like, how is this not a violation? Or how does this not get a penalty or a fine? I was very confused. And so the feedback was always like, well, that’s the way it is, and these regulations are very hard to change. So, you can basically kick and scream all you want, but this is the way it is.

Miguel Escoto: They’re like, Sheila, we’ve worked very hard to create this system that protects industry. Why are you here asking questions?

Sheila Serna: Exactly. Exactly. And so I soon found that out, right? That the rules were kind of rigged or in the favor of industry.

Miguel Escoto: So can you paint a picture for us of the average day in the life of a TCEQ air inspector?

Sheila Serna: Yeah. So, I mean, it’s pretty like… I’d say lenient in the way that you get an assigned amount of investigations or facilities that you have to inspect. You have to divide them up into quarters. And then you get to decide when you want to go out in the field, when you want to stay in the office and write your report and spend some time looking at permits and other facilities in your region that you’d like to investigate. And yeah, I think I started out with… the first year they start you out with, you know, not the average amount of investigations. I think I had like 80 LBB, which are assigned investigations and then the following year it bumped up to like 96 and then the following it was like 120 and 130 and I was always kind of shocked that the numbers kept going up and up because I was like, If I stay here for the next 15 years, what is going to happen year after year? Am I expected to just stretch myself that thin and do all of these investigations, when there’s only three investigators in a ten-county region?

Miguel Escoto: So talk to us a little bit more about that. You have obviously a certain… a ratio of inspectors per site in a region. So tell us, what was… how was the site-to-inspector ratio at your regional office? From your experience, what do you think of the whole system of the amount of inspectors that the TCEQ has per the number of sites?

Sheila Serna: So out of the ten counties, I’d say six of them are really oil and gas heavy. And in Webb County, I know there’s about 6,000 permitted oil and gas sites. So if we just take a look at Webb County alone, 6,000 sites for three investigators, that means that you would have to do… the ratio is one investigator to 2,000 sites, which is… 

Miguel Escoto: That’s impossible. 

Sheila Serna: I could spend my whole life at TCEQ and I would only get to each site one time. 

Miguel Escoto: And something that we’ve discussed earlier in this podcast is how drastically a site can change from day to day. Right. Because you can go to a site on, for example, a Monday. Everything’s working right? The flares are working. Everything’s great. You can go there the following day, 24 hours later, and it’s a complete mess. So again, here we have this systematic failure of an agency because there’s not enough resources to actually… actually and adequately monitor the sites. Would you say that’s accurate?

Sheila Serna: Absolutely. Yes. Yes, you’re right.

Miguel Escoto: So tell us more about what this TCEQ work culture was like. You mentioned here at the beginning that there’s kind of some complacency. They said like, no matter how much you kick and scream, nothing’s going to happen. Tell us more about this work culture in the agency.

Sheila Serna: Right. So I think the agency runs on image, right? Like looking good to the public and also looking good to the legislature. So, because they audit right, they go through this extensive audit with them. As an investigator, you’re very pressured to complete all of the assigned investigations, you know, rain or shine. Like I was telling you earlier, I was pregnant with my first child. And I asked, you know, to kind of not go to these Title V really big facilities with very high emissions. And I was basically shot down and said, no, you still have to complete your work. It’s part of your work plan. And so I feel like the mentality is very quantity over quality. It didn’t matter if I was overworked. It didn’t matter if I, you know, was interested in the regulations or doing the right thing. Not just me, but any investigator. It didn’t really matter. What mattered was that you got the investigation report completed and approved and you moved on to the next one.

Miguel Escoto: Sort of a superficial checking off the boxes like, we went here. We did this.

Sheila Serna: Yes. Yeah, pretty much.

Miguel Escoto: So what you mentioned there with you voicing your concerns, your health concerns, as someone who was pregnant, going out into these toxic oil fields. Can you elaborate more on how that went? Firstly, why is it something that you were concerned about, as someone that was pregnant? For someone that’s unfamiliar with the oil field, why would you be concerned about that?

Sheila Serna: Yeah. So this is not something that the agency openly talks about. They don’t really tell you as an investigator, hey, you know, you might be in danger because you’re exposing yourself to all these different air emissions. 

Miguel Escoto: Whoops. 

Sheila Serna: So it’s something that I had to do on my own, right? I started seeing articles pop up and then I also started piecing things together on my own. Like if I went to a facility that had a B techs unit, I know that there is the potential for benzene or just really and at any oil and gas site, the flare is usually burning B techs. So benzene, as some of us know, right, is very… it’s well known for causing birth defects. So I did not want to expose myself to that. And my biggest concern was being exposed to H2S, because we do get a lot of training as investigators about H2S, you know, do that OSHA training. And I was pregnant and I did not want to pass out or drop dead at any of these facilities.

Miguel Escoto: Very reasonable.

Sheila Serna: I thought so. I thought so. And so I went on and asked my OBGYN for a doctor’s note saying that he didn’t want me exposed or he didn’t want me at a facility… I said, please write down no more than 10 ppm, which is usually, you know, the sign that they have out in the front that says this site has higher than 10 p.p.m. of H2S. And I did. And I also asked him to write “or high concentrations of B and C and and NOx and SOx” because at this point I had already thought the worst. Like what if I’m at a site that has high H2S concentration and all the training that the operator gave me was to run to where the flag is and not turn back and try to save anyone to just basically try to save myself. So I was like, that is not okay. I said, there must be some OSHA regulation that protects me, especially while being pregnant. And so I actually picked up the phone and called OSHA and said, ‘Hey, I’m a state employee, I’m pregnant. I’m exposed to all of these chemicals. What can I do?’ And they basically said, ‘We do not regulate any state agency. You have to take that up with, you know, TCEQ and your supervisor.’ 

Miguel Escoto: And so OSHA, being the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, they kind of just ignored you. 

Sheila Serna: They passed the ball back to TCEQ and when I, when I, you know, came forward to say, you know, with that doctor’s note to say, I don’t want to do investigations at these sites, they were like, well, you have to… we’ll give you a break. We’ll cut you some slack. You don’t have to go to the sour sites. You know, the high H2S sites that are called sour sites. But everything else, every other oil and gas facility, you know, these little tiny tank batteries, you still have to go to.

Miguel Escoto: Right. So let’s talk about that because, for someone that’s new to this, some sites have higher concentrations of H2S because they’re on a different type of field. So sour gas fields have higher concentrations of H2S danger. You asked your employer like, hey, I don’t want to be exposed to these high levels of H2S… So this leads us to ask the important question: does the TCEQ have a good record, an accurate record, of which sites have high levels of H2S versus which ones do not? And, reading here from the Earthworks’ report entitled “Fatal Vapors: How Texas Oil and Gas Regulators Cause Avoidable Deaths” from January of 2020, our answer is unequivocally no, they don’t, they cannot track which sites have very high levels of H2S and which do not. Reading here from the findings, analysis of over 19,000 wells in the report, Railroad Commission District 8 found that over 10,000 wells — 51% of wells — did not file H-9’s to assess and inform the state of the danger their well poses and if it must operate under oversight. Sheila, did the TCEQ in its training tell you about the Railroad Commission’s H-9 permits? Did they, did they thoroughly instruct you on that?

Sheila Serha: No, they didn’t. And that’s probably because TCEQ and the Railroad Commission don’t really work together in any capacity other than saying, ‘Hey, this isn’t my jurisdiction, so I’m gonna pass this along to you.’ And that’s basically where it ends. I was instructed like, hey, you should probably check out the Railroad Commission website and explore the GIS viewer and look at the forms. But is it a training? Do they guide you? No. This came from an air investigator that had been there for a long time and was my mentor. And so she was really sharp and she knew where to find things. And she passed that along to me. But I don’t think that that’s the standard, you know, that’s not training. And you’re right, TCEQ doesn’t have a list or a spreadsheet of facilities that are considered sour sites or a high concentration of H2S sites. So I basically, before going on site, would have to review the permit and find out… look at the most recent gas analysis and see what the the parts per million concentration of H2S was.

Miguel Escoto: So there we find yet another flaw in the system because you have two agencies that don’t communicate with each other regulating the same industry, sometimes regulating gasses that are similar, similar types of gasses. It’s easy for things to fall through the cracks, even if the TCEQ had a stringent and stern culture of understanding which sites have H-9 permits. H-9 permits are the permits which allow these sites with high concentration of H2S to exist and operate with a higher level of monitoring and regulation. Right? Even if the TCEQ had a culture of thoroughly knowing which sites have them, have these H-9 permits and which do not, the Railroad Commission is not tracking which wells have these H-9s. The Railroad Commission can’t determine who is violating the law because it just doesn’t bother to keep track of who needs to comply with it.

Sheila Serna: Right.

Miguel Escoto: Um, let’s move on here to, in your experience, how does the TCEQ rely on this system of corporations self-reporting? Do you think the system of self-reporting is an effective and accurate rate, accurate way to keep oil and gas accountable?

Sheila Serna: No, quite the opposite. I think it’s very ineffective and they rely on it completely. You know, for for things like, for example, emissions events, when you have a leak of some sort, that’s not allowed in your permit, they rely on the operator or the owner to report it within 24 hours, which we know is so far fetched because lots of these oil and gas sites are in the middle of nowhere and probably don’t get a daily inspection or get that LDAR or OGI FLIR camera inspection. So yeah, that was probably the first, if not one of the few things that I first had a problem with at TCEQ. Once you start to understand air regulations a little bit more, it’s like, wait, this is allowed? They’re allowed to, to, to have emissions events and just pollute the air and that’s it? They just get… it’s okay? Just because they told us? I thought that was so mind boggling.

Miguel Escoto: It is. I still can’t understand it and I think part of the problem is that the general public doesn’t understand how absurd and ludicrous this is. So, I mean, yeah, thank you again for being an outspoken critic and a voice for real environmental advocacy. Tell us about what led you to the decision to leave the TCEQ, the TCEQ machine, and instead work for climate advocacy. What led you to make this decision?

Sheila Serna: Yeah. So I was an air investigator for five years when I suffered from burnout because that’s literally what it was every year, more and more investigations, more and more pressure, more and more turnover. So I was like the senior most investigator who had to train new people constantly that didn’t stick around. I was pretty much exhausted, so I switched over to the small business and local government assistance section, which basically just helps people… like mom and pop shops get permits with TCEQ. And I felt like that was a little more meaningful than what I was doing as an air investigator, just pretending like I was inspecting these facilities. So I was in the small business section when, when I… when somebody sent me an article on the Texas Tribune that had… so this reporter, environmental reporter, had done a PIR request at a facility here in Laredo, which is a huge emitter for ethylene oxide. So not an oil and gas site, but still another probably top its from. 

(noise from a child)

Sheila Serna: Sorry. So this facility is like one of the top ten emitters in the whole nation and it’s here in Laredo. So she was doing an investigation piece on it. She asked for a request, pulled an email that I had written to my supervisor saying I found something that I didn’t like. I really want to cite the violation. Can you help me figure out what violation we can cite? And he was basically like, No, everything is fine. And they fixed the problem last year. And even if this happened a couple of years ago, the problem is fixed now. And so I replied and said, Well, can we at least, you know, ask for the investigative division to look into it? And he said, No. No, you don’t have enough evidence. You don’t have enough, you know, enough to back up your allegation.

Miguel Escoto: Was this investigation at the same site of the Texas Tribune piece on in Laredo?

Sheila Serna: The same yes, the same site. The same site.

Miguel Escoto: So you saw your name there in that PIR.

Sheila Serna: In that report, I saw my name and that little excerpt from my email because she… with a public information request all of the, you know, emails, investigations, any communication within the agency is public information. So that’s how she was able to get my email. And so when I saw that and I kind of… it kind of like it was like looking at myself in the mirror and I said, My name is on this report. And I didn’t push hard enough for something to happen. And I just was really tired of just standing by, waiting for someone to believe me or for someone to back me up and do the right thing. And shortly after, Tricia, who is the Rio Grande executive director, reached out to me and she said she offered me a job, would you like to come and work for us? And at first I was like, Wow, no, I don’t think I can. I was very comfortable. And I think, you know, TCEQ knows that, right? They really preach that to you like, ‘You have a good job here. You have insurance, you’re going to get a great retirement, you know, compensation when you’re done working with us and look at all these benefits, you know, you have sick days and annual leave.’ And so they really push that on you. And then six years in, I was really contemplating should I leave, should I not leave? And then I just ultimately decided to take a leap of faith and say that I’m not happy doing what I’m doing at TCEQ. And so I, so I started working at this environmental nonprofit and I have no regrets. It’s probably the best thing I could have done.

Miguel Escoto: Well, Sheila, welcome to the movement. This is great that we have your voice to count on. Any concluding remarks for our listeners here?

Sheila Serna: Yeah. I mean, I would say if you feel something, if you feel like something’s not right, it’s probably not. And just follow your gut. And, you know, I believe strongly that, you know, what the right thing is… what the right thing is and what the wrong thing is. And to me, being on the other side feels right and it’s not a race, right? It’s a marathon. Everything that we do takes a lot of time, a lot of energy, and it can get tiring. But I feel like in the end, it’s going to be worth it.


Miguel Escoto: That’ll do it for this episode. Thank you so much for listening. Now that we have thoroughly covered how the oil and gas regulatory system is too corrupt to regulate air emissions of oil and gas, on our next episode, we will discuss another vitally important consequence of this industry, an emergency flashing red flag warning us to please stop drilling. That’s right. We’ll be talking about the industry’s radioactive waste crisis. Stay tuned.


Next: Episode 5 >>

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Show Notes

Fatal Vapors: How Texas Oil & Gas Regulators Cause Avoidable Deaths” by Jack McDonald and Sharon Wilson for Earthworks, January 2022. 

A Laredo plant that sterilizes medical equipment spews cancer-causing pollution on schoolchildren” by Kiah Collier for Texas Tribune and ProPublica, December 2021.

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