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AUSTIN, Texas—The Railroad Commission of Texas (RRC) is allowing gas well operators to poison workers, communities, and the environment by failing to enforce laws regarding deadly hydrogen sulfide gas, known as sour gas, according to a new report released today by Earthworks. 

Fatal Vapors: How Texas oil and gas regulators cause avoidable deaths finds that 51% of poison gas wells in RRC District 8, which encompasses most of the Permian Basin, do not have required permits intended to prevent harm from sour gas released by oil and gas production. 

“The Railroad Commission of Texas is systemically negligent in enforcing laws meant to keep workers and communities safe from poisonous gas,” said Jack McDonald, author of the report and Texas field analyst at Earthworks. “Failing to properly regulate wells that operate in sour gas fields has killed people and increases the likelihood of another large-scale tragedy.”

Sour gas occurs when natural gas has a high concentration of hydrogen sulfide. It is a deadly gas that can kill in minutes. One of the deadliest Texas oil field accidents occurred in 1975 when an ARCO oil well released hydrogen sulfide gas into the air, killing nine people as the hydrogen sulfide gas traveled 150 yards to a nearby home. 

Despite a push from Texas legislators, hydrogen sulfide is still only loosely regulated in Texas. Sour gas exposure results in multiple oil field worker deaths each year. 

RRC is responsible for implementing Texas’ Rule 36, which obligates operators of certain gas wells to self-report the concentration of sour gas that their wells produce. Despite this, the report documents more than half of wells in a single district alone did not file required documentation to assess and inform the state of the sulfide gas danger. Among the operators who did file, some appear to underreport hydrogen sulfide gas concentrations in order to avoid accountability measures. The RRC has indicated that it has no system to ensure operators file required documentation.

“The RRC doesn’t know which operators are violating the law because it doesn’t bother to keep track of who needs to comply with it,” said Sharon Wilson, co-author of the report and senior field advocate at Earthworks. “The RRC should stop issuing new drilling permits until a tracking system is in place.”

Today’s report calls on RRC to overhaul current processes for regulating sour gas wells in the state, including tracking which operators need regulation; strengthening site regulations to meet the health threats posted by sour gas; making regulations uniform across the state; declaring an emergency and ceasing permitting of new wells; and disincentivizing flaring at sour gas sites. 

The report based its findings on available data from the Railroad Commission of Texas.

Jack McDonald, Texas Field Analyst, jmcdonald@earthworksaction.org 

Sharon Wilson, Senior Field Advocate, swilson@earthworksaction.org