At least 999,179 people in Tarrant County live within a half-mile of oil and gas activity, raising the risk of potential health impacts due to pollution from those sites, according to a report issued in late May.

The latest update of the Oil and Gas Threat Map, produced by the environmental advocacy groups Earthworks and FracTracker Alliance, shows that 17.3 million Americans live within a half-mile of oil and gas production – a 4.7 million increase from 2017, when the map was previously compiled. 

For Ranjana Bhandari, who has fought fracking permits near homes and daycare centers in Arlington, the map visualizes the typically invisible pollution stemming from oil and natural gas drilling operations for the people experiencing it as well as lawmakers and state officials. 

“When people see the sheer scale visually documented with the threat map, I hope it helps them understand how truly serious and unconscionably large the impact of fracking is,” said Bhandari, the executive director of the environmental advocacy group Liveable Arlington and an Earthworks board member. 

Map viewers can enter a specific address to see if their home, school or workplace sits within a half-mile radius of a drill site or compressor station. To build the map, researchers used 2020-21 oil and gas well data from state government agencies, 2020 census numbers and Department of Education data on students most recently updated in 2018.

The half-mile radius – which Earthworks Policy Director Lauren Pagel called a “conservative estimate” – is based on public health literature demonstrating a relationship between prevalence of health conditions and disease to proximity to pollution from oil and gas facilities.

The climate risk posed by methane emissions, a major contributor to the warming of the planet, is also felt by people who live outside of the immediate radius, she added. 

In addition to methane emissions, toxic volatile organic compounds like benzene, xylene and toluene are emitted as part of the fracking process, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council. Anne C. Epstein, a clinical associate professor at Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center, said living in close proximity to oil and gas development is a threat to public health. 

Gas and oil production sites by county

The Oil and Gas Threat Map shows the following numbers for oil and gas production sites in North Texas.

  • Tarrant: 6,515
  • Johnson: 4,339
  • Wise: 3,636
  • Parker: 2,594
  • Denton: 2,046
  • Hood: 1,055
  • Dallas: 180
  • Collin: 4

“Health research shows that the closer you live and the more you are exposed to oil and gas development, the higher your risk of exposure to toxic air pollution, and the higher your risk of serious heart disease, respiratory disease, and leukemia,” Epstein said in a statement. “Seniors are more likely to die, and babies are more likely to be born with congenital heart disease and with complications of pregnancy.” 

Living up to its reputation as the U.S. energy capital, Texas leads the country with 5.26 million people living in the half-mile zone, including 1.16 million students. The number of oil and gas facilities in the state – 510,502 – eclipses all other states, including runner-up Oklahoma, which has just over 101,000 facilities. 

Texas agencies have failed to properly regulate the industry due to a lack of strong federal or state rules, including regulations on methane emissions, Pagel said. The Environmental Protection Agency is in the process of adopting new rules aimed at cutting 41 millions tons of methane emissions and reducing purposeful leaking of methane, a practice known as flaring.

The threat tracking project is part of Earthworks’ effort to push the EPA to take a more significant role in how Texas regulates the oil and gas industry. 

“It’s not fair that children in New Mexico have more protective rules and get to breathe cleaner air than children in Texas,” Pagel said. “Because Texas has so much oil and gas pollution, this is not something that they can ignore. It is past due for Texas to start taking the climate and air pollution caused by the oil and gas industry seriously.” 

The Railroad Commission is charged with regulating drilling activity and permits. A 2021 commission report said the agency is committed to protecting the environment and consumers by using “appropriate tools” that reduce the occurrence of environmental violations by energy producers. However, the commission has faced frequent criticism for close ties to the industry it oversees. 

“Texas has been a free-for-all in terms of the industry regulating themselves,” Pagel said. “We continue to see unlit flares and emissions at most of the facilities that we visit … but there is not a desire by the regulators to really hold the industry accountable for any of their pollution.”

Tarrant County residents previously have complained about drill site pollution incidents near their homes and schools, including two recent episodes at TEP Barnett drill sites in east Fort Worth’s Stop Six neighborhood and west Fort Worth’s Western Hills area

TEP Barnett, the Fort Worth branch of French energy giant Total Energies, has previously said these incidents did not harm neighbors or pose potential health issues. 

“We investigate any incident and draw on recommendations to continually improve our processes and procedures,” a TEP Barnett spokesperson said in March of its Mount Tabor site in Stop Six. “TotalEnergies remains committed to operate this and all our sites in a safe and environmentally responsible way.” 

Oil and gas operators in Texas are often left to self-regulate, Pagel said. Without stronger pollution regulations in place, there are no strong rules to enforce, she added. 

“There needs to be really robust enforcement, with people within the agencies and community monitors going out and making sure that the industry is living up to the rules on the books,” Pagel said. “We need clear enforcement mechanisms in the rules early on, and the ability for communities to file complaints, make them known and for the regulators to take those concerns seriously.” 

As activists continue their efforts to rally support for stronger EPA regulations, Bhandari believes the threat map could be a crucial resource for parents, homeowners and community members seeking to show lawmakers how oil and gas activity affects their lives.

“If (decision-makers) see the density of gas wells and the density of where people live, my sincere hope is that they’ll make better decisions,” she said. “My other sincere hope is that people push these same decision-makers to make good decisions for us and for our children.” 

Haley Samsel is the environmental reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Her position is supported by a grant from the Marilyn Brachman Hoffman Foundation. Contact her by email or via Twitter.

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Haley Samsel

Haley Samsel is the environmental reporter for the Fort Worth Report. She previously covered the environment for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. She grew up in Plano and graduated from American University,...