One of the lesser known danger of oil and gas production is hydrogen sulfide. This deadly gas is a common by-product of energy operations in West Texas. Exposure to the gas can stop a person’s breathing at levels of 500 parts per million. At 700 parts per million, it can make people unconscious. It is also a corrosive, making it more likely that oil storage tanks where hydrogen sulfide is present will leak. Moreover, according to a story in Environment and Energy Publishing, the gas deadens the sense of smell, so people exposed to hydrogen sulfide are less likely to recognize the danger they face.
Hydrogen sulfide has killed five oil field workers since 2013. In 1975 the gas caused one of the worst oilfield disasters in history in which nine people were killed.
Environmentalists and public health advocates have complained that state regulators are not doing enough to protect the public from the deadly gas. In Texas, regulators track the amount of gas produced in fields that also contain hydrogen sulfide. However, it does not collect data on the actual amounts of the hydrogen sulfide in the gas. By any measure, however, it is on the increase; the amount of gas from such fields increased by 48 percent in the past five years.
Texas requires producers to obtain permits for operations that produce gas that contains more than 100 parts per million of hydrogen sulfide. The number of such permits has increased from 4,233 in 2009 to 6,906 in 2013. After the 1975 incident, producers must also have emergency plans to protect and evacuate people in areas where people could be exposed to hydrogen sulfide.
The growth in production of shale oil gas, which often has high levels of hydrogen sulfide, has increased significantly since the requirements were developed in 1975. Complaints have increased along with the permits; more than 30 people called to report hydrogen sulfide odors in 2013, almost three times the number who reported odors in 2012.
Some of the problems are caused by human error rather than the gas itself. In Odessa, inspectors called by residents who smelled the gas found that gas was escaping from the storage tanks because of incompletely closed hatches, cracks in the tanks, malfunctioning vapor recovery units, or the flare that is supposed to burn off gas. Equipment exists that could neutralize the gas, but it is expensive, and producers seldom use it voluntarily. Producers could also move storage tanks away from populated areas, but that, too, is expensive.
The federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has tried to make regulations stronger but with little success. The Clean Air Act of 1990 originally listed hydrogen sulphide as a hazardous substance, but it was dropped after lobbying. In 2010, the EPA tried again, reinstating the requirement that producers inform residents of potential leaks. However, since most producers are too small to be covered by the EPA regulations, the role of the EPA in this matter is limited.
Consequently, the issue of hydrogen sulphide is generally a matter for the states. Unfortunately, state regulators are often supported by the industry they are supposed to monitor. These are elective offices in Texas, and candidates frequently receive campaign contributions from oil and gas producers. One environmental advocate noted, “”Regulations aren’t worth a hoot when you don’t have competent regulators.”