Earlier this month, the residents of Denton, Texas—located on one of the country’s largest natural gas reserves and home to some 275 gas wells—voted to ban fracking. The ban was a first for a city in Texas, where fracking has enabled an oil and gas boom; the state now accounts for one-third of the United States’ natural gas production. In this period of boom and blowback, the state agencies that regulate the oil and gas industry here are perhaps more important than ever—and, according to frustrated reporters, increasingly impenetrable.
In the latest iteration of a Texas public official denying the negative effects of harmful pollutants on people and the environment, the state’s chief toxicologist, Dr. Michael Honeycutt, said that since people spend most of their time indoors there’s no reason to be concerned about dangerous levels of ozone, a pollutant that contributes to the formation of smog.
In the winter of 2008, a good portion of the world’s only self-sustaining flock of whooping cranes starved to death. The majestic white birds, which are nearly the size of a Smart Car when they unfurl their black-tipped wings, were dropping dead along the Texas Gulf Coast. That winter was one of the driest the state has ever seen, and a lack of freshwater in the whoopers’ habitat near Aransas Pass resulted in a choked food supply and 23 whooper casualties. It was the largest single-winter decline in the species’ population, and admirers of the imposing bird came together to protect the fragile species.
A year later, a coalition of environmentalists, businesses and local governments sued the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, blaming the state agency for the unprecedented spike in whooper deaths. The group, called the Aransas Project, claimed the agency had violated the Endangered Species Act by allowing too much water to be withdrawn from the two river basins that feed the whoopers’ habitat. The group argued that two of the whoopers’ dietary staples—blue crabs and wolfberries—had dwindled from lack of freshwater inflow into the estuaries of San Antonio Bay.
In mid-March, federal District Court Judge Janis Jack ruled that TCEQ’s inattention to the whoopers was responsible for the 23 deaths. That amounted to 8.5 percent of the wild flock, which nests and breeds in Canada’s Wood Buffalo National Park and winters in Texas’ Aransas National Wildlife Refuge. Jack ordered TCEQ to stop issuing any new water rights and told the agency to write a habitat conservation plan to ensure enough freshwater reaches the coast. (TCEQ quickly secured a stay from the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals.)
If Jack’s ruling stands on appeal, it could upend Texas’ system of allocating water rights.