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In this heavily drilled North Texas city, a UK-based investigative reporter finds echoes of TotalEnergie’s oil exploitation of Nigeria, Iraq, and Kurdistan.
ARLINGTON, Texas—The 10-mile stretch of drill sites and compressor stations between the far side of Lake Arlington and Fire Station 15 is known as a “sacrifice zone” by many of those who live along this stretch of North Texas suburban sprawl. Around 400 gas wells already exist inside the City of Arlington, and another 17 are being drilled by TotalEnergies. Gas pipelines criss-cross the landscape.
Within this zone, which includes the private Oakridge School and Kenneth Davis Elementary School, a pair of young Black girls play across the street from a looming rig, identical to many Total uses at sites across the Middle East and Africa. Their grandfather, Edgar Bunton, 59, said both had been diagnosed with bronchitis—the only two of his eight grandkids to have the condition, and the only two born next to the drill site since the family moved there from Austin.
Thousands of families live in the zone. Closer to the compressor stations in neighboring Fort Worth, residents from the historically Black and Latinx neighborhood of Carver Heights wake up in the middle of the night, their eyes burning from the fumes.
Heart attacks have become more common in recent years, I’m told. Residents of Tarrant County, which includes Arlington and Fort Worth, suffer 91 strokes per 100,000 residents each year, compared with 87 in neighboring Dallas and 75 in Denton, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Before arriving in Texas, I’d spent the best part of two years visiting petrostates from Iraq to Nigeria, interviewing refugees, doctors, government officials, and activists about the health effects of oil drilling. I arrived only a week before a Tarrant County district court judge refused to grant a court order preventing the City of Arlington from issuing new gas well permits, opening up the city to Total once again.
Residents here say Arlington is America’s guinea pig for fracking because of the urban drilling that began above the Barnett Shale, where the ‘father of fracking’ George Mitchell first began experimenting with hydraulic fracturing in the 1980’s.
I took an air pollution sensor to see first-hand how it compared to petro-cities like Erbil, Iraq, and Port Harcourt, Nigeria.
I met with Ranjana Bhandari, a former college economics instructor turned community advocate, at a Starbucks in Arlington.
Bhandari set up Liveable Arlington as a grassroots organization opposing fracking. She’s spent the last five years trying to stop new wells from opening up across the city. A 2015 state law named House Bill 40 prohibits cities in Texas from banning fracking. Arlington City Council members, after Chesapeake Energy pushed to acquire rights to drill, set up a series of “special use permits” that allowed fracking within shouting distance of residential homes, Bhandari told me.
Liveable Arlington is suing the City Council for violating a key part of its gas drilling ordinance and failing to properly notify the public of changes it made to Total’s drill zone map. (Read the lawsuit here.)
The drill zone map is the basis for establishing “setbacks,” the distance that Total must give when drilling close to residences, schools, and daycares, according to Liveable Arlington. Changing the map meant reducing those setbacks, their lawyers said.We drive past empty playgrounds. While we talk, the air pollution sensor I’d calibrated the day before against EPA-approved sensors creeps up to “high.”
Fracking often releases invisible particles known as PM2.5, particles smaller than 2.5 micrometers. The particles are inhaled by residents, including small children, whose lungs are still developing, putting them at risk of severe health issues later in life.
With 52 drilling sites around the city, pregnant mothers around Arlington struggle to protect their children from exposure.
“I have no idea what’s going to happen, my kids spend a lot of time outside, breathing that air,” said Rosalia Tejeda, an Arlington resident and mother of three. “As a parent you try to keep your kids safe and it makes me feel like I don’t have a place to do that.”
Because particulate matter is not always obvious and can be difficult to detect, even residents in a highly developed country can suffer the effects without residents realizing the danger.Approaching Oakwood Lane from West Division Street, the air pollution sensor showed levels of PM2.5 as “very high” at 101 micrograms per cubic meter of air (μg/m3), more than nine times the levels described as safe by the World Health Organization.
Only in south Nigeria, where black soot coats the streets and flare stacks shoot towers of flame into the sky, had I encountered PM2.5 of a similar level.
A nearby drill site, named CH Enterprise, an old Chesapeake site now owned by Total, is required under state law to list the chemicals it uses in the fracking fluid to break the shale rock underground.
The “frac fluids” listed for the drill site include:
- Sodium hydroxide, which causes severe chemical burns at room temperature;
- Hydrochloric acid, also used in firework production;
- Something called pentanediol, which turns into an acid when swallowed. It appeared in a children’s toy called Bindeez, also known as Aqua Dots and Aquabeads, and had to be recalled after several children ingested them and were hospitalized;
- Trisodium nitrilotriacetate, a cancer-causing chemical that scientists linked to elevated risk of urinary-tract tumors after finding them in male rats who had consumed it.
At a Total site called Home Run, half an hour west of Arlington, fracking fluid shot out with such force residents thought it was rain, Bhandari told Deceleration. The impacted plants died, including trees.
In 2015, a natural gas accident at a Vantage Energy site in Arlington pushed pressurized fracking fluid out of the well. Residents said the backflow began gushing into a creek and authorities evacuated the neighborhood.
Wanda Vincent has been running a daycare center in Arlington called Mother’s Heart Learning Center. The daycare center became a legal battleground when Total applied for new wells at the AC360 site, not far from the children’s playground, and residents began to mobilize.
The proposal was rejected in June 2020, but Total returned with another application in 2021. Liveable Arlington and Mother’s Heart fought against the permits, halting them again after a two-and-a-half-year battle.
The old wells, drilled by Chesapeake over a decade ago, are still there. Gas production around the school continues.Vincent said that more children have been falling sick since the drilling began than any other time during the 20 years she has spent at the center. A 2019 study found people living between 500-2,000 feet of fracking sites have an elevated risk of nosebleeds, headaches, dizziness, or other short-term health effects.
The fumes alter a child’s immune system and make them more vulnerable to respiratory infection, opening them up to attacks from other diseases. Infection isn’t the only risk to a child’s health—even before they are born.
“The most recent wealth of emerging data is on cognitive impacts, and how these particles get into the lungs but how they can reach distinct sites like the developing brain,” said Dr. Natalie Johnson, associate professor and toxicologist at Texas A&M University.
“[The pollutants] are shown to cross the placenta and have direct [negative] cognitive effects.”
A mother can choose to stop smoking; she often can’t choose where she lives.
Drilling the Barnett Shale formation in North Texas starts by targeting sandstone, where shale oil and gas collects, deep under layers of sediment formed over millions of years. Casing reinforced with steel and concrete is plunged almost two miles underground, beneath the groundwater, before the tubes start facing out horizontally, snaking under houses, schools, and even graveyards.
Next, a perforating gun is lowered down into the well to blow holes in the sides of the casing and rock. Fracking fluid—a mixture of water, sand, and toxic chemicals used to stop corrosion—are shot through the pipes at high pressure to fracture the shale rock.
“During nap time it would wake the children up from their nap because of the noise. We had no idea if we had a voice in the issue,” said Vincent, owner of Mother’s Heart.
The fracking flowback fluid that returns to the surface is sometimes recycled, but often it is dumped into a disposal well deep below groundwater. These disposal wells are known to cause earthquakes, including one that rattled more than 5.6M in Oklahoma and other states.
After losing the fight to drill next to Mother’s Heart, Total shifted attention to other sites around Arlington, preparing to bypass public hearings where possible to avoid community push back, Liveable Arlington says. (A full list of gas well permit fillings can be found here). Just seven minutes away at the Fulson site Total is planning to drill four new wells. Liveable Arlington says the City of Arlington broke rules in approving the larger drilling zone, including failure to post notice of Total’s permit application, as chronicled by the Fort Worth Report.
Fracking is in many ways an invention made possible by the property laws of the United States. In some countries, the government owns the land, and any company looking to mine or drill underneath has to go through lengthy federal regulatory processes.
But in the US, homeowners often own the rights to the mineral below their homes and have some power over the decision as to what happens to the hydrocarbons beneath their feet. It’s a tradition based on the individual’s right to do with property what they see fit. But even that tradition is being eroded by fracking.
A Reuters review of exception requests made by Chesapeake Energy, which leased the drill sites before they were acquired by Total, found that the company had made 1,628 regulatory requests under Rule 37 to avoid offering landowners money in exchange for drilling access.
Rule 37 governs well spacing under Texas Administrative Code. It allows a company to drill underneath a person’s house in Texas—even against the homeowners own wishes. Reuters found that only five of nearly 1,700 requests made by Chesapeake to cut homeowners out of any earnings from gas production had been rejected between 2005 and 2012.
If the majority of homeowners on a street want drilling to go ahead but a few holdouts can’t be convinced, the minority is overruled under state law. While homeowners may turn a profit, renters have no say in the matter.
In a state like Texas that so overwhelmingly privileges energy corporations over individuals, many people decide fighting the companies isn’t worth it. Out-of-court settlements start to look more appealing than legal battles lasting years. Non-disclosure agreements are signed, and drilling becomes the norm. In petro cities I’ve visited, generations can go by until residents no longer remember a time when oil rigs didn’t loom over the horizon.
Oil majors muscled into Nigeria in the 1980’s and ‘90s, when the country was under military rule. Energy firms had to broker deals with the regime, paying paramilitary police who went so far as to open fire on Nigerians trying to stop the drilling, even gunning them down in the streets.
The decades of fighting took its toll on the country, but eventually led to a compromise with Indigenous communities. Total, along with Shell, eventually decided that operating so close to people’s homes wasn’t worth the effort and decided to sell their assets—but only after years of severe and still-lingering environmental pollutio now animating lawsuits against the companies that are now trying to extract themselves from the country.
Ironically, Total may have learned the tactic from Chesapeake, from whom it acquired the Barnett Shale assets at Arlington in the first place. Chesapeake presided over the greatest land grab in the United States since the California Gold Rush, Reuters claimed in its special report, pushing aggressively into US urban areas to secure land rights for fracking in the early 2000’s.
But come 2016, it was Total that was moving into new assets already held by a competitor, at the height of community tension over the drilling. Total was betting on the success of fracking in Arlington; Chesapeake was betting against it. Chesapeake ultimately lost $251 million on its bet in Arlington due to “impairment losses” that it disclosed in a 2012 SEC filing. At the time of the divestment in 2012, natural gas prices had sunk, and the company turned towards oil.
Operators often juggle assets that risk becoming controversial, ensuing a perverse game of musical chairs where no company wants to be caught standing when the regulator decides enough is enough.
Arlington, Texas. Images: Tom Brown
City Councilmember Andrew Piel was part of Arlington’s Planning and Zoning commission that issued the Special Use Permits that led to fracking in the suburban city. Piel is named in Liveable Arlington’s lawsuit against the Arlington City Council.
Arlington Councilmembers who approved the drilling have said elsewhere that denying the permits would only have resulted in a lengthy legal battle the city would have lost anyway.
“We don’t have $500,000 or $1 million dollars to take this all the way to the Texas Supreme Court,” the now former Arlington City Councilmember Ignacio Nuñez told the Houston Chronicle. Nuñez represented the area including Mother’s Heart Learning Center.
States such as Massachusetts and Vermont have banned fracking in largely symbolic moves, as they do not possess major resources that would make drilling economic. In 2016, Colorado’s Supreme Court struck down local government prohibitions against fracking, after Ohio courts shot down a ban the year before. In New Mexico, a fracking ban was dismissed by a US district court in 2021.
Denton, just over 50 miles away from Arlington, passed a law banning fracking in city limits in 2014. But the Republican-dominated Texas Legislature intervened the very next year with a law that prevented cities and counties from banning fracking in Texas. That allowed Total to enter Arlington.
But Piel’s argument is misleading, according to Liveable Arlington’s court challenge, which says that the Council members were “misstating the law.”
Claimants say Piel “intentionally and knowingly misled the Mayor, the City Council, and the public regarding the implications of Texas Natural Resources Code § 81.0523 on the Council’s ability to vote against the amended SUP [Special Use Permit].”
They further claim that this “harmed Plaintiffs by unlawfully influencing the vote of Council in favor of allowing expanded drilling” at sites in Arlington. Piel did not respond to a request from Deceleration for comment.
Texas’s HB 40 law says municipalities do not have the right to ban fracking. But in other states, cities have gotten around similar laws by introducing ‘moratoriums’ on fracking, instead of bans, to wait until further research on fracking’s public-health or environmental impact is available. In California, 13 local governments have successfully introduced fracking bans. New York has also outlawed fracking. Both states have significant gas reserves.
But in Arlington, Total is pressing on.
The largest compressor station in Arlington is adjacent to the Agricultural Sciences Center, which 9th- and 10th-grade high school students attend. The sciences school is expanding despite the risk of emissions from the station.
I was reminded of Nigeria, where schoolchildren who had grown up next to oil wells in the country’s oil boom were now in middle age.
Before the oil and gas companies arrived more than 50 years ago, Nigerian women used to dry cassava in the sun to sell at the market. But an oil site has been burning gas—in a process known as flaring—for so long that a micro-economy has evolved around it. Now, the Nigerian women carry mashed cassava on their heads to dry under the heat of the flame.
The sweet and nutty root vegetable cassava, which grows as a leafy shrub, used to be sold raw on the market for about 10,000 Naira (or $13 US dollars). When the cassava has been churned and dried out, the women package it and sell it in the market for little more than they bought it—risking their lives for less than $1 a day.
Sometimes, the Ogoni women arrive to find that the flame has gone out. So, sooner or later, one of them lights a wooden split, they told me, before running up to the leaking gas to toss in the flame and reignite it.
In the southern Nigeria state of Bayelsa, between nine and 13 million barrels of oil have been spilled in the last 50 years. Leukemia, cancer, and asthma levels are high, and the land has become impossible to farm. The Bayelsa State Oil and Environmental Commission’s report named Total as among the top five oil companies responsible for the spills. Residents around the wells in Nigeria are driven to attacking oil sites and stealing the fuel in order to survive, siphoning off what they can in order to make a living.
Mumboh, a Nigerian man I met while visiting oil and gas refineries in the south, recounted how as a young boy he would steal oil from pipelines to take to illegal refineries in the jungle. Along with another group of refiners, he punctured holes in oil pipelines in the jungle to bleed out the oil into a hollowed-out drum.
Once enough oil was stolen, they would light a fire underneath the drum and drill a hole in the top to let the fumes escape. Black soot coats the streets of Port Harcourt because of the illegal refineries. If done right, diesel fuel is what remains in the barrel. But If the gas fumes catch the fire underneath, the drum can explode. Several of Mumboh’s friends have died trying to make money from refining the oil, he said.
The artisanal refiners that survive sometimes look to sell the product in a nearby town, filling up large coke bottles with diesel, loading up a car, and driving out of the river delta. If police catch them, they confiscate the vehicle, drive it into a clearing in the jungle, and set it on fire, leaving it to burn sometimes for days.After the fires die down, villagers creep up to the clearing and begin tearing parts off the burned-out car to sell as scrap metal.
Some of the charred metal eventually finds its way back to the Niger Delta, to be used in the construction of new make-shift refineries all over again.
Back in Arlington, we arrive at a drill site Total is operating. Diggers are arriving outside. Men in hardhats are walking across the parking lot. Opposite an adjacent hotel balcony, boards have been put in the way that prevent anyone from peering into the site.
“You can’t come in here, you ain’t dressed right,” said a mustached worker sitting in front of the drill site when I asked to enter. We both looked at each other nervously and said sorry.
I walked around the site instead, knocking on the doors of mobile homes overgrown by summer weeds. A man tinkering with car parts out on his porch shows me around his back yard. It’s full of spare parts. Scrap metal to me, treasure to him.
Around us are the skeletons of transformers, satellite dishes. He’s turned out the insides of a car he was driving before I was born.
A hand goes up, asking me not to take photos or video, or else the neighbors will come knocking. Behind the fence is an old well head that kicks up dust when subcontractors begin working on it. Despite his close location, he never got any mineral rights or saw any payment. There’s a tone of resentment reserved for people that did.
Most people in Arlington have a cousin or a friend working in the gas and oil industry, and criticizing fracking spells trouble for many.
Ranjana told me the last time she was here, a woman emerged from her mobile home to speak to a French news crew—explaining that she’d been tormented by the noise of the drilling and the putrefying smell—but when the cameras began rolling, she would only say that fracking is good for the economy. Most won’t speak to reporters at all.
Another resident, sitting in a lawn chair dressed in a white undershirt, peers down his brown beard at my press card. He agreed to a payment for mineral rights, he says. They’d begun by quoting upwards of $500 per month, but he’d ended up with less than $100. He regrets it now that he’s started to see cracks appear in his home.
I notice a tremor in his hand when he hands back my ID.
Pamela Polk, who lives in Arlington with her autistic grandson, has been renting next to a Total fracking site for almost a decade, developing chronic pulmonary lung disease in the intervening years (her doctor did not give her a probable cause of the disease). She knows drilling is taking place when her furniture starts to shake and a foul smell leaks over from the other side of the fence.
“If I had known any of the drilling would have happened I never would have moved here,” said Polk, whose rent has gone from $300 a month to over $2,000 a month since she moved in. “You can’t move anywhere in Arlington now. I’m just stuck, the way a lot of folk are. They’re just stuck.”
The phrase gave me pause. The refugee family I’d met in Kurdistan, too, had said the same. Their legal status and their finances kept them from moving, so they too were forced to live close to polluting oil sites. Even in rural Iraq, however, where 11 million people live below the poverty line, I had never seen drill sites so close to people’s homes.
After fights with residents and attorneys, the City of Arlington stipulated that Total must use electric oil rigs instead of diesel rigs at its new permits at Rocking Horse in late 2021.
But only weeks later members of Liveable Arlington took photos of Total using the diesel-powered drilling rig. The gas well inspector refused to respond to Liveable Arlington’s request for an investigation until video emerged of the diesel drilling. It was shut down for only two months.
“How many other times did they break the rules that we didn’t see?” Bhandari asked. “The rules that are so favorable to them they have nothing to worry about, and they are so arrogant they do not even want to follow those minimum rules.
“They feel they are above the law. You let it happen in Nigeria or Iraq, eventually it comes home. It creates a culture that says ‘I am above the law, I will do whatever I want to,’” she told Deceleration.
Back in 2013 when Syrian refugees fleeing ISIS and a Turkish invasion flooded across the Iraqi border, the camp next to the oil and gas sites I visited was all tents. A decade later it had become a city.
As well as PM2.5, fracking releases dangerous petroleum hydrocarbons such as benzene and xylene. It also releases chemicals that contribute to smog formation, which have been found to worsen asthma.
Behind the refugee community, towers of metal loomed in the distance with flame shooting out the top. The flare stacks are designed to burn off gas when it becomes unprofitable to sell, releasing benzene and other carcinogens linked to child deformities and preterm birth.
When Covid-19 hit Iraq, one Syrian mother—a trained nurse—volunteered to administer vaccinations. She was vaccinating babies between one and four days old.
As the gas flaring continued, she said she started encountering more babies with birth defects. Many are stillborn in the camps. The infants would often have health defects; a missing valve, or a hole in the heart. Many had a condition which prevented them from crying, and many more had difficulty breathing.
A girl passed away from leukemia at the age of 14 not long before we arrived in early 2022. Another 12-year-old was diagnosed with breast cancer while we were there.
American oil companies tried to hustle into Iraq when evidence of weapons of mass destruction promised by President Bush and his team failed to materialize. But 20 years after the US invasion it is Total, a company headquartered in a country that swore off assisting in the invasion, which stands to profit most from oil sales, while US/UK rivals Shell and BP withdraw.
Natural gas blowouts happen regularly, sending methane emissions soaring. During the freeze of Winter Storm Uri 2021 a sound like a jet taking off echoed all across West Arlington—the sound of compressor stations venting 40,000 tonnes of natural gas in a single episode because the pipes had frozen over.
Now, in the middle of a heatwave, blowouts are happening more frequently. As the metal expands, the heating risks damaging the equipment. Operators cite the risk of explosion, and release the methane directly into the atmosphere—where it has more than 80-times the global warming power of carbon dioxide.
Sharon Wilson, an environmentalist and former researcher for the NGO Earthworks, filmed the compressor through an optical gas-imaging camera, which picks up methane emissions.
The compressor station looked like “the mouth of hell” through the camera, said Bhandari.
Harriet, an elderly lady who lived downwind of the station, developed chronic pulmonary lung disease shortly after the facility started up. She would attend City Council meetings with her oxygen mask to share her thoughts.
“I got to see how much suffering there was, how much she went through,” said Bhandari. “She never recovered. She was feisty to the end.”
Total, which did not respond to a request for comment from Deceleration, posted record profits of $20.8B in February 2023, reaping rewards from the surge in oil and natural gas prices after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The company has called for more regulation and monitoring of emissions while promising investment in renewable energy.
“Embracing regulation and calling for more monitoring is the industry’s new strategy,” Wilson said, “because they know there is little chance of effective monitoring, while meanwhile they continue to make record-breaking profits.”
Wilson worked for 12 years in oil and gas before she decided she couldn’t stay silent about the environmental damage she was witnessing, starting a blog to document emissions in 2006.
Not many residents are hopeful for change. They believe that those who care have no power, and those in power do not care.
“We are not experts, but we are called upon now to be experts, when that is the job of government,” said Bhandari. “I mean, how is a mother’s group supposed to monitor 52 drill sites, three compressor stations, and miles of pipeline? A mom with a phone is not a good model of regulation.”
In my home country of England, the oil industry has had a hard time making money from fracking.
Projects have been stalled as legal cases and local protests piled up for over a decade. Police officers threw me to the ground while I covered a fracking protest in Lancashire in 2017, along with around a dozen others.
Cuadrilla Resources, owned by an Australian energy and mining company called AJ Lucas, lost over $70,000 when a group of protestors climbed on top of the trucks transporting fracking equipment in 2017 and stayed there for three days.
The protest seemed to have an impact. L&M Transport, which owned the trucks, canceled its contract with Cuadrilla, delaying the fracking project in the UK. Eventually, the authorities clamped down on the drill site at Preston New Road after tremors in 2019. The moratorium on fracking still stands in the UK, as of the time of writing in August 2023.
Tremors that risked damaging property helped convince the UK government that fracking was a danger to the community. The arguments about health often came secondary.
France—where Total is headquartered—has also banned fracking, but both France and the UK are importing liquified natural gas from the United States being pushed out through the Gulf Coast. Gas that has often come from the shale rock under towns like Arlington, Texas.
The public health consequences, deemed unacceptable by European nations, are being offloaded to the U.S.
We headed back along the compressor-station corridor, tracing out the dot-to-dot line of drilling rigs through the sacrifice zone on our journey home.
“The argument is now to say that, because of what’s going on in Europe, we have to supply LNG so our allies don’t have to rely on petrostates,” Bhandari said, turning to me in the parked car. “But, we are becoming a petrostate. And Arlington is a petro city.”
Tom Brown is a freelance global health and environmental reporter with a background in financial journalism. He’s spent the past three years investigating oil and gas pollution in Africa and the Middle East, with investigations funded by the European Journalism Centre and the Environmental Reporting Collective. The data visualization for his ‘Choking Kurdistan’ investigative series into illegal gas flaring won NASA’s Michael H. Freilich 2022 Award. His most recent reporting has taken him to the Permian Basin where he is currently investigating workplace deaths in the Texas oil and gas industry. Tom can be followed at @Journo_TomBrown.
This is his first article for Deceleration.
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