The Texas Tribune

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In 2015, Congress quietly lifted decades-long restrictions on crude oil exports, shortly after the Obama administration made it easier to ship out natural gas — moves that have had sweeping implications for the global economy and climate. 

Publications have largely covered those developments and the production boom that followed from a business angle. But the Center for Public Integrity joined forces with The Texas Tribune, Newsy and The Associated Press to give readers a cradle-to-grave look at the vast scope, shadowy impetus and sweeping health and climate impacts of what has become the country’s largest oil and gas boom.

We produced seven deeply reported stories, re-published by newspapers across the country, and a full-length documentary for that collaboration, “Blowout: Inside America’s Energy Gamble.”

Such an extensive media partnership is rare. Project datelines spanned the globe, from Midland, Texas, to Geojedo, South Korea, and our series exposed the role of the U.S. government as a marketing agent for the fossil-fuel industry at a perilous time in the world’s history. We showed that the U.S. is selling not just oil and gas but also the continued long-term use of fossil fuels to the rest of the world — encouraging the building of and even in some cases helping to fund the long-lived infrastructure for these fuels. But scientists say greenhouse gas emissions must come to a halt to avert catastrophic effects of climate change, and there’s not much time left to make that U-turn.

In addition to on-the-ground reporting, our series was informed by more than five dozen open-records requests and multiple datasets, which yielded information on an explosion of permits allowing companies to burn off natural gas in West Texas, lackluster enforcement of environmental rules, the number of Americans living so close to drilling that research suggests their health is at risk and other ways the boom is playing out in communities. Agencies tried to avoid releasing the requested information. In one case, a federal agency gave us data that conflicted with other data it had released, then refused to explain why the two didn’t match. (That became part of the story of dysfunction within that agency, which oversees oil and gas production on public lands.) When we couldn’t find a comprehensive list of planned and newly built industrial facilities and pipelines associated with the export boom in Texas, we built it ourselves — spending weeks compiling it from documents, presentations and press releases.

Our coverage translated complicated federal policy and regulations by showing readers the impact on the ground. Just weeks after the first story in the series was published, detailing problems in the country’s hottest oilfield that ranged from escalating traffic fatalities to housing shortages, more than a dozen major oil companies announced they were donating $100 million to help.

But the full impact of our reporting has yet to be felt. The Texas Legislature’s biennial session began in January 2019; state lawmakers are studying ways to cope with the boom, including the potential for stricter regulations for a fast-growing frac-sand mining industry that we linked to the spike in traffic deaths. 

In the fall of 2018, as our pieces were rolling out, Hurricane Michael decimated the Florida Panhandle, a fire in Northern California took a record number of lives, and U.S. government agencies warned in the National Climate Assessment that the “impacts of global climate change are already being felt in the United States and are projected to intensify in the future.” And yet, as we reported, the U.S. has dramatically ramped up exports of crude oil and natural gas, creating infrastructure lock-in and competition with renewable energy sources. 

In identifying this phenomenon and making it understandable to the average person, “Blowout: Inside America’s Energy Gamble” was ahead of the curve on a development with consequences for the entire planet.

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Submitted by Emily Ramshaw.