The regulations in place to regulate oil and gas industry is in favor of the oil and gas and not in favor of the environment or the people. – Neta Rhyne
The following is an excerpt of an interview by Michael Lewis of Environment Texas with Neta Rhyne. The questions and responses have been edited for brevity and clarity.
This is part of our “Stories from the Oilfields” series of collected interviews from residents of the oil producing areas of Texas and experts on the impacts of the fossil fuel industry. See our full series HERE.
Environment Texas: Can we start by just kind of telling me a little bit about your story?
Neta Rhyne: We moved here in 1984. And early on, it’s such a unique area of Texas, and with the Springs being here, you just feel like it’s a safe haven. It’s where you can spend the rest of your life and not have to deal with outside this beautiful desert oasis. So in 2016, Apache Corporation announced their Alpine High play and that they were bringing in close to 4000 fracking wells that they were going to put here in this county alone. And that was very concerning. I really had no idea of the environmental impact, but once they started their operations, it soon became apparent they could possibly very well destroy everything here, pollute the water, their infrastructure, destroys the landscape, and it’s just not good. So we tried to figure out the best route to not necessarily find it, but help mitigate the impact and what we could do to work with them to protect this little oasis. So that became a long process and we soon learned that the regulations in place to regulate oil and gas industry is in favor of the oil and gas and not in favor of the environment or the people.
Environment Texas: Okay, how do you mean in favor of oil and gas?
Neta Rhyne: When this all first began, I never heard of the fracking wastewater disposal. Well, I learned early on that the fracking process requires them to pull out the water that they use in the fracking and then they have to have a means of disposing of that because it’s toxic. So this is a spring system that’s here and back in I believe it was 96, there was an earthquake close to Marathon, which is about 60 miles south of us. We were in our building across the road. We had a restaurant, and the building began shaking and the ground rumbling. I had no idea what was happening. Well, it was an earthquake, and it soon turned the water in the springs. The spring’s normal visibility is about 80 foot from one end of the pool to the other. It’s just a beautiful natural artesian spring. Well, shortly after this earthquake, the visibility went to zero. So when I learned of everything that this oil and gas industry was bringing to us. The disposal wells that they have proven they cause earthquakes, and the possibility of what would happen to these springs. And then, of course, as a lung cancer survivor, the air quality soon diminished to poor.
Environment Texas: Okay, what else did you see around the air quality? You said it went poor. What do you mean by that?
Neta Rhyne: There were times that I could walk outside and it had an industrial, for lack of better description, smell and feel. It was heavy. I’m a lung cancer survivor, so my lungs are very sensitive and I have trouble breathing. If there was any kind of pollutants in the air and you could taste it if you’ve ever driven by a disposal well operation tank battery system that they have in place. I did not know this in the beginning, but I’ve learned a lot since they have emissions also, and you can drive by one, and it just has such a strong putrance smell to it. It’s really hard to describe, but that it’s hard to breathe.
Environment Texas: With your land, have you seen any issues around that?
Neta Rhyne: I really honestly think our land is protected. I’m not sure who all the drillers are here now, but they put out a written statement that they would not drill within a two mile radius of the springs. That’s good. Now that’s not to say we’re not going to go behind this and drill horizontally. But I really think we’re kind of protected from a fracking rig being put in our backyard. When the Alpine High play first began, we vocally and publicly were opposed and we even set up a camp here on our ranch and people came. The purpose of this camp was to try to work together and bring in some experts and again help us with what we can do to help mitigate what was going to happen to the land and the water. But we learned they don’t like you speaking out against them. It was quite an experience. They pull out your driveway, they follow you. They had I like to call them goons, for lack of a better word. Park down here on the end of the road and block us from coming in our property. It was pretty up.
Environment Texas: Sorry, these were employees of the oil companies that were doing this?
Neta Rhyne: Yes.
Environment Texas: Did you contact law enforcement about that? And what was the response?
Neta Rhyne: There was an instance that there was a flare over off of Interstate Ten, just Apache Corporation operation. And the flare was just black smoke. So we were watching this flare and there was some filmmaker that came down and contacted us wanting information. There’s been so many instances, but the best I can recall, as soon as we pulled up and park now we’re not trespassing. We’re on the shoulder of the highway. They were right on the feeder road, so we’re not trespassing. I guess the rule is your eyes can’t trespass. So we were on public land and they were filming, and we just got set up, and this guy pulls up and he’s got on shorts and flip flops and he’s just, you got to leave. You can’t be here. You can’t do this. And it became very confrontational. They called the Sheriff’s Department, Apache did. They sent out a deputy who was off duty. And it became an issue that off duty officers cannot they’re paid by the taxpayers, right. Their gas, their vehicles. They cannot enforce oil and gas policy. My husband’s back there, so we went to the sheriff. My husband called the sheriff, told him what happened with the sheriff and told him, we have a problem with our taxpayers working against us, basically with these officers working off duty for these oil and gas companies. So that was soon stopped.
Environment Texas: Okay, so the sheriff actually did kind of stepped in on your side. That’s good to hear.
Neta Rhyne: Right. He was very in favor of working with us and taking care of the concerns, our concerns.
Environment Texas: Regarding ConocoPhillips, you said that you’re happy to learn that ConocoPhillips is instituting operational changes that will significantly reduce the need for flaring and that this is absolute proof that the fossil fuel industry can reduce harmful flaring activities that are polluting the air that we breathe. Have you actually seen a reduction in flaring since that time?
Neta Rhyne: Actually, I have. Before this, the horizon was just orange with all the flaring activities, and the air was so thick with the smoke and the smell, and it was horrible. Actually, I didn’t even like to make that drive, but I noticed we came through about two weeks ago at night, and it is considerably less good.
Environment Texas: That’s good to hear. And you also talked about the EPA under the previous administration. You had concerns that it wasn’t enforcing the regulations. Can you tell me a little bit about that?
Neta Rhyne: Well, the Environmental Protection Agency is just that right there, an agency put in place to protect the environment. Just simple logic. You can see what happened when the Alpine High play moved into this fragile ecosystem and the damage it’s doing that the rules in place are not protecting the environment.
Environment Texas: What ecological damage are you talking about?
Neta Rhyne: In this case in particular, I have to go back. I’ve been a part of so many. Not that I like to fight, but you just have to do what you can do.
Environment Texas: You said so many just now. Can you give me just a brief taste of what you’ve been through?
Neta Rhyne: Oh, gosh. I’ve been a party to quite a few petition cases filed against oil and gas industries. I’ve gone to the Railroad Commission in Austin. I’ve just been very active in helping to be a voice wherever I can. It’s been a long, hard battle. One lawyer at one of the hearings at the Railroad Commission put me on the stand. Oh, you’re just a tree hugger. Pulled up all these cases that I’ve been involved in, and they tried to paint me as a troublemaker. And that’s the furthest thing from what I’m doing. I explained to them I’m here to protect my land and my water, and there’s not a single person in this room that could live without fresh water. So I had to drive 7 hours to be here. It’s not easy for me to be a party of what’s going on here.
Like I said, I’ve been a party to quite a few pre-hearing conferences. I have to prove that I am an affected person other than a member of the general public. Well, how can you prove you’re affected by something that doesn’t even exist yet? I’m protesting permitting of a fracking wastewater disposal. Well, the well is not in operation yet, so I can’t say I’m affected because it’s not even in operation. So they’ve made it impossible under the rules that I have to under their rules for me to successfully prevent permitting of this disposal.
Environment Texas: The fossil fuel industry is pretty key to the Texas economy and at the same time, while we depend on oil, most people in Texas have never been to the Permian. What would you want those people to know about what it’s like living next to these wells, living next to these pads, that you can’t know until you’ve been out there?
Neta Rhyne: That’s a hard question. I guess the message that I would want people to understand before this happened, our air was always clean. You could go out at night and see the stars from horizon to horizon. We had no concerns of earthquakes. When they start building their path, the infrastructure, the roads and everything when the wind blows just a little bit, you got a dirt cloud everywhere. So it has completely changed our quality of life here. And unless they have experienced that, you really can’t explain that to people. It’s hard for them to understand the impact that that has on your life.
Like you said, Texas is an oil and gas state. And the problem being we’re in a small community, and when the oil and gas industry moved in, of course they brought a lot of jobs. So it put a lot of people to work making good money, and you don’t want to interfere with that because that’s their livelihood. I was fighting for my livelihood, basically, which are these springs. We own a scuba tourist swim shop, so if these springs disappear, there goes our job. So it became a battle of not wanting to be a bad neighbor and also trying to be proactive in protecting our little oasis here.