Life in the Oilfields – Fossil Fuels and Indigenous Populations

Christa Mancias and Frankie Orona

As native people of Texas, as indigenous people of Texas, we have an inherent right to protect the land, the water, the air, the wildlife, so that way our children can have a healthy, sustainable future.

– Frankie Orona

The following is an excerpt of an interview by Michael Lewis of Environment Texas with Christa Mancias and Frankie Orona, members of Texas’ indigenous community. 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: We’re here, collecting stories about the environmental and health impacts of fossil fuel production, specifically looking at the Permian Basin and the Eagle Ford Shale. Christa, you represent the Carrizo/Comecrudo tribe, Frankie, you are the Executive Director of Society of Native Nations and the Director for the American Indian Movement, Central Texas and the environmental liaison for your tribal chief Anthony Morales of the Galilean Sandba, Michigan Indian, California. 

Can you tell me a little bit of how this production has affected your groups specifically? 

Christa Mancias: We, as one of the original peoples of Texas, have sacred sites that are being destroyed by the extractive industry. At the Devils River, where a major massacre of one of my ancestors, of his people, he was the only survivor of the great massacre at the Devils River. And it’s recorded by the Texas Railroad Commission. Well, that is being desecrated in the Permian Basin by extractive industry. 

When I say that we are tied to land because our ancestors are here, my ancestors died here. They’re buried in this earth. And to me, the extractive industry is just pulling out my ancestors again, unburying my relatives. 

There are pictographs all over Texas spread out. Some of the oldest ones have the prophecy. Our language has survived for thousands of years. Our language connects us to those pictographs, and it tells the story of what is happening. You can see the monsters. If you really put a side-by-side of what fracking flare looks like, what a disposal well looks like, what an LNG terminal look like, and you put them up to those pictures, you can see they were their prophecies. They were processes of what is happening. The pipelines that are coming through the destruction of the water, with the pipeline, with the black snake going through the water. The story was told to warn us that it was coming, and now it’s here, and now it’s time to come together and protect what we have left. 

Frankie Orona: The state has really gone out of its way to kind of ignore sacred sites of the original people of Texas. And so as native people of Texas, as indigenous people of Texas, we have an inherent right to protect the land, the water, the air, the wildlife, so that way our children can have a healthy, sustainable future. 

And the issue is that it’s hard to do when you have a state that is very pro-oil and extraction and fossil fuel run by these corporations. But I always say indigenous people, we have an inherent right. But as human beings, we all have a responsibility to do what’s right and to protect the future for that next generation. If anyone has children, I’m sure you don’t want your children to not only survive, but to thrive. And the only way to do that is to live in balance and not dominate the environment around us and continue to extract and extract when it’s unnecessary, when we live in a time where we have alternatives. 

I think we need to acknowledge that whether it be extraction, domestic use or international use and exports, it’s all intertwined, it’s all connected, it’s all associated one to the other and feeding one to the other. If it isn’t for exports, it’s for petrochem manufacturing. We have one of the world’s largest petrochem cracker plants in the world here. The projection is to have a major increase in price reduction in manufacturing. 

Environment Texas: When oil is pulled out of the ground, it has to go somewhere. Pipelines often are unregulated. Have you all had any issues with the pipelines themselves? 

Christa Mancias: If they’re not monitored, and you can’t go because of the no protest law, and you can’t go to look at critical infrastructure. If you can’t see those pipelines from the highway or from a road they’re built on private property, you can’t go and monitor those. And of course, they’re not going to tell you either if they’re leaking. There are over 500 disposal wells in the Permian basin that have orphan wells that have been leaking, and nobody’s doing anything about that. No one’s actually going in there and taking claim to those because they know they’re in violation of code. So we’re talking about years of petrochemicals going into the earth, into the water table, feeding back into what we drink as water. That’s not healthy. It’s not healthy for us. It’s not healthy for our future.

Environment Texas: You mentioned the anti-protest law. Could you explain what that is? 

Christa Mancias: So in 2019, House Bill 3557 was passed in the state of Texas, which is the anti-protest law for critical infrastructure. So you couldn’t go and protest. We’re not protesters. We’re protectors. We protect the land, protect the water, protect ourselves. It’s the anti protest bill to defend critical infrastructure, whether it’s a pipeline, whether it’s a fracking flare, a pad, or disposal. Well, anything that has to do with what they say is critical infrastructure, you get fines up to $100,000 and it’s a felony. 

Environment Texas: What are some of the environmental impacts that you all are seeing?

Christa Mancias: When we talk about environmental issues, we’re talking about the water tables being destroyed by the extractive industry. When water is being polluted or diminished because no one’s paying attention to what’s really going on in the extractive industry and the environment is being destroyed by the pollutants in the air or we’re at high risk of no water being anywhere. 

Frankie Orona: One of the first things you see is the community water gets contaminated. Visit some of these communities and they have to boil the water. Second, you will start to see that there’s chronic lung disease, respiratory issues, higher cancer rates and we already live in a state where we have a few sacrifice zones. You want to see one go to Port Arthur and really see what a sacrifice zone looks like. When it comes to the cancer rate and respiratory issues it’s like three to four times the national average. 

Environment Texas: What is the sacrifice zone? 

Frankie Orona: The sacrifice zone is basically when you allow the fossil fuel industry to pretty much do what they want and take over a community at the benefit of those corporations and not the people. The people are the ones that are sacrificed. The health issues and the lowering of the economy once they’re finished with that community, they never leave it better than the way that they found it. And again that’s why they’re considered a sacrifice zone because it’s about the fossil fuel industry rather than the people. 

You can go to a park where kids play and look at the playground and you’ll see black film on the playground that’s coming out of some of these refineries. All sacrificed zones are predominantly in POC communities, low poverty communities where they feel they’re going to get the least resistance. There’s a major difference, because they feel less resistant because land ownership is very different in these communities. Where you’re looking at communities like Austin or the Hill Country versus the sacrifice zones in these smaller communities outside the city limits where people tend to forget that they exist. And those are the POC communities that always take the forefront of the negative impact of these fossil fuels. 

Environment Texas: Have you all seen any specific health effects around drilling or production in your area? 

Christa Mancias: Yes, a lot of us have asthma. I know right now there’s a lot of children who have RSV, and that’s going around right now. And that’s because of what is being put in the air and what has continued to stay in the air. 

Brady, Texas is a town where everybody knows you can’t drink the water. People who live there are dying at a rapid rate for different kinds of cancer. If you can’t drink the water and people are dying of cancer, you know there’s something wrong with the water. They tell you not to drink it. You still bathe in it. You still brush your teeth, you wash your clothes, you water your grass. You’re still putting it in your body. It’s hard that these areas in small rural towns are being forgotten or not even being looked at and just dealing with the situation for years. And I’m talking about years in a sense of 30, 40 years, not 5, 10 years. 

Young children from young ages, like my stepson passed away from cancer that none of their families have had. I had a friend die from a rare cancer that they knew once he was diagnosed, it was just a matter of time. People are dying with cancer at a rapid rate and at younger ages.

Frankie Orona: If you look at a community that has infrastructure like Port Arthur that’s considered a sacrifice zone and you look at a community that doesn’t have it you cannot ignore that the rates are dramatically different. And so it would be naive to think that the fossil industry’s continued pollution in the air, in the water, in the land doesn’t affect the health of its local residents in many different ways.

Environment Texas: I think that even fairly hardcore environmentalists would agree that we’re not going to switch off of fossil fuels tomorrow. What would be the change that you want to see?

Christa Mancias: If we’re not looking to the future, even for our own children or grandchildren, then what do we have left today? So I know it’s hard to say, oh, we can’t stop it today, but we can look to the future to stop it for them. And even if we slow the production down, however it may be, it’s going to take time. I understand that. But there are other projects that are being proposed right now, expansion of LNG terminals or plastic plants in the gulf that can be stopped, to stop those future extractions from the Permian Basin. 

Who’s going to want to go to South Padre island? If you see a party for spring break, if you see two LNG plants there in four years, there’s not going to be one. You won’t be able to go see the dolphins and the water that comes up near the rocks as you are standing on the beach. All you’re going to see is these big oil tankers coming in to get the LNGs out of the plant. 

Frankie Orona: I would say let’s truly start transitioning. We can literally start transitioning and I think most people don’t know that 99% of plastic comes from fossil fuel. The least we can do is start reducing the amount of plastics, get rid of single use plastics, get rid of some of the pollution that’s happening, stop the corporations from commodifying our water and our air and start transitioning. We know we’re not going to transition right away but we need to seriously start transitioning if we want a healthy sustainable future for our children. 

Environment Texas: Fossil fuel is the primary economic driver in Texas, but a lot of people have never been to the Permian. Many of them have never seen a drill site. What do those people need to know? 

Frankie Orona: Well they need to know that they’re using three to four times more water to do fracking than the human consumption of every person in Texas. Corpus Christi projects 85% of the water is going to go to industry. I mean you really need to think about how the fossil fuel industry and these corporations are commodifying our water and now it’s going to start commodifying our air by saying hey here’s carbon capture. That’s literally selling air but people don’t realize that and we’re allowing them to commodify air, water and those are things that are human rights. 

Environment Texas: Is there anything else that we didn’t cover that you want to say? 

Christa Mancias: It is time to educate our children and make sure that they know what’s in store for them, but also give them the voice to speak out because it’s affecting them. It’s going to affect their future and then it’s going to affect their children, their grandchildren, and then their great grandchildren. And everybody talks about how we love our kids and how we put our kids first, but give them the voice to speak up, to say what they need to say, to be able to support them so they can be heard.