Get to Know the Faces Behind Commission Shift’s Impact: Virginia PalaciosThe Workover Blog

A ninth-generation Tejana from Webb County, Virginia Palacios serves as Commission Shift’s leader in our mission to reform oil and gas oversight in Texas. In 2011, Virginia returned home from graduate school to find that oil and gas development in the Eagle Ford Shale region was booming. After witnessing spills from open-top dump trucks and hearing from concerned landowners who had no warning that pits full of unknown chemicals would be dug into their soil, Virginia began her work with community education and oil and gas analysis. In her various roles, Virginia has helped inform the public about the potential impacts of pollution from oil and gas production, improving language access at the Railroad Commission, and contributed to analyses on estimating greenhouse gas emissions and utilizing cost-effective emission mitigation technologies. Approaching her work through a lens of equity, Virginia seeks to eliminate disparities in public health outcomes that occur on the basis of race, ethnicity, or income.

Tell us about your connection to the environmental issues in Webb County, Texas, and how your experiences there influenced your commitment to advocacy. How do you see Commission Shift’s tangible impact in addressing the concerns you witnessed firsthand?

I grew up on a ranch in Webb County, Texas, and had a lot of time to play outside as a child. We’re in a semi-arid desert, with lots of thorny plants. The landscape can be rough, and unappealing to the untrained eye. But there’s so much diversity in plant and animal life here, and our countryside is really something special.

I’m a ninth-generation descendant of one of the founders of Laredo, and I live on a ranch that’s been in my family for four generations. It’s an honor to have the responsibility to care for the habitats and resources that have been under our watch for over 100 years.

I went to school out of state, and as I started to pursue a career in the climate movement, I always thought about my home and what role our community would play in restoring climate stability. As I have learned more about climate change and my community, I’ve become convinced that Webb County, and Texas as a whole, are the most important places to focus our attention if we want to see real change.

Between my first and second years of graduate school, I came home to work as a summer intern for Rio Grande International Study Center (RGISC), the local environmental nonprofit in Laredo. The hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” boom in the Eagle Ford Shale was just ramping up. Everything was moving quickly, and people were afraid to speak out about pollution or concerns they had with this new technology. Public officials were more concerned with economic growth than intelligent growth. We saw spills of oil and gas waste sludge on city streets, and received calls from landowners who suddenly had a pit full of mysterious fluids on their land that they weren’t expecting.

I helped plan two town halls about the potential risks of pollution from hydraulic fracturing in Laredo that summer, and the Railroad Commission sent representatives to speak. That was when I learned that the agency was more concerned with promoting the industry than safeguarding the public.

Over the next several years, I continued to work on environmental issues related to oil and gas, and I saw a big gap that needed to be filled. There were no environmental nonprofits in Texas focused on accountability and public engagement at the Railroad Commission. Commission Shift exists to restore the most fundamental conditions that are necessary for our state oil and gas agency to be legitimate; it should be functional, transparent, and accountable to people and places impacted by the oil and gas industry.

Your work with the Rio Grande International Study Center (RGISC) and later at the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) demonstrates a commitment to community education. How has this experience shaped your approach to raising awareness about environmental issues, especially in regions where Spanish is the predominant language? How does Commission Shift plan to ensure effective communication in diverse communities?

Webb County is a predominantly Spanish-speaking community. I grew up with both my parents switching from English to Spanish as they felt like it. I’m not fluent in Spanish, but it is a part of me. When you travel north of the border in Texas, it’s not long before you end up in communities that are monolingual, and they often have no concept of our bilingual lives and multiculturalism on the border. There’s still this sentiment in Austin that Mexicans just need to assimilate and learn “the language,” which is presumably English. Or, worse, that we already have and there’s no need to provide information in any other language. How sad to force everyone to live one way, to live life as if no other cultures or tongues are relevant.

Language access is such a simple concept – a simple acknowledgement that we are all different and that we should care to move forward together in society sharing knowledge and ideas with one another. Earlier in my career, I created a project at Environmental Defense Fund to give bilingual workshops in rural and predominantly Spanish-speaking counties in the Eagle Ford Shale to teach community-members which agencies to call if they experienced a potential contamination incident related to oil and gas. The Railroad Commission wasn’t providing any information in Spanish at that time, not even how to file a complaint. And while their complaint page is still only available in English, they’ve translated several key documents Commission Shift has asked for this year, and we are starting to see progress.

At Commission Shift, we are just scratching the surface of meeting the needs of Spanish-speaking landowners and neighbors of oil and gas development. We want the commission to provide translated documents ahead of rulemakings, notices of permit applications, documents that are open for comment, and much more in multiple languages. There should be interpreters available upon request for Open Meetings. Other state agencies have made these resources available, and it’s time for the Railroad Commission to do the same. Everyone deserves to participate in the decisions that affect their lives, no matter what language they communicate in.

Your approach is evident in your commitment to equity and addressing disparities in public health outcomes. How does Commission Shift prioritize equity in its initiatives, and what steps are being taken to ensure that the benefits of environmental advocacy reach all communities, particularly those historically marginalized?

Webb County and Reeves County are two of the highest natural gas producing counties in the state. Living in Webb, I see several drilling rigs on my morning commute from the ranch to Laredo every day. Those rigs are producing a lot of nitrous oxide (NOx) emissions, even more than the 14,000 heavy duty diesel trucks that cross the international border in Laredo every day. The new wells that are being drilled tend to flare the most within the first six months of startup.

Most people living among this development have no idea how harmful these emissions can be. Most of the time, you can’t smell the emissions. But we know that emissions from rigs and flaring can lead to ozone formation, which aggravates respiratory illnesses. There have been some studies showing that Hispanic women in the Eagle Ford Shale have 50% higher odds of pre-term birth when they live next to high rates of flaring.

The first thing we’re doing at Commission Shift is educating people about these health impacts and supporting strong rules and enforcement for venting and flaring standards. We’re also producing more Spanish-language content so that we can reach more people who need this information.

More broadly, we’re constantly asking for more public access and engagement at the Railroad Commission. Oftentimes, agency hearings are held during the day when no one can attend. And it’s incredibly difficult for Texans who live in the far reaches of the state to make it to Austin for an Open Meeting. We want the commission to allow virtual public input at their open meetings. People in Van Horn, Texas, for example, are seven hours away from Austin. They shouldn’t have to miss three days of work to be able to attend an Open Meeting and address the commissioners.

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