Op/Ed: George Mitchell insisted shale energy extraction be done responsibly

The late George P. Mitchell was a pioneer of more than oil and gas production from shale. He also insisted that oil and gas extraction be conducted responsibly. 

On his own ranch, Cook's Branch Conservancy, north of The Woodlands, Mitchell oversaw natural gas production. He demanded that industry practices respect the conservation value of Cook's Branch. He famously warned that if the production company "didn't do it right, I'll kick them out."

As oil and gas production increases in West Texas, landowners and communities in the Trans-Pecos region of the Permian Basin would do well to adopt Mitchell's worldview. 

The Energy Information Administration estimated just last week that U.S. oil production is expected to reach new record levels next year. Scott Sheffield, chief executive of Pioneer Natural Resources, a leading producer in the Permian Basin, said last week he credits the Permian as the powerhouse region driving that increase. 

Situated in the middle of the Chihuahuan Desert and characterized by scarce water resources, small towns, state and national parks, world-class astronomical facilities and sweeping mountain vistas, the areas surrounding the Delaware Basin and Alpine High are particularly sensitive to oil and gas activities.

Numerous significant impacts of energy-related operations must be addressed if the region is to be developed in a socially and environmentally sustainable fashion. The question is not if this region should be developed; rather, the question is how to do so in a way that protects both our natural resources and communities.

As a major funder of the University of Texas McDonald Observatory, George Mitchell would appreciate the importance of protecting the dark skies of the Davis Mountains, as the nearby flaring and field lights put the facility's work at risk. A simple solution is often ignored. The Texas Railroad Commission has provided guidance on inexpensive practices to preserve dark skies, yet implementation has been weak. 

Protection of water resources, both quantity and quality, is much more complex. The industry is already making great strides in reducing the water required for shale production and has a vested interest in continuing to develop water-saving alternatives.

The industry must continue to develop safer, better ways to manage water quality so that sites like Balmorhea State Park, a precious resource in the middle of dry, hot West Texas, are not compromised. Underground injection of produced water near the faults in the region is expected to be problematic due to the risk of seismicity, contributing even more to the water quality management challenge.

Apache Corp. took an important first step in managing water issues by engaging the University of Texas at Arlington and other consultants to help design a systemwide approach to water protection. Other producers in the region should take note.

Unfortunately, Texas is the only oil and gas producing state without a law that protects surface owners from damages caused to their land during and after production. With the raw, untamed nature of the Trans-Pecos region at risk, it is imperative that Texas revisit its insufficient requirements for land protection. This region is one of the last great, wild places in the state and is worth the effort to protect it.

Further, local communities often need protection from the negative impacts of oil and gas development. We've seen these impacts most recently in the Eagle Ford region where the boom-and-bust cycle has wreaked havoc on the local economy, even as communities benefit from increased opportunity and financial resources.

Nuisance issues like increased traffic, noise, dust and lights are all manageable. It's essential that producers engage effectively with community leaders to maximize the benefits of new development and minimize negative impacts.

As the oil and gas industry again reinvents itself, now, more than ever before, we must insist that new development in the Trans-Pecos be done responsibly and with accountability.

Commentary for The Dallas Morning News by Marilu Hastings.

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Marilu Hastings is vice president of the Austin-based Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation, where she leads the foundation's land, water, sustainability, and clean energy programs. She is a member of the National Petroleum Council. Follow her on Twitter: @MariluHastings.

 

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