Elite shale task force says there's uncertainty about industry's impact on Texas's people, environment

Texas' role as a petroleum powerhouse started with the famed Spindletop oil gusher near Beaumont in 1901. But 116 years later, there's still uncertainty about the industry's impact on the state's people and environment, according to a new study released today.

A task force set up by the Academy of Medicine, Engineering and Science of Texas released a 204-page report Monday that found both great economic benefits and areas of concern about the latest drilling boom. Despite the uncertainty, study organizers said they hoped the two-year effort would cut through some of the confusion around fracking and how it impacts Texans and the environment.

"In an era of alternative facts, this report is bringing together much or most of the scientific evidence about the actual impacts of shale development," said task force chairwoman Christine Ehlig-Economides, who teaches petroleum engineering at the University of Houston. "There's a lot of misinformation about hydraulic fracturing in particular."

The report was written by experts in oil and gas, engineering, transportation, medicine, economics, and law, who analyzed existing research rather than conduct new, original research. The task force included oil executives, academics, an oil, and gas regulator and a representative from an environmental group.

Among other things, the report highlighted a study that looked into the impact of increased use of roads close to drilling sites, especially by trucks. Researchers found that the cost of road repair -- mainly on rural roads not built for such heavy loads -- increased by $1.5 billion to $2 billion annually. And, there was an increase in serious and fatal crashes involving commercial vehicles near drilling areas such as the Eagle Ford Shale and Permian Basin.

Fears about the consequences of drilling, particularly air and water quality, have escalated since Barnett Shale natural gas drillers near Fort Worth started the fracking revolution in the early 2000s.

Texas now leads the nation in oil production and is one of the world's largest producers.

The exploration of shale fields — thanks to fracking, other technology and the increasingly important Permian Basin — has contributed to a 50 percent decrease in gasoline prices, provided local governments with billions of dollars and is responsible for nearly 3.8 million Texas jobs, according to the report, titled "Environmental and Community Impacts of Shale Development in Texas."

At the same time, drilling and related activities have led to earthquakes, contributed to the increase and severity of traffic accidents near drilling areas and left questions about the long-term health effects of emissions.

An industry group pointed to the lack of evidence of groundwater contamination as good news.

"If fracking were a credible risk to groundwater, we would know about it in Texas, which produces more oil and natural gas than any other state," said Steve Everley, a spokesman for Texans for Natural Gas, in a written statement. "The fact that such an incident hasn't been observed here is further confirmation that fracking is safe and well-regulated."

The study also highlighted that power plant emissions statewide have decreased as natural gas replaces more and more coal as the fuel of choice to produce electricity.

Even as it highlighted the need for more research, the task force said there is a need for greater transparency and information sharing among government agencies and by companies. 

The report proposes 25 recommendations that include investigating whether Texas needs a law to protect surface owners who don't own mineral rights and more research to better understand the benefits and risk of using brackish or salty water for fracking. Air emissions was also a worrisome area since there was limited information about their health effects, according to one of the authors.

"In Texas, we've collected extensive data on concentrations of a variety of different air toxics in shale production regions," said David Allen, task force member and chemical engineering professor at the University of Texas. "But in many cases, health effects take time to emerge and far fewer data have been taken on health effects. This is the place where our data are the weakest."

The Academy of Medicine, Engineering and Science of Texas, which created this report, is composed of Texas' nine Nobel laureates and Texas members of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine. The study was funded by the academy and also by a grant from the foundation of the late fracking pioneer George P. Mitchell.

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