TAMEST study of shale oil and gas drilling

Oil and gas drilling in Texas shale plays pollutes the air, erodes soil and contaminates water, while the disposal of millions of gallons of wastewater causes earthquakes, a consortium of the state's top scientists concluded.

In the most comprehensive analysis of the environmental and social impacts of drilling and hydraulic fracturing, The Academy of Medicine, Engineering and Science of Texas found that the shale oil boom that delivered so much prosperity to Texas also has degraded natural resources, overwhelmed small communities and even boosted the frequency and severity of traffic collisions as workers and equipment rush to oil fields. Fracking, which uses a high-pressured concoction of water, sand and chemicals to free oil and gas from dense shale rock, is also spreading rapidly across Texas, the study noted. Some companies are even leasing mineral rights under Texas cities.

"We're seeing these activities in places we haven't seen before. And we're seeing them at an increasing scale, pace and intensity," said Marilu Hastings, vice president of sustainability programs for The Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation, which funded a portion of the research. Texans are asking reasonable questions, she said: "Is it safe? Are my children safe? Is my water safe? What about the environment? What about my land?"

The analysis is likely to increase the scrutiny of fracking, particularly as a second shale boom gets underway in the Permian Basin in West Texas and other shale plays in the state. No one, including the scientists who conducted the study, expect oil and gas companies to slow production. But the report may boost pressure on the firms to drill more carefully, keep operations out of populated areas, and consider more environmentally friendly fracking technologies.

'There's significant debate'

Houston's Apache Corp., for instance, is experimenting with a large-scale water recycling program in west Texas, where it has come under significant scrutiny as it develops a new oil field near Balmorhea State park and local springs that provide water for farming, drinking supplies and the park's famous pool. The state Parks & Wildlife Department, meanwhile, has launched an unprecedented study of wildlife, plants and water nearby to monitor the environmental impact of Apache's project.

Hydraulic fracturing remains controversial, across the country and around the world. States like Maryland, New York and Vermont have banned the practice, as have countries like France, Germany and Scotland. Counties in California, New Mexico and Colorado, among others, have tried with some success. Even Denton, a North Texas city of about 130,00, adopted a fracking ban before the state Legislature passed a law to prevent it.

"There's significant debate in the public about shale development," said Kris Nygaard, an Exxon Mobil consultant who participated in the Texas study. "And I think we can all agree the most healthy and informative debates surround real data, hard facts, hard information."

The Academy of Medicine, Engineering and Science of Texas is the state's top scientific community. It includes all of the state's Nobel Laureates, plus Texas-based members of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.

It launched its fracking review two years ago, putting together a task force of attorneys, geologists, seismologists and engineers, including representatives from oil companies and an environmental group.

The group's conclusions are based on the review and analysis of hundreds of academic studies, many involving Texas oil and gas operations.

The report noted that the state has no single database tracking environmental impacts, no system for conducting regular research on plants and animals affected, and little detail on wastewater spills from shale drilling and fracking. There is also limited data concerning exposure to toxins in the air. The report calls for the state to do better in monitoring and collecting data.

In addition to highlighting concerns, the report also aimed to correct misstatements and misunderstandings about shale drilling. For example, surface spills, not fracking, are the most likely drinking water contaminants, the study found. Oil reservoirs are typically so much deeper than freshwater aquifers that contamination between the two is "unlikely," the report said, "and it has not been observed in Texas."

And the study found little evidence to connect shale oil production emissions to health effects, adding that there isn't much research on the issue.

"There are a lot of people who are afraid of hydraulic fracturing," said University of Houston professor and former Schlumberger petroleum engineer Christine Ehlig-Economides, who chaired the task force. "Hopefully, we have clarified what are not concerns."

A litany of concerns

But the 204-page report still found a litany of worries about fracking and suggested a bevy of new research. Specifically:

Scientists need to better track baseline land and habitat conditions near oil and gas fields, the report said, and record changes to wildlife and vegetation over time.

Landowners in Texas who do not own the mineral rights on their land have little control over oil and gas operations. Most states with shale resources have a surface damage act to protect landowners; Texas should consider one.

Data on waste water spills and leaks are less accessible and detailed than in other states. Texas should improve requirements to identify sources and responses.

"I'm a seismologist," said Brian Stump, a professor at Southern Methodist University and member of the task force. "Shale gas development is critically important to a state like Texas because of its economy, and important internationally because of its energy resources. Understanding the good and bad implications helps us know what's right and what to improve."

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