The anti-fracking group Environment Texas teamed up with Frontier Group this week to publish an inaccurate and misleading report alleging environmental harms from energy development on lands owned by the University of Texas (UT). A spokeswoman for Environment Texas said UT “has a particular responsibility to protect Texas’ environment,” suggesting that existing oversight of oil and gas development on UT’s lands is inadequate and – surprise! – more regulation is needed.
Before we examine this report as if it were a rational attempt to further the dialogue on managing risks, let’s take a look at a line from the beginning of the report’s Executive Summary:
“Fracking should not occur anywhere.”
At least they’re honest.
Clearly, the report is less about hydraulic fracturing or the University of Texas, and more about advancing a national political campaign to ban all oil and gas production.
We also know this because UT has placed stringent regulations on oil and gas activities on their lands, already going above and beyond what’s required by the law. In addition to meeting all state and federal regulations, UT’s University Lands Surface Operations Field Manual lays out additional rules and regulations with which operators must comply. As Mark Houser, the UT System’s CEO of University Lands, recently noted, “We go far beyond what is required by state and federal regulations to protect university lands. We are leaders in environmental standards and stewardship.”
It therefore comes as no surprise that ET’s report is largely devoid of specific examples of actual problems. Instead, it recycles the same alarmist, anti-fracking talking points and simply uses the total number of wells on University Lands to suggest environmental impacts could have occurred, or may occur.
Let’s take a closer look as some of the more egregious claims, though it would be a mistake to consider this an exhaustive list of the problems with ET’s latest advocacy project.
Environment Texas: “These wells [on UT lands] used at least 6 billion gallons of water between February 2012 and December 2014.”
FACT: In 2013, Texas used 4.7 trillion gallons of water, according to the Texas Water Development Board (TWDB). That means water used over the course of three years (2012, 2013, and 2014) on UT lands amounts to just over 0.1 percent of what the state uses every year. TWDB does not have water use information for 2014, but if we look at the past three years for which data are available, we see that Texas used 15.8 trillion gallons of water. That means ET’s “frightening” sounding six billion gallons is equivalent to 0.03 percent of what Texas used over that same period.
But as ET notes, UT lands are predominantly in West Texas, where water is often more scarce than in other parts of the state. In addition to statewide numbers, the TWDB also provides water use data on a county level. Looking at the counties identified by ET as having UT lands where wells were drilled, over a three year period (2011 through 2013, the most recent years for which data are available), total water use among all industries was more than 857 billion gallons. That means the water used by oil and gas wells on UT lands amounts to 0.7 percent of all water used in these counties.
In addition, companies in West Texas are using new technologies to reduce the amount of water they use. The Associated Press reported how “recycling is rapidly becoming a popular and economic solution” in Texas, where requests for recycling permits grew 15-fold between 2011 and 2012.
Specific examples of companies reducing water use in West Texas are numerous, but here are just a couple: Apache – a major operator in West Texas – is using brackish and recycled produced water for its drilling and fracking operations, and doing so “without competing for scarce freshwater supplies.” According to Reuters, Apache has recycled more than 1.2 million barrels of produced water. Importantly, Apache sources some of its water from the Santa Rosa aquifer, which is not suitable for human consumption or agriculture. Pioneer Natural Resources – another major operator in West Texas – is purchasing wastewater from the City of Odessa for use in its oil and gas operations.
ET: “University-owned land and the groundwater beneath it have been polluted by oil and gas extraction.”
FACT: In the same section where this claim occurs, the authors admit that some of the spills and other incidents are from a “variety of causes,” including “weather (such as lightning strikes and freezing temperatures), and vandalism.” In other words, they’re literally blaming the oil and gas industry for the weather.
ET also cites a figure of “at least 1.6 million gallons of pollutants” that have spilled since 2008. As UT’s CEO of university lands told the Austin American-Statesman, that’s roughly the equivalent of one can of Coke per acre per year.
The Texas Railroad Commission, which regulates oil and natural gas production in the state, has also affirmed that fracking has never contaminated groundwater: “Commission records do not indicate a single documented water contamination case associated with the process of hydraulic fracturing in Texas.”
Moreover, this past June, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released a five-year study, which concluded that “hydraulic fracturing activities have not led to widespread, systemic impacts to drinking water resources.”
That EPA groundwater report, by the way, was in line with other reports from the U.S. Geological Survey, the Government Accountability Office, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the Groundwater Protection Council, none of which found any evidence linking fracking to groundwater contamination.
ET: “Completing the 4,132 fracked wells on university-owned land released methane equivalent to between 244,000 and 7 million metric tons of carbon dioxide, according to two different methods of estimating methane emissions.”
FACT: ET’s clever use (or abuse) of statistics here masks a number of flaws.
The 4,132 wells represent the total number of completed wells since 2005. But they compare their emissions estimates to what’s emitted by “between 50,000 and 1.5 million cars in a year of driving.” In order to inflate the alleged impact, ET compared a decade’s worth of emissions from oil and gas against a single year of emissions from automobiles. To be generous, that’s an apples to oranges comparison.
ET’s emissions estimates are also highly suspect. One of the group’s self-described “limitations” was that their estimates “may not accurately reflect emissions from fracked shale wells that primarily produce oil rather than gas.” ET’s only defense is that it “spoke with two experts in the field” who think it is “reasonable” to make that kind of assumption. The experts are not identified, although in the acknowledgments ET does thank prominent opponents of fracking, including the Sierra Club and the FracTracker Alliance.
The wells identified by ET as being drilled on UT lands are primarily in West Texas in the Permian Basin, where methane emissions from oil and gas production declined by nine percent from 2011 to 2013, according to data from the U.S. EPA. Over that same period, oil production increased by 28 percent in the region. The EPA has also observed that methane emissions from fracking nationwide have fallen by 73 percent since just 2011.
ET: “Air pollutants at fracking sites include volatile organic compounds (VOCs) such as benzene, xylene and toluene, which can cause varied health problems, from eye irritation and headaches to asthma and cancer.”
FACT: This is a common tactic from opponents of fracking: list compounds and what their impacts could be if they were present at high enough levels, and ignore the fact that emissions from oil and gas are nowhere near those levels. It’s not the presence that determines toxicity, but the concentration (benzene, for example, is present at every gasoline station).
Numerous scientific studies have concluded that oil and natural gas development in Texas does not cause harmful level of air emissions. A recent study by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) looked at 4.7 million data points for volatile organic compounds (VOCs) across the Barnett Shale region and found that “Long-term VOC levels were all below their health-based comparison values.” Another study of the Barnett Shale region concluded that “shale gas production activities have not resulted in community-wide exposures to … VOCs at levels that would pose a health concern.”
The best ET could do to try to substantiate this claim was cite claims from Earthworks regarding emissions from oil and gas sites in south Texas. Unsurprisingly, that report misused emissions data, and made health comparisons that the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality had previously called “not scientifically appropriate.” TCEQ also examined emissions data in that region and, contrary to Earthworks’ claims, found that “shale play activity does not significantly impact air quality or pose a threat to human health.”
ET: “Recent reports by Texas researchers have confirmed that fracking and the disposal of fracking wastewater caused a series of earthquakes near Azle and Reno, Texas, just northwest of Fort Worth.”
FACT: No, they did not. Here’s a video of those same researchers (from Southern Methodist University) explaining “We’re not talking at all about fracking,” and admitting that it’s “driving us crazy” that people keep claiming otherwise.
As for whether disposal activities caused earthquakes in the Azle region, there is ongoing debate about whether other factors played a role. At a June 2015 Texas Railroad Commission hearing, a geophysicist at EnerVest presented set of data from the U.S. Geological Survey showing that the earthquakes began much deeper than the SMU research team had theorized. Dr. Daniel Hill, head of the petroleum engineering department at Texas A&M University, also questioned whether the SMU report had enough evidence to link the Azle earthquakes to nearby disposal wells.
Regardless, the state of Texas and the oil and gas industry remain committed to studying the link between wastewater injections and induce seismic activity. The Texas Railroad Commission has adopted some of the most comprehensive rules on seismicity in the country, and they continue to collect data on oil and gas activities that could be connected to seismic events. Texas Governor Greg Abbott also recently approved $4.5 million in funding for TexNet Seismic Monitoring Program, which involves placing at least 22 seismometers around the state.
While this report tries (and fails) to use data to attack energy production on University Lands, the real story is the way in which these lands benefit higher education and students in Texas. Oil and gas revenue from these lands go into the Permanent University Fund, which has distributed hundreds of millions of dollars to the University of Texas and Texas A&M University systems.
In addition, oil and natural gas development has helped make UT’s endowment, currently at $25 billion, the second largest in the nation. As noted by Bruce Zimmerman, chief executive officer of the University of Texas Investment Management Co.: “One of the sources of growth in the overall assets has come from those contributions into the fund from the oil and gas royalty revenue.”
We suspect that’s why ET chose to attack production on UT lands: if you’re a group ideologically opposed to oil and natural gas production, it doesn’t help your case to see that same production benefiting students and helping generations of Texans make better lives for themselves through higher education. But if you can suggest that there is a “significant” environmental impact, maybe – just maybe – you can sow doubts about those benefits.
Unfortunately for opponents of fracking – and fortunately for Longhorn fans everywhere – ET’s report is nothing more than a repackaging of the same dubious anti-drilling talking points that greens have been using for years.