Starting today, companies drilling for natural gas in Texas must disclose the chemical compounds they use for hydraulic fracturing on the website FracFocus. While this doesn’t apply to existing wells, any companies seeking new drilling permits from the Texas Railroad Commission must comply with the rule. This is a step in the right direction, but it doesn’t address the real problems associated with fracking.
The slurry of water, sand, and chemicals which are forced at high pressure deep into shale formations in order to “crack” open the shale and release natural gas has been blamed for numerous health issues. Six counties in the Dallas area (which are on the Barnett Shale gas patch) have considerably higher rates of invasive breast cancer than the rest of the state. In a fracking zone near Midland, a mile long plume of hexavalent chromium (which is absurdly nasty stuff) was found in the ground water in 2009.
While the TRC’s new rules will help the public understand what is in fracking fluid, it will most likely not correct the public health concerns. Fracked wells are required to encase the bore holes in a concrete and steel from the surface down to a point where the well has “safely” crossed through the water table. At the extremely deep levels that these wells are operating, the wells do not have enough water pressure to pump all of the fracking fluid out of the well. In fact, a water treatment company, ProChem Tech, estimates that only 10-20% of water injected into the wells is recovered. Some of this water, which can come into contact with strontium and other radioactive compounds, is thought to migrate up through the earth’s crust, where it re-enters the ground water.
The vast amount of water required for fracking is perhaps even more disturbing given the historic drought in Texas. According to an EPA estimate, a single well pad (which can support up to 16 wells) can use over 80 million gallons of water a week. In La Salle county, 40% of the groundwater is used for fracking. That is an unconscionable amount of water in a state full of communities that are literally running out of water.
There are new techniques that might alleviate the massive use and contamination of water without jeopardizing gas production, but they are still far from being commonplace. An encouraging new procedure, gasfracking, uses liquified propane in place of the water/sand slurry. The liquified propane is supposedly better at extracting natural gas, and is less likely to mix with, and thereby pollute, groundwater. While this process is relatively common in Canada, it has only been used in a handful of wells in Texas. The capital investment cost in a gasfracked well is considerably higher than a traditional water well, but additional legislation could make it more attractive.
State Rep. Joe Deshotel (D) released a statement yesterday applauding the Railroad Commission’s new rule, but cautioned that the Legislature is ill-equipped to address the environmental concerns generated by our massive energy industry
Given that the Texas Legislature meets 140 days every other year, it may prove beneficial to hold interim joint committee hearings or charge a select committee with addressing more of these concerns. Such a format could cover recurring themes such as well integrity, groundwater contamination, water management, wastewater disposal and infrastructure planning.
Texas has taken the lead nationally by working with all parties in developing a model chemical disclosure procedure managed through the Texas Railroad Commission. Now the Legislature should build upon this success to address other public concerns.
Read the rest of Rep. Deshotel’s statement here.