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Fracking Study Links Pollution, Earthquakes to Drilling in Texas Shale

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A Pennsylvania family shows their contaminated water supply. Les Stone / Greenpeace

A new analysis of Texas' oil and gas development underscores how there really are two sides to the energy debate. We know that drilling has brought the state billions in wealth, but its vast impacts on the environment cannot be ignored.

The Academy of Medicine, Engineering and Science of Texas (TAMEST)—the state's top scientific community—has released a comprehensive, peer-reviewed report today analyzing the wide-ranging environmental, economic and social impacts of shale oil and gas production in the Lone Star State.


"This study aims to help us better understand what is and is not known about the impacts of shale oil and gas development in Texas and it offers recommendations for future research priorities," the report states.

The 204-page Shale Task Force report was compiled by representatives from academia, environmental organizations, the oil and gas industry, and state agencies with a focus on six key areas: seismicity, land, air, water, transportation and economic and social impacts.

Citing the report, the Houston Chronicle noted that the shale boom has contributed to the state's economic gains but has also "degraded natural resources, overwhelmed small communities and even boosted the frequency and severity of traffic collisions as workers and equipment rush to oil fields."

The report also reveals that people living in shale communities feel conflicted over the oil and gas industry. They like its benefits to local, regional and state economies but dislike the impacts on traffic, public safety, environmental concerns and noise. For instance, the report calculated that rural crashes involving commercial vehicles have increased more than 75 percent in some drilling regions in Texas. Also, road damage from oil and gas operations in Texas costs an estimated $1.5 to $2 billion a year

Although Texas has not experienced as many human-induced-earthquakes as Oklahoma, according to the report, Texas recorded only two earthquakes a year before 2008. Since then, there have been 12-15 a year. Some of the earthquakes have been linked to wastewater disposal from oil and gas operations.

As for water usage, the report's authors found that while hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, uses 1-5 million gallons of water per well on average, accounting for less than 1 percent of total statewide water use, it could still account for 90 percent of total water use in some rural counties.

"Even though the overall amount of water used for hydraulic fracturing processes in Texas is low, there are areas within the state where the amount used is much more important and will be of more concern," said Danny Reible, a professor at Texas Tech University and member of the task force.

EcoWatch reached out to Sandra Steingraber, a biologist, author and founding member of Concerned Health Professionals of New York, to get her take on the study. She said:

The findings of the exhaustive, 204-page analysis from the Texas Academy of Medicine, Engineering and Science boil down to this: drilling and fracking operations bring temporary prosperity to a few and serious health and safety risks to many. The TAMES report makes clear that in Texas—as everywhere else—wherever fracking goes, it brings along toxic air pollution, depleted and contaminated water sources, earthquakes, traffic accidents, soil erosion and greenhouse gas emissions. These results corroborate those of peer-reviewed reports from other independent expert groups, including Concerned Health Professionals of New York, of which I'm a member.

And yet, in its recommendations, the TAMES report is overly tame. Perhaps not surprisingly in a state so deeply invested in fossil fuel extraction, the academy's suggestions for further monitoring and data collection fall far short of what's needed to protect communities, wildlife and the climate from ongoing damage. The unstated assumption seems to be that gas and oil extraction is simply an unchangeable fact of life to which we all must accommodate. It's not. And monitoring harm is not the same as preventing it. Rachel Carson said it best, when she reminded us that, when confronted with evidence of senseless and frightening risks, "we should no longer accept the counsel of those who tell us that we must fill our world with poisonous chemicals; we should look about and see what other course is open to us." That course is 100 percent wind, water and solar power.

Renowned filmmaker Josh Fox also commented on the study. Fox told EcoWatch:

"This study is a typical oil and gas industry greenwash. There is no such thing as a sustainable approach to fracking because the very first thing that we need to do in creating a sustainable future is eliminate fossil fuels. Fracking is inherently contaminating and polluting to air and water and the practice perpetuates the use of climate change inducing fossil fuels.

"The oil and gas industry pours money into this kind of propaganda dog and pony show so that it can appear to be 'responsible' but no amount of PR can clean up the mess they have left in Texas and around the world. The only truly sustainable conclusion for such a report would be to ban fracking and phase out fossil fuels as soon as possible in favor of renewable energy."

Here are some key highlights from the report:

Geology and Earthquake Activity

The majority of known faults present in Texas are stable and are not prone to generating earthquakes. To date, induced earthquakes in Texas have been associated with wastewater disposal wells, not with hydraulic fracturing.

  • Earthquakes have increased in Texas. Before 2008, Texas recorded about 2 earthquakes a year. Since then, there have been about 12-15 a year.
  • Seismic monitoring stations in Texas will increase from 18 to 43.

Land

Shale oil and gas development activities in Texas have resulted in fragmentation of habitat on the landscape. However, there is a lack of information and scientific data on what the impacts of fragmentation have been and are on landscape—vegetative resources, agriculture and wildlife.

  • 95% of Texas lands are privately-owned, which limits data and studies on land impacts.
  • Texas is the only major oil and gas producing state without a surface damage act to protect landowners. The state should study the advisability of adopting a surface damage act.

Air

The production of shale oil and gas results in emissions of greenhouse gases, photochemical air pollutants and air toxics. Air emission sources from shale oil and gas development are diverse, have complex behavior and are distributed across a large number of individual sites.

  • For most types of oil and gas emission sources, ~5 percent of emitters account for more than 50 percent of emissions.
  • Recent federal regulations have reduced emissions.

Water

The most common pathways for contaminating drinking water sources and causing environmental damage are with surface spills and well casing leaks near the surface. The depth and separation between oil-bearing and drinking water-bearing zones make contamination of potential drinking water unlikely.

  • Hydraulic fracturing uses 1-5 million gallons of water per well on average.
  • Water used for hydraulic fracturing activities accounts for less than 1 percent of total statewide water use, but it could account for the majority of total water use in some rural counties.

Transportation

Transportation is one of the most far-reaching and consistent impacts of shale oil and gas development. Texas accounts for about half of the drilling activity in the country at any given time, and all of that activity requires a very large number of heavy truckloads, which have far greater impact on roads than typical passenger vehicle traffic.

  • Road damage from oil and gas operations in Texas costs an estimated $1.5 to $2 billion a year.
  • This damage also impacts the trucking industry in Texas: vehicle damage and lower operating speeds cost the industry an estimated $1.5 to $3.5 billion a year.

Economic and Social

For the most part, shale oil and gas development contributes positively to local, regional and state economies, with some unintended consequences, including impacts to local infrastructure such as roads and increased cost of living and not everyone within a community benefits equally from such developments.

Communities in shale regions:

  • LIKE the economic benefits to property values, schools and medical services.
  • DISLIKE the impacts on traffic, public safety, environmental concerns and noise.

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A volcano erupts on New Zealand's Whakaari/White Island on Dec. 9, 2019. Michael Schade / Twitter

A powerful volcano on Monday rocked an uninhabited island frequented by tourists about 30 miles off New Zealand's coast. Authorities have confirmed that five people died. They expect that number to rise as some are missing and police officials issued a statement that flights around the islands revealed "no signs of life had been seen at any point,", as The Guardian reported.

"Based on the information we have, we do not believe there are any survivors on the island," the police said in their official statement. "Police is working urgently to confirm the exact number of those who have died, further to the five confirmed deceased already."

The eruption happened on New Zealand's Whakaari/White Island, an islet jutting out of the Bay of Plenty, off the country's North Island. The island is privately owned and is typically visited for day-trips by thousands of tourists every year, according to The New York Times.

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At the time of the eruption on Monday, about 50 passengers from the Ovation of Seas were on the island, including more than 30 who were part of a Royal Caribbean cruise trip, according to CNN. Twenty-three people, including the five dead, were evacuated from the island.

The eruption occurred at 2:11 pm local time on Monday, as footage from a crater camera owned and operated by GeoNet, New Zealand's geological hazards agency, shows. The camera also shows dozens of people walking near the rim as white smoke billows just before the eruption, according to Reuters.

Police were unable to reach the island because searing white ash posed imminent danger to rescue workers, said John Tims, New Zealand's deputy police commissioner, as he stood next to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in a press conference, as The New York Times reported. Tims said rescue workers would assess the safety of approaching the island on Tuesday morning. "We know the urgency to go back to the island," he told reporters.

"The physical environment is unsafe for us to return to the island," Tims added, as CNN reported. "It's important that we consider the health and safety of rescuers, so we're taking advice from experts going forward."

Authorities have had no communication with anyone on the island. They are frantically working to identify how many people remain and who they are, according to CNN.

Geologists said the eruption is not unexpected and some questioned why the island is open to tourism.

"The volcano has been restless for a few weeks, resulting in the raising of the alert level, so that this eruption is not really a surprise," said Bill McGuire, emeritus professor of geophysical and climate hazards at University College London, as The Guardian reported.

"White Island has been a disaster waiting to happen for many years," said Raymond Cas, emeritus professor at Monash University's school of earth, atmosphere and environment, as The Guardian reported. "Having visited it twice, I have always felt that it was too dangerous to allow the daily tour groups that visit the uninhabited island volcano by boat and helicopter."

The prime minister arrived Monday night in Whakatane, the town closest to the eruption, where day boats visiting the island are docked. Whakatane has a large Maori population.

Ardern met with local council leaders on Monday. She is scheduled to meet with search and rescue teams and will speak to the media at 7 a.m. local time (1 p.m. EST), after drones survey the island, as CNN reported.