UT Team Will Take Close Look at Fracking

Houston Chronicle
6 May 2011
By Tom Fowler

To many in the natural gas industry, hydraulic fracturing is a safe practice that has never had an adverse effect on drinking water.

To many in the environmental community, fracking is a clear threat that has already poisoned many water wells.

To University of Texas geologist Chip Groat, the truth is likely a lot less simple than either side believes.

Groat, the former head of the U.S. Geological Society under the Clinton and second Bush administrations, will head a study by an interdisciplinary team at the university that will review the science, policy and perceptions surrounding fracking.

The project, which will be formally announced Monday, will combine an independent assessment of alleged groundwater contamination and seismic events some have attributed to fracking shale formations with a detailed analysis of the scope and effectiveness of laws and regulations.

There have been incidents, Groat said — from claims of water contamination in Pennsylvania, where gas drilling is relatively new, to reports of earthquakes in Arkansas and Texas, where the industry is better established. But the depth of investigations into such incidents is varied and reporting on them incomplete.

Polarized views

That's helped create highly polarized views and strong calls for a wide range of regulatory responses.

That means there's a need for an independent academic and scientific review, Groat said, adding: "Our goal is to inject more science into the debate, so that policymakers have a sound foundation upon which to develop appropriate rules and regulations."

Hydraulic fracturing is used to produce natural gas from dense shale and sand formations. The process injects millions of gallons of water, mixed with sand and chemicals, to break apart and hold open the dense shale formations, releasing the gas.

The 5 percent or so of the mix that isn't water can include a wide range of chemicals, including some considered toxic or dangerous in some circumstances. Surface spills of the fracking fluids have killed livestock and fouled waterways. Across the country, homeowners near drill sites claim natural gas or chemicals related to fracking have infiltrated drinking water.

Gasland  documentary

The Oscar-nominated documentary Gasland has fueled widespread opposition to fracking through its depiction of homeowners in Colorado and Wyoming igniting tap water due to what they say is natural gas seeping into aquifers following fracking.

The Environmental Protection Agency started a study of hydraulic fracturing safety this year, with an in-depth report expected in late 2012. And just this week the Department of Energy announced its own expert panel to look at ways to ensure natural gas drilling and production don't endanger drinking water.

A preliminary draft of the UT study is expected by the end of October and a final report by year's end. The study, with a budget of about $300,000, will look at issues including how carefully contamination reports were investigated, if there were follow-ups to initial reports and if penalties were taken against companies.

A review of regulatory requirements and industry practices across the country is included, Groat said. For instance, in Texas most wastewater from drilling is injected into regulated ground wells for disposal, but Pennsylvania has very few such wells, leading to a practice of sending the waste to municipal wastewater treatment plants.

Oil and gas school?

Groat acknowledges some observers might challenge the validity of a study done by academics at UT, since the school has deep roots in the energy industry. "The public perception is if you got to Texas or A&M, you're going to oil and gas schools that are very pro-energy development, and in some ways that's true," he said.

But the study is drawing on a cross-disciplinary team from UT's law school, the LBJ School of Public Affairs and other schools, and the Environmental Defense Fund will review its methodology, data and conclusions, he said.