Op-Ed: The UT fracking monster unmasked

By John D. Colyandro and F. Cartwright Weiland

Published in the Midland Reporter-Telegram, Sunday Oct. 11, 2015 and the Odessa American, Saturday, Oct. 10, 2015

When oil drilling is involved and the state’s complicity in environmental degradation has been alleged, it’s easy to fret about a new Wild West.

A recent report by the Environment Texas Research and Policy Center (ET) raises this alarm.  It boldly states that hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, “is so dangerous to the environment and human health that it should not occur anywhere,” including portions of the 2.1 million acres of land in West Texas owned by the University of Texas System (UT) and leased to private oil companies.  There’s no time to lose – UT must “act immediately to eliminate the worst industry practices and safeguard the environment and public health”!

Fortunately, the supposed university wildcatters are a myth:  The ET paper is based on assumptions belied in part by current UT practices and scientific research that should mitigate environmentalists’ worry.

First is the concern about the large amounts of water used by fracking operators — potentially detrimental to a big, dry state, and a fair concern, certainly.  But the paper fails to mention that, under the University Lands Groundwater Management Plan, water recycling and conservation are being researched — proof they are taken seriously — and that many groundwater conservation districts have interpreted statutory permitting requirements to apply to water wells used for fracking (thus imposing limits on them).

Second is the report’s concern over soil and groundwater contamination.  Again, crucial information is withheld: UT’s field manual already requires fracking operators to remove or store all surplus equipment and debris, utilize above-ground containment equipment to prevent spillage, report accidents, and follow soil remediation guidelines.  Standard leases contain similar binding requirements.  These requirements exist even in spite of the fact that, this year, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), after a five-year-long study, stated that there is no evidence that fracking has led to systemic impacts on drinking water resources.

Third is the fear about emissions. The ET report admits that the science is far from settled – “[h]ow much methane comes from fracking wells is a matter of great debate”– but never acknowledges the EPA’s research showing methane emissions to have decreased nationwide throughout the fracking boom. 

Fourth, the paper raises alarm about fracking’s potentially devastating effect on livestock and endangered species, even though the concern, as expressed, is speculative – based apparently on a single anecdote of a jury award in Dallas, and no actual cited evidence of the purported negative impact on vulnerable wildlife in the Barnett and Eagle Ford Shales.  Relevant here, again, is the field manual that clearly prevents operators from venturing off roads and into pastures, prohibits all hunting and fishing, and contains a myriad of livestock precautions. (Lease agreements do, too.)

Finally, the policy recommendations that conclude the paper overlap with ones that are already the law or, at least, standard procedure: annual reporting, pre- and post-drilling monitoring, and notice to public and private parties prior to building.

Most controversially, the study overlooks the manifold benefits of hydraulic fracturing, which along with horizontal drilling is projected to support 3.9 million jobs by 2025 and has contributed to huge university revenue increases — by funding the Permanent University Fund (PUF) — allowing schools to afford new construction and cutting-edge research.  By opposing fracking, ET and other groups are implicitly opposing oil-funded academic advances on Texas campuses that could result in new, more effective technology providing even greater protections for the environment.  For example, the PUF helped finance a new engineering center set to open at UT-Austin in 2017.  Inside the new building will be an “innovation center,” and facilities for environmental engineering programs that research water conservation, remedial procedures for soil contamination, and air emissions.

UT as fracking monster is environmentalists’ clever guise, a costume for an institution that, it turns out, has protocols in place to address concerns.  Far from wild, the West is being well-watched by its steward.