As drilling activity in the onshore US continues to grow, more and more attention is being paid to the environmental effects of exploration and production. Media stories abound about groundwater contamination, the demand for fresh water from hydraulic fracturing, increased air emissions from exploration and production, controversy over pipeline condemnation and construction, earthquakes linked to wastewater injection, increased traffic and accidents, and effects on endangered species. Recent examples:
This week The Center for Public Integrity, InsideClimate News and The Weather Channel released a report, Big Oil, Bad Air, on the effects of drilling in the Eagle Ford Shale on air quality in South Texas. The report is highly critical of the lack of regulation by the Texas Commission of Environmental Quality (TCEQ) of emissions from oil and gas exploration and production operations in that region. Criticism of the report has already hit the media. Here is an industry response to the report from Energy in Depth, a website sponsored by industry. The TCEQ says it plans to conduct video surveillance of air quality over the region this summer.
Last month, the TCEQ and the US Environmental Protection Agency settled their dispute over EPA’s requirements for reducing emissions from industry in Texas. EPA had revoked TCEQ’s air permitting authority for failing to follow EPA requirements. As a result, permitting was greatly delayed for new projects, causing industry to pressure TCEQ and the State to settle the dispute so that permitting authority could be restored to TCEQ. Texas has been in a continuing series of battles with the EPA, and has sued the agency 18 times in the last 10 years. Gubernatorial candidate Greg Abbott has touted his battles with the EPA in his campaign. (“As Texas has proven in other lawsuits against the EPA, this is a runaway federal agency that must be reined in.”)
Debate continues over whether increased production and use of natural gas reduces greenhouse gas emissions. A large part of that debate is centered around how much methane is leaked in the process of producing and transporting it to end users.
With the ongoing drought, the exploration industry’s water use in fracing has come under increased scrutiny. The EPA is engaged in a long-term study of the effect of industry activity on groundwater resources.
In Pennsylvania, drillers must submit a water-use plan disclosing how much water will be used, where it comes from, and what effect it will have on local sources; and the plan must include water recycling. In Texas, the exploration industry’s use of groundwater is largely exempt from regulation by local groundwater districts and is placing a strain on groundwater resources in South and West Texas. There is no effort yet in Texas to require companies to recycle. The first sustained use of water recycling on a big scale has been implemented by Apache in the Permian Basin, where Apache has installed a central water recycling system. To date, water recycling is still more expensive than using groundwater in most plays. But in the Permian, where groundwater is scarce, landowners have been selling their water for as much as a dollar a barrell, making recycling more competitive.
Earthquakes linked to oil and gas activity continue to make the news. In Texas, the town of Azle has made news protesting before the Texas Railroad Commission about quakes in the Barnett Shale they say are caused by injection wells. RRC candidates have expressed skepticism about any link between the quakes and oil and gas activity. The RRC has hired a seismologist and is studying the matter, but so far has not shut down any injection wells in the area. Increased seismic activity in Oklahoma has been linked to industry injection wells there. In Arkansas, companies have shut down two injection wells believed to be linked to more than 1,000 unexplained earthquakes in the region.