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The Law of Hydraulic Fracturing

Paul Yale and Brooke Sizer, lawyers at Gray Reed & McGraw in Houston, published an article in the most recent Section Report of the Oil, Gas & Energy Resources Law Section of the State Bar, “ A Brief Look at the Law of Hydraulic Fracturing in Texas and Beyond.” It will be published in a future issue of The South Texas Law Review. It is an excellent overview of the development of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing and the law and controversies surrounding their use. The article is balanced and fully supported by citations to resources and authorities.

The authors cover the benefits and risks of hydraulic fracturing, including reduction of foreign imports, jobs, reduced prices for consumers, water quality and usage, air quality, earthquakes, and social impacts. It gives a balanced view of the ongoing debate over whether increased use of natural gas for generation of electricity reduces greenhouse gas emissions, whether there is a connection between hydraulic fracturing and earthquakes, and adverse impacts on roads and other infrastructure.

The article also contains information on the process of hydraulic fracturing itself:

  • A horizontal well is fracked in stages. A segment of the wellbore (a “stage”), about 250 feet, is isolated with plugs, holes are shot into the casing with a perforating gun which creates cracks in the adjoining shale; and water is injected under high pressure to create and expand those cracks, or fractures, in the rock. Sand is pumped in with the water to serve as a “proppant,” to hold the fractures open. Chemicals are mixed with the water to reduce friction (a “slickwater” frac). Then the next stage is isolated and the process repeated. For a well with a 10,000-foot lateral, the fracking may have 40 stages. Once all stages are completed, the plugs are drilled out and the water that was pumped into the well flows back up the wellbore, along with oil and gas from the well fractures.
  • Fracs use huge amounts of sand, up to 50 million pounds for long laterals. Sand mines are being developed in the Permian to supply that sand.
  • The water used to frack a well is about 200,000 gallons per stage; some wells have used up to 25 million gallons or more (600,000 barrels).
  • Most sand and water is trucked into the well location. A typical frac job results in about 1,700 truck trips per well.
  • Although the frac water returned when a well is completed must be disposed of, most frac water (depending on the formation) does not return to the surface, but remains in the formation. Far more of the water produced by a well occurs during its production, as “produced water” or “salt water.” Nationwide, a well will produce an average of seven to ten barrels of water for every barrel of oil. So disposal of that produced water is a big business. Some of that water is injected in secondary recovery projects, some disposed of in wastewater disposal wells. There are about 30,000 disposal wells in the US.
  • “The real threat to water supplies from fracking is not from direct contamination of water supplies by frack fluids leaching up from miles below the surface, but from indirect contamination of frack fluids coming from casing leaks or surface spills.”
  • Less than 1% of total water usage in Texas is devoted to hydraulic fracturing. A typical coal fired power plant uses as much water in a year as 500 to 600 fracs. In 2015, 34% of freshwater usage in the US was for cooling in power plants.
  • The largest source of methane emissions in the US is cattle, from flatulence, burping and manure deposits.
  • According to the EPA, methane released in the US has declined by 10% between 2003 and 2013, while US gas production rose 32%.
  • A report by the Task Force on Environmental and Community Impacts of Shale Development in Texas (TAMEST), published in the Academy of Medicine, Engineering and Science of Texas in 2017, estimated that the impact of shale development in Texas has been 1.5 to 2.5 billion dollars in damages a year.

The article also contains an excellent summary of state laws and regulations developed to regulate hydraulic fracturing and discusses cases bringing tort claims alleging damages from shale development.

Congratulations to the authors for a job well done.

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