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Group calls for water oversight

Profile image for By Peggy Heinkel-Wolfe / Staff Writer
By Peggy Heinkel-Wolfe / Staff Writer

An activist group's new policy report, to be released in Austin today, pulls another state agency into the fray of criticism that the state can't keep pace with shale gas development. ALSO ONLINE

  Natural Gas Flowback

Through its Texas Oil & Gas Accountability Project, Earthworks has called on the Texas Water Development Board to measure the amount of groundwater being withdrawn by energy companies and detail the effects the withdrawals are having on the water supply.

Such an analysis could become the basis to require energy companies to recycle water - a requirement the national nonprofit group is recommending with the report.

The water board is not a regulatory body, but it makes recommendations for regulations, agency spokeswoman Samantha Heng said.

"We provide the data to make those decisions," Heng said.

The Texas report, the third such report prepared by Earthworks in the past 18 months, takes a broader, statewide view but does not take a position on any legislation currently being considered by state legislators. The reason for the group's report, according to spokesman Bill Walker, is a rush to lease and drill in the Eagle Ford Shale in South Texas.

"We're placing the problems in a statewide context," Walker said.

Shale gas extraction requires about 250,000 gallons of water to drill a well and anywhere from 1 million to 7 million gallons of chemically treated water to hydraulically fracture the rock and release the gas. In the Barnett Shale, 14,886 wells have been drilled and another 2,869 locations have been permitted, according to the Texas Railroad Commission.

In the Barnett Shale area, operators have pumped surface water and groundwater to meet their needs. Agricultural wells have gone dry in parts of North Texas, with some blaming Barnett Shale energy companies for their groundwater draws.

Under the state's rule of capture, in effect since 1904, landowners have not been liable if the amount they pump from their water well negatively affects their neighbor's water well, Heng said.

In the Eagle Ford Shale region, Mike Mahoney, director of the Evergreen Underground Water Conservation District, said energy operators - like others living, working and ranching in that region - have little access to surface water.

About 95 percent of the people in the Evergreen district, which covers about 2.4 million acres in four counties, depend on fresh water from two aquifers, the Carrizo and the Karnes, Mahoney said.

Because most Texas aquifers are slow to replenish once drawn down, water suppliers sometimes liken surface water to a checking account and groundwater to a savings account.

The Carrizo is deep and has few users, Mahoney said. The Karnes is shallow, he said, with some operators drilling water wells at the same level that would compete with domestic and agricultural users.

With more than 130 new natural gas wells in the Eagle Ford Shale, Mahoney estimates that more than 2,000 acre-feet of groundwater have been pumped from aquifers to drill and frack the wells.

"That's far more than what the current 'exempt use' is," he said.

In other words, the amount of groundwater used to drill and frack gas wells has outpaced what individual home and ranch owners in that region draw for drinking water and personal use, such as watering their gardens, fruit trees or family livestock.

The Evergreen conservation district monitors only water quality and quantity, Mahoney said.

The gas industry is exempt from any regulated draws of groundwater. The Texas Water Development Board measures other uses of groundwater through an annual survey of users, primarily public water suppliers, Heng said. While the survey is voluntary, those who don't complete the survey become ineligible for state grants.

Oil and gas operators are not required to report their water consumption, so while the agency has looked at the issue, no one really knows - whether in the Barnett Shale, the Eagle Ford Shale or anywhere else in the state - how much water the industry is drawing from aquifers and lakes, Heng said.

Mahoney said the drilling rush has just begun in the Eagle Ford Shale. Judging by the amount of truck and construction traffic he's seen, he estimates a drilling boom is imminent.

"Our offices are in an industrial park here in Pleasanton, and every one of the other offices has an oil company in them," Mahoney said, adding that he thinks the industrial park will be completely built in three or four years and filled with energy companies.

Earthworks released legislative and regulatory recommendations in February 2010 and a health report on Dish residents in December.

In this newest report, "Natural Gas Flowback: How the Texas Natural Gas Boom Affects Health and Safety," the nonprofit group continues to be critical of the oversight provided by the Texas Railroad Commission and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. The group also recommends that TCEQ step up its enforcement of emissions and that the Railroad Commission adopt rules requiring closed-loop drilling systems, water-based drilling fluids and full disclosure of fracking fluids.

PEGGY HEINKEL-WOLFE can be reached at 940-566-6881. Her e-mail address is .