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Panel wants drilling water recycled

Profile image for By Lowell Brown / Staff Writer
By Lowell Brown / Staff Writer

City drilling task force votes to use recycling methods where possible

Denton's official gas drilling task force voted Monday to require some drillers to recycle water used in hydraulic fracturing but narrowly rejected new regulations for well casing and cementing.

The task force voted 5-0 to require water recycling technologies "where applicable," saying a legal and scientific review would define the scope of the regulation. The panel also unanimously endorsed creating an "upgrade incentive program" to reward operators who voluntarily improve old gas wells that are exempt from modern regulations.

The action followed the task force's votes last week endorsing a ban on open waste pits at drilling sites, baseline testing of nearby water wells, and an expansion of a city ban on wastewater disposal wells into areas of the city's extraterritorial jurisdiction, among other potential regulations.

The proposals are meant to address concerns about the industry's use of water and potential pollution of drinking water sources.

The task force is meeting through March to help develop changes to the city's gas drilling and production ordinance. The City Council ultimately must approve any ordinance changes.

Task force member Vicki Oppenheim, an environmental planner, proposed many of the regulations discussed Monday, including the incentive program and new monitoring requirements for well casings, or metal tubes that enclose a drilled hole to prevent the migration of gas or fluids.

The task force voted 3-2 against investigating additional casing rules, with only Tom La Point, an environmental researcher, joining Oppenheim in supporting the idea.

Oppenheim also proposed a program to help the city track the source if methane seeped into groundwater wells, but the motion died for lack of a second.

Oppenheim said she was aware of at least two cases of water contamination possibly tied to drilling operations in Denton County. Both cases are in litigation, she said.

Other task force members said existing local and state rules are sufficient to protect water sources from pollution.

"There are seven layers of protection in terms of casings and cements," said Ed Ireland, executive director of the industry-funded Barnett Shale Energy Education Council. "In order for an actual contamination problem to occur, there would have to be a simultaneous failure of all of those layers. That's why the probability of that happening is low."

The city already asks operators to submit records showing how casings were set and cemented, said Darren Groth, the city's gas well administrator. Companies have to submit the same information to the Texas Railroad Commission, the state regulatory agency over oil and gas, he said.

The task force also discussed the amount of water used in hydraulic fracturing, which involves pumping millions of gallons of water, sand and chemicals underground to break up rock and free gas.

The amount of water used per well can vary. Chesapeake Energy, a major operator, has said it uses an average of 4.5 million gallons to fracture a typical horizontal deep shale gas well.

The Texas Legislature passed a law last year requiring operators to publicly disclose the chemicals and water volumes they use during hydraulic fracturing, although information considered "trade secrets" can still be withheld.

Data presented at the meeting showed city water sales to gas companies for fracking was relatively small compared with the city's total use. Water sales to gas companies peaked in 2006 at about 110 million gallons, which was less than 2 percent of city water sales that year.

Speaking later during public reports, Denton resident Bruce Walker said fracking is a unique use because the water is permanently removed from the hydrological cycle. Wastewater not recycled is typically injected deep underground.

Kathy Martin, an engineer from Oklahoma, criticized the task force for using faulty science, saying existing rules may not prevent other potential pathways for pollution.

Before the meeting, a group of about 30 residents rallied outside City Hall to support a fracking moratorium and register people to vote in the May 12 city election. The City Council is expected to meet at 6:30 p.m. today to vote on a 120-day moratorium on new gas drilling and production permits to allow the city to finish the ordinance review.

"There is no peace of mind where there is fracking," said Ricardo Correa, a University of North Texas student pursuing a doctorate in physics. "The political system may be rigged, but there is still a way for us to influence it."

LOWELL BROWN can be reached at 940-566-6882. His e-mail address is .