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Fracking impact? Here's what we need to know, says elite Texas shale task force

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Jeff Mosier, The Dallas Morning News

DALLAS — Texas' role as a petroleum powerhouse started with the famed Spindletop oil gusher near Beaumont in 1901. But 116 years later, there's still uncertainty about the industry's impact on the state's people and environment, according a new study released today.

After spending a year analyzing available peer-reviewed studies and research into the topic, the task force set up by The Academy of Medicine, Engineering and Science of Texas issued a 204-page report Monday that found both great economic benefits and reasons to be concerned about the state's latest drilling boom.

Texas leads the nation in oil production and is one of the world's largest producers. The exploration of shale fields — thanks to hydraulic fracturing and other technology — has contributed to a 50 percent decrease in gasoline prices, provided local governments with billions of dollars and is responsible for nearly 3.8 million Texas jobs, according to the report.

At the same time, drilling and its related activities have created air pollution, contributed to the increase and severity of traffic accidents near drilling areas and led to earthquakes.

A natural gas industry group pointed to the lack of evidence of groundwater contamination as good news and one data point reinforcing their message.

"This study is yet another indication that the campaign to shut down fracking is based on politics, not science. If fracking were a credible risk to groundwater, we would know about it in Texas, which produces more oil and natural gas than any other state," said Steve Everley, spokesman, Texans for Natural Gas. "The fact that such an incident hasn't been observed here is further confirmation that fracking is safe and well-regulated."

The Environmental and Community Impacts of Shale Development in Texas report calls for greater transparency and more information sharing among government agencies.

The document proposes 25 recommendations, many of which call for new research. Those include studying the effects of exposure from drilling emissions, investigating whether Texas needs a law to protect surface owners who don't own their mineral rights and researching the use of brackish or salty water for fracking.

"This knowledge can be diffuse and difficult to locate and access; furthermore, the sheer number of different sources of information can make it difficult to determine the respective credibility of multiple sources of information," according to the report.

The document, which assembled and analyzed existing peer-reviewed research, was written by experts in oil and gas, engineering, medicine, transportation, economics and the law. The task force included oil executives, academics, an oil and gas regulator and representative from an environmental group.

TAMEST, which created this report, is composed of Texas' nine Nobel laureates and Texas members of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine. In contrast to much fracking debate, the report was measured in its analysis of oil and gas drilling impacts. The authors assumed drilling is part of the long-term energy future but also that there are downsides that need more attention.

The research focused on six issues: geology and earthquakes, land resources, air quality, water quality and use, transportation and economic and social effects.

The study said that drinking water contamination is more likely to occur from surface spills or leaks in well casings close to the surface. The risk contamination is lesser in the aquifers, according to the study.

For air quality, the use of natural gas decreases pollution compared to coal. But high-emitting sources in the production and distribution chain could offset some benefit by accidentally pumping more of the potent greenhouse gas methane into the atmosphere. The report singled out one study finding that two percent of natural gas sites accounted for 50 percent of emissions.

The report also highlighted research showing that trucks related to drilling calculated that the cost of road repair — mainly on rural road not built for such heavy loads — was $1.5 billion to $2 billion annually.

Other transportation research found an increase in serious and fatal crashes involving commercial vehicles in drilling areas, such as the Eagle Ford Shale and Permian Basin.

The authors of the study also pointed to a need for more air quality research, although some of the high-quality research hasn't conclusively found negative effects. "Overall, there is limited information concerning exposures to air toxics," according to the report.

The uncertainty points to disparity when comparing the costs and benefits of oil and gas drilling.

The study said that "direct and immediate costs associated with shale oil and gas development and production are easily and regularly measured in dollar terms."

"However, costs related to environmental and socioeconomic impacts tend to be diffuse and difficult to monetize," the report concluded. "Some effects may be less immediate. Others may be difficult to characterize unambiguously or relate conclusively to a specific cause."