Hydrofracking And The Battle Over Water In South Texas

In an article titled, “Introduction to Hydraulic Fracturing Natural Gas Exploration,” Rebecca Jo Reser, an IADC member and partner at the San Antonio, Texas law firm of Davidson Troilo Ream & Garza, discusses the potential burden that hydraulic fracturing imposes on water resources in South Texas.  In areas of South Texas stricken by drought, the issue of water allocation balances signficant strides in economic development and employment attributable to energy exploration and the interests of growers and others who fear that fracking activity may draw down too large a share of scarce water resources.

According to Reser, hydrofracking drilling and production companies compete for scarce water supplies in areas of South Texas,particularly in the Eagle Ford Shale, where drought has resulted in widespread pasture losses, crop failures and shortages of water in reservoirs, rivers and wells.   Based upon the tone of the article, it would appear that the battle lines are being drawn in Texas along the fault lines of this issue.

 Reser writes, "In an area known for drought and scarcity of water, the fact that this much valuable water will be pumped out, used and then disposed of forever in deep injection wells is something every South Texas resident should be concerned about."

But Chesapeake Energy, an energy company involved in deep shale development in the Eagle Ford Shale, strongly disputes that industry is using too much of the area’s water supply. According to a Chesapeake Energy Fact Sheet, the volume of water necessary to drill and fracture Eagle Ford deep shale wells represents a very small percentage of the total water resources used in the Eagle Ford Shale.

Citing Texas Water Development Board statistics, Chesapeake Energy states that the primary water users in Eagle Ford Shale are irrigation (approximately 70%) and municipal/public water supply (approximately 26%). Moreover, the company observes that its operations differ notably from other uses because it is temporary, occurring only once during the drilling and completion phase of each well. Unlike agricultural uses, use of this water does not represent a long term commitment of the resource.  According to a San Antonio Express-News article, last year, the Eagle Ford contributed $25 billion in total economic output in a 20-county South Texas region and provided 47,097 full-time jobs, according to statistics provided by UTSA. Thus, the econoimic benefits of drilling in Eagle Ford Shale are both measurable and significant.

Closer to home, in and around the Marcellus Shale region, the impact of water withdrawals for hydraulic fracturing on the Upper Delaware River and in the Delaware River Basin is the subject of ongoing investigation; however, the discussion has largely focused on environmental issues rather than on competition over scarce  resources.

Marcellus Shale Progress Addressing Methane Contamination

At a recent Shale Gas Insight conference in Philadelphia, Aubrey McClendon, the outspoken Chairman of Chesapeake Energy, expressed optimism concernining progress made by industry to address methane contamination of drinking water supplies due to faulty gas well construction. According to McClendon, "Problem identified; problem solved".  However, according to the Times-Tribune writer, Laura Legere, DEP data concerning environmental violations demonstrates that McClendon’s optimism may be premature and that problems with cemented steel well casings designed to protect groundwater from gas and fluids in Marcellus wells perist.  Of course, casing and cementing violations do not necessarily indicate that gas has migrated or will migrate into drinking water supplies. Moreover, methane is present in many water wells in PA from natural pathways unrelated to gas drilling.  However, the crux of environmentalists’ opposition  to hydrofracking appears to center on the gas casing and cementing concerns.  In his comments, McClendon credited an "updated and customized casing system" included in PA state regulations which will hopefully prevent new instances of gas migration.  It is recognized, however, that the geology in Marcellus Shale is neither uniform nor predictable and that the geologic issues are complex.  In planning for Marcellus Shale natural gas exploration in New York, NYDEC personnel have taken to heart (we hope) the lessons of  PA’s experience–good and bad–with hydrofracking and will craft a set of regulations in NY that will promote safe natural gas exploration on a sound economic footing. DEC’s website contains a detailed discussed of DEC staffers’ visit to PA in July ’11 that detailed the environmental issues in PA that NY needs to address in its regulatory framework.

Gas Drillers To Disclose Fracking Chemicals

The Wall Street Journal reported today that Texas Governor Rick Perry signed into law Friday a bill that will require companies to make public the chemicals they use on every hydraulic fracturing job in the state.  Texas’ law is significant because the oil and gas drilling industry, which is powerful in Texas, vocally supported the measure.  Opponents to fracking in the Marcellus Shale region of  New York and Pennsylvannia have long accused the drilling companies of secrecy for failing to disclose the chemicals used in hydrofracking.  Widespread support for this measure, and similar measures in other states, provide some indication of just how untenable the industry’s former stance had been.  Fracking involves blasting millions of gallons of water, sand and chemicals into the ground to break up oil and gas-bearing rocks.  Environmentalists and residents in drilling areas fear that the fracking process may result in chemical contamination of drinking water aquifers.  Until now, industry’s argument that fracking is safe has been hamstrung by drillers’ refusal to disclose the chemicals used.  Going forward, the fracking debate can now refocus on the important issues, such as the likelihood that faulty well construction may result in contamination of an aquifer.  According to industry spokespersons, tens of thousands of wells have been drilled with relatively few problems.  In those rare instances where a problem has been reported, the industry believes that the problem is most likely attributable to an improperly constructed well.  Earlier this year, some of the larger gas producers, notably Chesapeake, Chevron and BP, announced that they would voluntarily begin to publicize the chemicals they use online at FracFocus.org. This website is a joint project of the Ground Water Protection Council and the Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission.