Gulf Coast / E&P / Shale Daily / NGI All News Access

Texas Task Force Finds Shale Drilling Benefits, But Also Consequences

Unconventional natural gas and oil development has changed the world's energy dynamics but no more so than in Texas, resulting in billions of revenue and thousands of jobs, but the benefits also have had consequences for communities and the state's land, air, water and infrastructure, according to the first-of-its-kind review by top researchers.

A cross-disciplinary shale task force, organized by The Academy of Medicine, Engineering and Science of Texas (TAMEST), found a wide range of both impacts to the state's environment and communities. Impacts are detailed in the TAMEST report issued on Monday, "Environmental and Community Impacts of Shale Development in Texas."

TAMEST members include all Texas-based members of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine and the state's Nobel Laureates. Almost every major state university was involved in some aspect of the research.

"In life, we learn by doing," said task force chair Christine Ehlig-Economides of the University of Houston. "This report shows what we've learned in Texas about the impacts from shale oil and gas development, and I hope others can benefit from our experience."

The TAMEST group "felt strongly about the need to produce a consensus report that would be broadly distributed to citizens of Texas and provide science-based information to inform their perspectives on shale energy resources," Ehlig-Economides said. "Our report audience includes Texas legislators, elected officials, and decisionmakers at all levels."

The task force did not receive energy industry funding for the work. However, it was backed in part by The Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation.George P. Mitchell, who died in 2013, is considered the founding father of the shale revolution. Mitchell Energy & Development Corp., later bought by Devon Energy Corp., is credited with pioneering unconventional drilling techniques.

In later years George Mitchell preached about "common sense" drilling practices, and in 2012 the Mitchell Foundation committed $1.6 million to the Environmental Defense Fund to help secure stringent rules in 14 states that at the time accounted for most of the gas reserves accessible through unconventional drilling, or about 85%.

The TAMEST report focused on six impact areas: seismicity, land, water, air, transportation and economic/social.

"The majority of known faults present in Texas are stable and are not prone to generating earthquakes," researchers said regarding geology/earthquake activity. "To date, induced earthquakes in Texas have been associated with wastewater disposal wells, not with hydraulic fracturing." However, quakes have increased. "Before 2008, Texas recorded about two earthquakes a year. Since then, there have been about 12-15 a year." The state has since announced plans to increase seismic monitoring stations to 43 from 18.

"Shale oil and gas development activities in Texas have resulted in fragmentation of habitat on the landscape," said the researchers. "However, there is a lack of information and scientific data on what the impacts of fragmentation have been and are on landscape -- vegetative resources, agriculture and wildlife." Close to 95% of Texas land is privately owned, which limits data and studies.

"Texas is the only major oil and gas producing state without a surface damage act to protect landowners," researchers also noted. They recommended Texas consider adopting safeguards.

Regarding air impacts, shale oil and gas production leads to greenhouse gas emissions, along with photochemical air pollutants and air toxics. However, for most types of oil and gas emissions sources in Texas, said researchers, "about 5% of emitters account for more than 50% of emissions."

Water sources also are impacted, mostly by surface spills and well casing leaks near the surface, but the "depth and separation between oil-bearing and drinking water-bearing zones make contamination of potential drinking water unlikely," according to the report.

One of the most far-reaching and consistent impacts of shale oil and gas development is transportation, according to the expert panel.

"Texas accounts for about half of the drilling activity in the country at any given time, and all of that activity requires a very large number of heavy truckloads, which have far greater impact on roads than typical passenger vehicle traffic." Road damage in Texas is estimated to cost $1.5-2 billion every year. Vehicle damage and lower operating speeds also cost the trucking industry an estimated $1.5-3.5 billion a year.

For the economic/social costs of drilling, researcher said for the most part, "development contributes positively to local, regional and state economies, with some unintended consequences, including impacts to local infrastructure such as roads and increased cost of living, and not everyone within a community benefits equally from such developments.

"Communities in shale regions like the economic benefits to property values, schools and medical services," but they dislike "the impacts on traffic, public safety, environmental concerns and noise."

Recent Articles by Carolyn Davis