Protecting our water supply during the oil and gas boom

IMG_3349[1]With Brazos County attracting keen interest from the oil and gas industry, many of our residents have become concerned about the environmental impact this activity will have on our area, especially our groundwater.

We sit on the eastern edge of the Eagle Ford Shale, which stretches across South Texas from Laredo to Huntsville. Based on capital invested, industry analysts claim Eagle Ford is the largest oil and gas development in the world, and that Texas could produce more oil by the end of the year than all OPEC countries except Saudi Arabia.

At last count, Brazos County had 515 oil wells and 98 gas wells.

“What you’re seeing unfold in the Eagle Ford (Shale) is probably the greatest energy success story of the 21st century,” ConocoPhillips exploration official Greg LeVeille said last month. He added that the drilling activity will likely continue for many years.

That bustling activity will undoubtedly have a positive economic impact, but how can we limit the impact to our environment and ensure a safe, high-quality water supply?

Is our water supply at risk?

Most of the drilling involves hydraulic fracturing – also known as fracking — which has been used for decades to pump a high-pressure mixture of water, sand and chemicals deep into a well to fracture the rock and release the trapped gas.

The Texas Railroad Commission, which regulates the oil and gas industry, says it hasn’t documented a single case of water contamination in the state as the result of fracking.

The RRC ensures compliance with the Resource Conservation Recovery Act, Clean Water Act, Safe Drinking Water Act and the Texas Administrative Code, which states that “no person conducting activities subject to regulation by the commission may cause or allow pollution of surface or subsurface water in the state.”

Our Carrizo-Wilcox aquifer is about 2,500-3,000 feet below the surface, deep enough to be protected from surface contamination, yet shallow enough to be safe from the oil shale zones where fracking occurs. Wells can also penetrate the aquifer, but stringent state regulations require the steel shaft casing to be cemented to prevent leaks.

Any leak would prevent the high pressure needed to fracture the shale layers and the well would have to be rebuilt.

Although the risk of our water supply being contaminated is low, it remains a concern. The City of College Station tests our water supply regularly. If contamination is detected, we’ll take appropriate measures to mitigate the problem.

The state also requires operators to report the fracking chemicals they use through fracfocus.org, although exemptions are allowed to protect trade secrets. Baker Hughes – a major industry supplier in Houston – recently announced it will begin voluntarily disclosing all fluids with no exemptions to increase public trust. We’re hopeful other firms will follow their example.

Click here to see the chemical disclosure reports for wells in Brazos County.

Can the city do more?

While the state has stewardship over natural resources and the environment, the city can’t prevent property owners with mineral rights from drilling on their property. And while the RRC has broad authority over the oil and gas industry, it doesn’t have complete authority over the potential negative impact of oil and gas operations on roads, traffic, noise, odor and other nuisances.

These issues are generally regulated at the local level. Cities have the responsibility to protect the health, safety and general welfare of the public and can impose reasonable regulations. Consequently, we’re reviewing and updating our existing ordinances regarding oil and gas exploration.

An example is the ordinance on Monday’s city council agenda that establishes local regulations and fees for permitting oil and gas seismic surveys used in exploration. Existing regulations were adopted in 1991 and need to be updated to protect public and private interests. The City of Bryan adopted a similar ordinance in February.

For more information on the proposed safeguards, see pages 154-185 of the regular meeting agenda packet. We’ll soon begin a comprehensive update to our oil and gas ordinance for the city council to consider later this summer.

Through responsible state and local regulation, we believe appropriate procedures and requirements can protect our quality of life while allowing successful oil and gas activities in our community.

David Coleman

 

NOTE: City Engineer Alan Gibbs and Assistant to the City Manager Chris Jarmon contributed information for this blog.

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