By David Hunn | Houston Chronicle | 6.20.2017

Scientists, regulators and leaders of Texas’ energy industry must identify and understand the environmental risks of shale oil and gas drilling before air pollution or water contamination leads to tighter restrictions that could ultimately derail the rebounding industry, the leader of a broad new study says.

“We really do thrive on the availability of energy in the United States,” said the University of Houston’s Christine Ehlig-Economides, a former Schlumberger petroleum engineer and chairman of a shale task force convened by the Academy of Medicine, Engineering and Science of Texas. “Where there are things that could threaten the future for this kind of development, those are the things we really must address.”

The study, conducted by some the state’s top scientists and released Monday, concluded that the shale oil boom, while enriching companies, residents and state coffers, has also caused earthquakes, degraded natural resources, overwhelmed small communities, and even boosted the frequency and severity of traffic collisions as oversized trucks rushed to and from the oil field.

But oil and gas industry representatives found things to like about the report, pointing to sections that said there was little evidence to tie hydraulic fracturing itself — as distinguished from the other parts of shale operations, such as wastewater disposal — to drinking water pollution or the exponential rise in Texas earthquakes.

“This study is yet another indication that the campaign to shut down fracking is based on politics, not science,” Steve Everley, spokesman for Texans for Natural Gas, said in a statement. “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.”

Todd Staples, president of the Texas Oil & Gas Association, acknowledged that oil and gas production, taken as a whole, does cause some pollution. But he lauded the report for identifying which parts of the process were more troublesome — such as surface spills, which contaminate drinking water; methane leaks, which pollute the air; and wastewater injection wells, which can cause earthquakes — and which weren’t.

“Fracking is a small part of the process. Yet it’s been used loosely and incorrectly by those seeking to stop energy production,” he said. “Far and away, oil and gas is having a positive influence on the state.”

Still, he added, the industry must “continuously evaluate” risks, or “we could find ourselves where we aren’t able to produce domestically, which would be a crisis that would sink our economy.”

The Academy of Medicine, Engineering and Science of Texas is the state’s top scientific community, including all of the state’s Nobel laureates, plus Texas-based members of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine. The conclusions in the 204-page report are based on the review and analysis of hundreds of academic studies, many involving Texas oil and gas operations.

The study, two years in the making, noted that as many as 96,000 acres were covered by new well pads in 2014 alone, and clearing those pads caused soil erosion and the lose of wildlife habitat. Noticeable earthquakes, which came to Texas just twice a year before 2008, now hit the state 12 to 15 times a year, and some were caused by oil and gas companies injecting millions of gallons of wastewater deep underground.

Trucks used by the industry, some laden with 100,000 pounds of sand, water or oil, cause $1.5 billion to $2 billion per year in damage to state highways and local roads — and countless traffic crashes. The number of fatal collisions involving commercial vehicles in the Permian Basin, for instance, doubled during the shale boom, from 94 in the four-year period running from 2006 to 2009 to 183 from 2010 to 2013.

Energy industry leaders, however, emphasized other findings in the study. The economic impact of oil and gas in Texas has been profound, accounting for an annual gross product of $473 billion, as well as nearly 3.8 million jobs. Companies paid royalty owners more than $27 billion in West Texas’ Permian, South Texas’ Eagle Ford and East Texas’ Haynesville shale plays in 2014 alone.

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