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The QueQue: Science fair: SA teacher petitions the TCEQ, Despite headlines, fracking not out of the woods yet

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The Houston Chronicle’s editorial board inveighed last month: “We salute Anderson and his colleagues for standing their ground, and we stand appalled and embarrassed by TCEQ’s disgraceful antics.” What says the TCEQ, increasingly known as one of the shames of our state? No comment.

 

Despite headlines, fracking not out of the woods yet

Researchers at UT Austin, nearing the end of their nine-month study on hydraulic fracturing, announced to a Fort Worth audience of oil and gas industry reps, regulators, and local officials last week that there is no link between hydraulic fracturing and groundwater contamination. Among the preliminary findings of the $300,000 study, funded by the school’s Energy Institute: documented groundwater contamination doesn’t appear to be linked to the fracking process itself — wherein massive quantities of water, chemicals, and sand are pumped into the ground at high pressure to bust oil and gas out of shale rock formations. Headline writers had a field day absolving the industry, only a little too soon. “From what we’ve seen so far, many of the problems appear to be related to other aspects of drilling operations, such as poor casing or cement jobs, rather than hydraulic fracturing, per se,” UT geology professor Chip Groat, who’s leading the study, wrote in a prepared statement.

The conclusion is not a new one. In May, Duke University researchers published results from well samples taken near frack-heavy areas in the Marcellus and Utica shales in the Northeast. No drilling chemicals were found, but water containing 17 times the normal amount of methane was. It’s a concentration the U.S. Department of the Interior finds dangerous, requiring “hazard mitigation” (remember those flaming faucets?).

For environmental activists, along with some weary landowners, a seminal issue remains the regulatory climate surrounding fracking – even if the process itself can be done safely, is it? A recent Greenwire review of enforcement data from the largest drilling states shows only a tiny fraction of oil and gas field violations ever result in fines. And, according to numbers the RRC gave the Current this summer, the RRC’s oil and gas workers have shrunk over the past 10 years even as exploration expands. A decade ago, the oil and gas employees topped over 700. Now, we have about 320. In total, only 16 field inspectors cover the whole of South Texas.

Greenwire reports that in Texas, 96 percent of the 80,000 violations by oil and gas drillers in 2009 resulted in no enforcement action. Earlier this year, Elizabeth Ames Jones (outgoing chairwoman of the Texas Railroad Commission and candidate for the Texas Senate) arguing against any federal regulation of fracking in Texas told Congress the RRC is the gold standard for oil and gas regulation. The comprehensive review this year by the Texas Sunset Advisory Commission says that’s just not the case. The review asked for a fundamental restructuring of the agency (along with changing its name), calling current regulation far too lax.

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