Studies in Texas Shale

In a first-of-its-kind report, a group of Texas subject-matter experts has created a complex, considerate and semi-complete assessment on shale energy development in Texas.
By Luke Geiver | July 14, 2017

For more than a year, Texas-focused subject-matter experts analyzed data sets, reports and publicly available documents to better understand the environmental and community-linked impacts of shale energy development. During that time, the research team—known as the shale task force—met three times as a whole. At their in-person gatherings, seismic engineers spoke with land-focused law professors, air quality specialists talked with hydrology experts and any issue that may have seemed specialized for one subject group was made important to the whole. The result of all the research and all the meetings is a first-of-its-kind study targeting shale energy development in Texas. The 204-page report, “Environmental and Community Impacts of Shale Development in Texas,” provides a look at Texas shale energy like never before, according to Christine Ehlig-Economides, task force chair (and petroleum engineer) at the University of Houston. Designed to provide a science-based consensus on shale for Texas legislators, elected officials and decision makers at all levels, the task force believes the report is viable outside of the Lone Star state as well.

Shale Task Force Findings
Mimicking the National Academies approach to creating research reports and topic-specific assessments, the shale task force team set a goal from its beginning to utilize information and data already available. The strength and importance of their work would not be linked to new research, but rather to the multi expert examination of several areas that impact the way shale has transformed Texas. Researchers focused on six areas: seismicity and geology, water, air quality, land, transportation and community and social impacts.
Michael Young, the associate director for environment and a senior research scientist at the Bureau of Economic Geology at the University of Texas who worked on the water focus of the study, says the researchers knew early on in the process their work was going to be unique and beneficial. “We had very candid discussions on how different topics overlapped each other,” he says. “It is not common to have all of these people in the same room in a very open way. It gave us perspective we didn’t have before we started.”

The group of researchers learned that their individual focus areas impacted other focus areas and that describing the impact of shale energy development—though overall was a positive for Texas and other states that have it—is complex. To describe the trade-offs in shale energy development, the researchers included a section in the concluding remarks of the report that helps to highlight the complexities they see.

“Construction of additional pipeline infrastructure could reduce truck traffic and related road impacts and emissions. At the same time, this could fragment ecosystems and land resources on properties that pipelines traverse,” the researchers wrote. And, in another example of the trade-offs that need to be considered, they said, “shale development often produces better paying jobs and a stronger tax base in a given community, but enhanced industrial activity has negatively affected affordability of housing, air quality, roads, communities and schools.”

In addition to the team’s consensus that shale energy development is a complex issue to explain, the group also shared a view on data. Common among every focus-area research team was the call for more data. Each group said they need better access to current and future data provided by academic, governmental and industrial entities.

And, because of the complexities in trying to understand variables in shale development including wastewater injection’s link to earthquakes or the funding appropriation models used from shale-based tax revenue, each research team called for greater inspection on at least one area of focus within their main focus area.
Focus-Area Breakdown
Brian Stump, the lead researcher for the seismicity focus, says that Texas has faults running across the state and that all of them are poorly or incorrectly characterized. Some of those faults can be impacted by oil- and gas-produced wastewater injection. Hydraulic fracturing does not impact the faults—or play a part in seismic activity at earthquake scale in Texas.

According to the report, before 2008, Texas recorded roughly two earthquakes per year. After 2008, the state has recorded 12 to 15 events per year, some of which could be related to wastewater injection. There is a misconception about wastewater injections and their role in seismic events, the report noted. Wastewater injection wells do not lubricate a fault line, allowing it to move and create a seismic shift. The added fluid instead places added stress on a fault line. That distinction is crucial to understanding the research team’s recommendations for working on seismicity in Texas.

Texas needs to continue to increase its seismic monitoring stations in order to collect more data on when, where and why earthquakes have increased. Currently, the state has 18 stations with plans to reach 43. And, the state needs to continue to require special approval from wastewater injection well developers prior to their drilling in order to ensure they aren’t selecting a site that is near a fault area that could be altered due to added pressure from water volumes injected below surface.

Melinda Taylor, a senior lecturer at the University of Texas Law School lead the land focus. The main focus area for her team was split into two areas: environmental and surface owner rights. Because Texas has very little public land, public data on environmentally-linked topics was hard to come by. The research team said new data on plant and animal species was needed as a baseline from which to compare shale energy development changes.

Because landowners in Texas who do not own the mineral rights have very limited control over oil and gas operations, the research team recommended the state consider adopting more robust surface owner rights. “With no mineral rights, surface owners have little leverage over producers,” Taylor says. “We are recommending Texas explore a surface owner statute.”

Because air quality related impacts linked to shale oil and gas development can occur over periods that range from hours to decades, the study authors say there is still much to learn. But, the researchers do want people to know about the reality of super emitters. In some cases, 5 percent of emitters account for more than 50 percent of all emission for a given category—such is the case in the oil and gas space in Texas.

Pneumatic controllers run by natural gas, for instrance, were found to have produced 95 percent of all emissions at natural gas sites, the researchers pointed out.

While the federal government has created more regulations recently that have helped to decrease emissions, new technology is being implemented or is on the way to Texas to help researchers better understand the emissions profile at shale energy developments. Infrared cameras, for instance, are now being used in the state to better locate and identify emissions. And, in a greater context, the researchers reminded people that although the production of natural gas can and does create emissions, the use of natural gas for power and other items creates a net decrease in emissions state-wide.

Water used for fracking accounts for less than 1 percent of total statewide water use, according to the study. In the future, more research should be done to increase the usage of poor-quality waters instead of freshwater. And, more should be done—through technology or regulations—to better prevent leaks and spills of produced water. Young says that his team has recommended a better recording and spill volume tracking system across the state. Currently, the Railroad Commission oversees spill volume recording levels on a district by district basis. More uniform reporting would help to better identify the source of surface water spills.

From Texas A&M University, John Barton played the lead research role for the transportation focus. Barton says that most highways in Texas shale country were never designed to handle the type of truck traffic they are currently getting. On a per-well basis, 1,000 to 1,500 trucks are needed in Texas. Single axle truck equivalents are in the 5,000 to 15,000 range. The cost to repair shale development area infrastructure—mainly roads—is roughly $1.5 billion, Barton says. And, for industry, the cost of not improving transportation infrastructure is in the $1.5 to $3 billion range due to equipment damage cause by the poor roads or the lower operating speeds that would result from no improvements.

Along with stable or enhanced funding mechanisms for oilfield roadways, Barton says his research team suggested the industry be more forthcoming with data. Transportation officials can use that data to help plan for future bottlenecks and areas that will need repair, he says. The data needed will have to indicate trends or the direction industry is headed geographically.

Economic and Social:
No research group highlighted or touched on the tradeoffs associated with shale energy development as much as the team responsible for looking at the economic and social variables. Omar Garcia, lead researcher from the South Texas Energy And Economic Roundtable, says that there is no question fracking has positive value to the Texas economy and community. But, he says, there is limited data on the benefits and costs of development.

Public schools and universities benefit immensely from shale energy development, but the funding gained is not distributed evenly across the state, an area that the research team recommended be further considered.

Although there is no one-size-fits-all outreach effort that can yield overarching conclusions on the impact of shale development on communities, the study did find that communities in shale regions like the economic benefits to property values, schools and medical services. Communities disliked the impacts on traffic, public safety, environmental concerns and noise. “Overall, shale oil and gas development primarily contributes positively to local, regional and state economies,” the report group said.

Author: Luke Geiver
Editor, North American Shale magazine