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Fracking on University of Texas Lands:The Environmental Effects of Hydraulic Fracturing on Land Owned by the University of Texas System
by Jeff Inglis, Frontier Group; Luke Metzger, Environment Texas Research & Policy Center
Since 2005, oil and gas companies have drilled 4,350 wells on West Texas land owned by the University of Texas. Of those wells, 95 percent have been subject to high-volume hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking.” Fracking threatens the environment and human health by consuming vast amounts of water, introducing toxic chemicals into our air and water, and damaging natural landscapes.
As the state’s flagship educational institution and a significant landholder, the University of Texas has a particular responsibility to protect the environment, Texas’ special places and public health. Fracking should not occur anywhere. But if fracking is to occur on University of Texas lands, the university must at least act immediately to eliminate the worst industry practices and safeguard the environment and public health.
As many as 4,132 wells drilled on university-owned land since 2005 have been subject to high-volume hydraulic fracturing.
- All of those fracked wells are in rural West Texas. The university owns 2.1 million acres in 19 counties in the area, most of which are above the oil- and gas-rich Permian Basin.
- More than half of university land in West Texas is leased to the oil and gas industry.
- Andrews County alone has seen 2,051 wells drilled on university land since 2005, nearly half of all such wells statewide. Crockett County has the second-most wells (557) drilled since 2005 on university-owned land; Reagan County has the third-most, with 486. (See Table ES-1.)
- These counties are home to important natural areas and untainted stretches of the Pecos River that provide habitat for migratory birds and numerous endangered species.
Table ES-1. Wells Drilled On University of Texas Land, 2005-2015, by County
Figure ES-1. Wells Drilled on University-Owned Lands, 2005-2015
Oil and gas drilling on university lands put pressure on water supplies.
- These wells used at least 6 billion gallons of water between February 2012 and December 2014.
- During the recently ended four-year drought, officials pressed residents across the state to cut back on water use, while wells on university-owned land consumed increasing amounts of water every year.
University-owned land and the groundwater beneath it have been polluted by oil and gas extraction.
- At least 1.6 million gallons of pollutants have spilled into soil and groundwater from wells located on university land since 2008.
- Cleanups are not yet complete at five of those spill locations. The effort can take many years: At least one 2008 spill and another from 2009 were not yet cleaned up as of March 2015. Groundwater has been contaminated by oil and related pollutants in at least 13 locations on university-owned lands.
Fracking on university land has required the use of vast quantities of toxic chemicals known to harm human health. Wells drilled on University of Texas land from 2005 to 2015 used at least:
- 92.5 million pounds of hydrochloric acid, a caustic acid that can contaminate water;
- 8.5 million pounds of methanol, which is suspected to cause birth defects;
- More than 7.8 million pounds of chemicals that were not specifically identified or were only labeled as trade secrets, meaning their health and environmental effects cannot be determined;
- More than 166.8 million pounds of other chemicals and substances of varying toxicity.
Fracking on university land produces emissions that contribute to global warming.
- Methane, which is a global warming pollutant 34 times more powerful than carbon dioxide, is released at multiple steps during fracking, including during hydraulic fracturing and well completion, and in the processing and transport of gas to end users.
- Completing the 4,132 fracked wells on university-owned land released methane equivalent to between 244,000 and 7 million metric tons of carbon dioxide, according to two different methods of estimating methane emissions. That is as much as is emitted by between 50,000 and 1.5 million cars in a year of driving.
Fracking is so dangerous to the environment and human health that it should not occur anywhere. If the University of Texas continues to allow fracking on its land, the university should at least end the worst practices and take immediate steps to protect the public. Specifically, the university should:
- Prohibit drilling on lands with special environmental value, such as Diablo Plateau, the Pecos River watershed, and all land that is habitat for migratory birds and endangered or threatened species.
- Write strong environmental protections into the leases the university signs with oil and gas companies. Those protections should include:
- Reducing pollution risks by banning toxic chemicals and strictly limiting emissions at well, storage and transmission sites, including wastewater holding locations;
- Adopting best practices from other states to further prevent pollution;
- Requiring operators to meet aggressive water use reduction goals and to recycle wastewater;
- Setting strong clean air standards that minimize methane leakage and prevent toxic air pollution, including minimizing the use of flaring and venting;
- Mandating the strongest standards for well siting, design, construction and operation;
- Reducing earthquake risk by restricting fracking operations in known areas of seismic activity and requiring pre- and post-fracking monitoring for seismic activity;
- Requiring advance notice of fracking operations be provided to nearby landowners, groundwater districts and municipal and county officials;
- Requiring annual reporting on the disposal of produced water, flowback, drill cuttings and other waste materials generated by fracking on university-owned lands, to be compiled into a university-issued annual report;
- Requiring pre- and post-drilling monitoring of groundwater and nearby surface waters to identify contaminants and their sources.
In addition, the university should, in keeping with its mission as an educational institution, collect and make available to the public more complete data on fracking, including water usage and chemicals involved, enabling Texans to understand the full extent of the harm that fracking causes to our environment and health.