By John Tintera
May 17, 2019
On Thursday, the House Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources will hold a hearing to investigate whether oil and gas drilling causes water pollution. It’s a very important topic. If drilling pollutes our drinking water, new restrictions would obviously be needed to safeguard public health.
Fortunately, every available piece of scientific evidence shows that drilling — particularly the technique known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking — is safe. As a geologist who has spent decades regulating the energy industry, I’ve seen firsthand the extensive precautions companies take to avoid any accidents and protect our water sources. Current safety regulations are already working. There’s no need to impede energy production by binding companies with additional red tape from the federal government.
Just look at my home state of Texas. It’s by far America’s biggest energy producer, and home to the 75,000-square-mile Permian Basin, the world’s most productive oil field. The Permian and other Texas oil fields use tons of water responsibly whether for hydraulic fracturing, processing, or refining.
How responsible are Texas drillers when it comes to water management? Well, there hasn’t been a single documented case of groundwater contamination associated with fracking.
This drilling technique has led to an unprecedented oil and gas revolution. In just the first quarter of 2019, Texas, for the first time ever, produced more than 5 million barrels of crude oil every day. The state accounts for an astounding 40 percent of all crude production in the United States.
The cooperation between industry and Texas state regulators is chiefly responsible for this spotless safety record.
Texas state law is as crystal clear as its water. Texas outlaws any pollution of any and all bodies of water — whether above or below ground — period. The law defines pollution as any change at all to water that would make it harm humans, animals, plants, property, or public health in general.
There are numerous key laws — 13 total — that serve as a regulatory framework to enforce the no-pollution rule. They outline rules for everything from how to drill to how to clean up a spill. They address almost every water protection concern that could arise from oil and gas production.
Take fracking, a process which requires immense amounts of water. There are rules to govern how practitioners drill, what cement and casings they use, and how they control their wells. Additionally, they are required to continually monitor pressure levels beneath the surface and report malfunctions to inspectors.
Or consider waste disposal. The Texas regulations protect surface and subsurface water from liquid and solid oil field waste. Injection wells, the shafts that carry fluids down to porous underground rock formations, are highly regulated by the EPA and encased in multiple layers of cement to protect drinking water. The EPA audits each injection well annually.
Regulators wouldn’t be able to enforce these rules without a small army of state inspectors. There are hundreds of them in Texas that rove the oil fields to make sure everything is up to snuff. These “outriders” have access to all the online data they need to ensure proper inspection.
Companies are not only complying with the regulations; they are constantly finding new ways to protect water. Operators in the Permian Basin are using new technologies like “clean brine” to make produced water clean enough to reuse. They are also building pipelines to wastewater treatment or recycling facilities and reusing produced water. The reused water is not only used for more drilling, but can be used for community improvement like de-icing roads during winter.
Some companies are finding novel ways to reuse and conserve water. In 2016, one Texas-based energy company opened a 20-mile pipeline to receive treated municipal wastewater from Odessa, Texas that can be used in all its operations. Reusing municipal wastewater reduced the company’s reliance on freshwater needed in Odessa for drinking, and compensates Odessa for once-useless waste.
Thanks to sensible regulations, regular inspections, and industry efforts, Texas energy companies have little impact on the state’s water supply. A study by the state found that fracking accounts for less than 1 percent of total water use in the state, far less than agriculture.
Texans know what they’re doing when it comes to safeguarding their drinking water. There’s no need for Washington to impose additional, needless regulations when the current ones are already working perfectly.
John Tintera is a regulatory expert and licensed geologist with a thorough knowledge of upstream oil and gas exploration. He spent over 20 years working for the main energy regulator in Texas, the Texas Railroad Commission, and ultimately served as its executive director. He is currently the president of the Texas Alliance of Energy Producers.