UT study: ' Fracking' no worse for water

Technique has similar risks of contamination as others, report says

Farzad Mashhood

Publication Date: November 10, 2011  Page: B01  Section: METRO  Edition: Final

As shale gas harvesting has increased in recent years, so have the questions about the process's environmental effects. As a result, the techniques of the extraction and its possible effects on groundwater are facing closer scrutiny, and both the Environmental Protection Agency and the University of Texas's Energy Institute are currently conducting long-term studies of the process.

Preliminary findings from the Energy Institute's study released Wednesday suggest there is no link between the extraction operations and groundwater contamination, said the study's leader, Charles "Chip" Groat, a UT geology professor.

He noted that the dangers associated with shale gas drilling - which is accomplished by hydraulic fracturing, a process commonly known as fracking - are largely the same as other oil-drilling operations.

"Hydraulic fracturing doesn't seem to be of concern to groundwater," Groat said. "If there has been water contaminated related to shale gas development " let's not look at fracturing, let's look at surface processes."

As in other types of drilling operations, poor casing or shoddy cement jobs have often been to blame for regulatory violations or contamination in shale gas drilling, Groat said.

Fracking is a process in which a combination of millions of gallons of water, mixed with sand and chemicals, is injected into rock thousands of feet underground to extract natural gas.

The relatively new process of horizontal drilling has allowed for the extraction of natural gas that is otherwise inaccessible if using conventional drilling techniques.

Surface spills of the hazardous chemicals across the country have killed livestock and contaminated waterways, the Houston Chronicle has reported.

Texas is home to one of the nation's largest shale gas deposits, the Barnett Shale. The Fort Worth area is a hotbed for fracking that shale, and there have been many questions surrounding the process.

Democratic state Rep. Lon Burnam of Fort Worth told The Associated Press in September that in the past five years, air pollution in North Texas has steadily increased, which he said is related to the drilling in the Barnett Shale.

Groat downplayed the problems associated with fracking.

"The violations that we've seen are of no, minor or small impact," Groat said. "The impact on groundwater, the impact on the surface is not of anything substantial, " certainly not compared to coal mines or metal mines."

However, spills have come under closer scrutiny as shale gas drilling occurs in urban and suburban areas, Groat said.

"Fort Worth is the poster child for this," Groat said. "They are drilling under subdivisions, and those people are asking questions."

Shale deposits are spread out over broad areas, and drilling operations could easily move out of densely populated areas and stay in the fracking game, Groat said.

Groat briefed government officials, regulators, energy company executives, community group representatives and reporters in Fort Worth about the Energy Institute's preliminary findings.

Researchers expect to present their final report early next year, looking not only at the environmental effects of fracking but also at policy and regulatory issues as well as media coverage of the controversial technique of capturing natural gas.

The yearlong $330,000 study was paid for entirely by the University of Texas, Groat said.

The study's early stages have looked at regulatory violations and frameworks in states with major shale drilling operations, including Texas, Louisiana, New York and Pennsylvania, Groat said.

The EPA has said it expects to release preliminary findings by the end of 2012 and a final report in 2014.

fmashhood@statesman.com;

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