Fracking boom on UT’s West Texas lands linked to spills, air pollution

The hydraulic fracturing boom on University of Texas System lands in West Texas has polluted soil, groundwater and air, according to a report to be released Tuesday by an environmental group and a think tank.

At least 1.6 million gallons of oil, saltwater and other pollutants have spilled from wells and associated equipment on UT System-owned land since 2008, said the report, which drew from system and Texas Railroad Commission records.

In addition, the report said, vast quantities of methane, which is linked to global warming, have been released by the 4,132 wells drilled since 2005 that were subjected to hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, in which huge amounts of water, sand and chemicals are injected under pressure to create fractures in rock that coax oil and natural gas out of the ground.

The report, by the Austin-based Environment Texas Research & Policy Center and the Frontier Group, based in Santa Barbara, Calif., called on the UT System to prohibit fracking on its lands. Failing that, the report said, the system should write much stronger environmental protections into its lease agreements with oil and gas companies.

More broadly, the UT System should re-examine its efforts to wring ever-greater amounts of hydrocarbons from its land holdings, said Luke Metzger, director of Environment Texas and co-author of the report.

“Scientists are telling us that we urgently need to wean ourselves off fossil fuels to stave off some of the worst impacts of climate change, not to mention more localized impacts such as air pollution and significant water use,” Metzger said. “We think there’s a growing responsibility for institutions like UT to lead the way.”

Mark Houser, CEO of the UT System’s University Lands Office, said in an emailed statement that he has not seen the report and therefore could not address its specifics.

“However, University Lands has numerous provisions in place to protect the natural resources and to ensure that companies developing these resources are compliant with the environmental protections and the regulations developed by the Texas Railroad Commission, Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and other state and federal regulations,” he said.

“In addition,” Houser said, “we have an ongoing dialogue with area landowners, community members and industry leaders to ensure we have the most effective policies in place to protect the environment. We are committed to being the best possible stewards of these lands while at the same time developing them for the benefit of the University of Texas and Texas A&M systems and public higher education in the state of Texas.”

Metzger said his group was prompted to look into oil and gas operations on UT System lands by an American-Statesman article in November about the drilling bonanza that has boosted revenues even as it has raised environmental concerns and questions about the system’s oversight.

Annual royalty payments and other proceeds from companies that lease mineral rights from the UT System increased 400 percent since 2006 to a record $1.1 billion last year, owing in large part to fracking and horizontal drilling techniques that have unlocked resources once thought out of reach.

The system’s 2.1 million acres, three-fourths of them in an oil patch known as the Permian Basin, were a gift from the state, an educational endowment established in the 1800s. Proceeds from the lands benefit campuses in the UT System and the Texas A&M University System.

Documents used to produce the report, “Fracking on University of Texas Lands,” were obtained through an open records request by the office of state Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, D-Austin.

“Fracking threatens the lands, resources and health of too many Texans,” Rodriguez said. “I hope university leaders, energy producers and environmental experts act quickly and creatively to eliminate bad industry practices that threaten our health and environment.”

Among the report’s findings on the impacts of fracking and related activities:

The report called on the UT System to issue an annual report on disposal of wastewater and drill cuttings, ban toxic chemicals, prohibit drilling on environmentally sensitive land such as endangered species habitat, require air pollution control equipment, and mandate wastewater recycling and water-use reductions. It also recommended requiring lighting equipment — drilling operations run day and night — that protects evening skies for stargazing.

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