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.

Reader Comments ...

Next Up in Local

Giving City: At event, nonprofits will be urged to lobby lawmakers
Giving City: At event, nonprofits will be urged to lobby lawmakers

Nonprofit, charitable organizations can and should lobby policymakers, and are uniquely suited to do so, according to a group of professional fundraisers, but too many believe they are hindered by federal tax laws or they simply don’t have the capacity to do it. To encourage more Austin nonprofits to advocate and lobby for their missions and...
Austin officer who shot stabbing suspect in December won’t be charged, DA says
Austin officer who shot stabbing suspect in December won’t be charged, DA says

An Austin police officer who shot a man suspected stabbing a woman to death in December will not face charges by the Travis County District Attorney’s Office. Officer Alfredo Delvalle, a 23-year-veteran of the force, wounded Aubrey Quintin Garrett at a Central Austin apartment complex on Lynnwood Street after responding to reports of a knife...
Achievements: Students succeed in international science fest

Seven students who excelled in February at the Austin Energy Regional Science Festival won a total of five awards in global competition that concluded May 18. The seven who won Best of Fair at the Austin festival, which is organized by Austin Energy, advanced to the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair in Pittsburgh. Pa. The Intel event...
FORECAST: Hot start to sunny Memorial Day weekend, heat index to hit 100 
FORECAST: Hot start to sunny Memorial Day weekend, heat index to hit 100 

Friday forecast for Austin: As temperatures climb to near 94 degrees Friday, the heat index value will reach 100, the National Weather Service said. That means if you factored in the relative humidity with the air temperature, it will feel like triple-digit temperatures outside. Friday will kick off Memorial Day weekend with mostly sunny skies, and...
Closing arguments set in Parlin murder trial for Blair, Shelton deaths
Closing arguments set in Parlin murder trial for Blair, Shelton deaths

Closing arguments are scheduled for Friday morning in the capital murder trial of an Austin man accused of killing three people in a string of late 2014 burglaries. Timothy Parlin, 52, declined to take the witness stand Thursday as the defense rested without calling any witnesses. In opening statements, his lawyers said co-defendant Shawn Gant-Benalcazar...
More Stories