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UT System questions report on environmental impacts of fracking

A report about the environmental impacts associated with hydraulic fracturing for oil and natural gas on University of Texas System lands is one-sided and of questionable scientific validity, a UT System executive said Tuesday.

Mark Houser, the UT System’s CEO of university lands, nonetheless said system officials would carefully consider the recommendations in the report by an environmental group and a think tank. And he stopped short of asserting that it contained factual errors — but with the caveat that he wasn’t saying it lacked errors, either.

“We go far beyond what is required by state and federal regulations to protect university lands,” Houser said. “We are leaders in environmental standards and stewardship.”

The report — by the Austin-based Environment Texas Research and Policy Center and the Frontier Group, based in Santa Barbara, Calif. — said the hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, boom on the UT System’s vast West Texas lands has polluted soil, groundwater and air. At least 1.6 million gallons of oil and other pollutants have spilled from wells and associated equipment since 2008, it said.

The report called on the UT System to write much stronger environmental protections into its lease agreements with oil and gas companies. UT-Austin’s Student Government president, Xavier Rotnofsky, and Rohit Mandalapu, the vice president, endorsed the recommendation for mandating “best practices” for wastewater recycling, water-use reductions, trimming air emissions of methane and other matters.

UT-Austin President Gregory L. Fenves told American-Statesman editors and reporters that the university is conducting considerable research on minimizing environmental impacts and has amassed a wealth of data that could be useful to the UT System lands office.

Houser downplayed the spillage figure of 1.6 million gallons, likening it to one can of Coke per acre per year. Still, he said, the UT System is continually working to have its operators employ the industry’s best practices.

Ed Longanecker, president of the Texas Producers & Royalty Owners Association, described the report as “the latest installment from anti-oil and gas organizations,” adding that there has been “no confirmed case of groundwater contamination from hydraulic fracturing,” in which water, sand and chemicals are injected under pressure to unlock oil and gas deposits.

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