Texas A&M research shows getting energy from oil and gas doesn’t require using fresh groundwater

Oil and gas exploration operations can and must operate under environmentally sound practices and according to a research study at Texas A&M University, hydraulic fracturing in the Eagle Ford Shale in South Texas can lessen its environmental impact by switching from fresh groundwater to abundant supplies of brackish groundwater.

Graduate students at the Bush School of Government and Public Service, under the leadership of Dr. James M. Griffin, professor and Bob Bullock Chair in Public Policy and Finance, studied water consumption from oil and gas exploration in the Eagle Ford Shale for Commissioner Christi Craddick of the Railroad Commission of Texas (RRC) and published their findings.

The Eagle Ford Shale is a massive geologic formation spanning 30 Texas counties from Brazos County in the northeast to Webb County in the southwest. More than 200 operators are tapping into previously inaccessible oil and gas reserves in the Eagle Ford Shale with the use of hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling.

Approximately 90 percent of the water used in hydraulic fracturing in the area is from fresh groundwater aquifers, according to the researchers. The researchers recommend incentivizing the substitution of brackish groundwater for fresh groundwater at a low cost to the state and operators in the region.

The researchers studied groundwater consumption within the Eagle Ford counties over a span of four years, looking not only at oil and gas exploration water consumption, but also at municipal consumption, irrigation and other categories.

“This analysis showed that fresh groundwater is being consumed at about 2.5 times the groundwater recharge rates,” according to the report. Irrigation is using more water than all the other categories combined, the researchers found, so the water problem reaches well beyond the use of fresh groundwater for oil and gas exploration.

But they found a difference can be made in conserving fresh groundwater in the shale, not through technology, but rather by designing better public policies that incentivize hydraulic fracturing operators to substitute brackish groundwater for fresh groundwater.

If oil and gas companies in the Eagle Ford Shale switch to brackish water, it would leave more fresh groundwater for farmers and municipalities, the researchers said.

“Operators would receive a ‘Green Star’ recognition from the RRC and possibly the TCEQ (Texas Commission on Environmental Quality) if they take the pledge to avoid using fresh groundwater and agree to be compliant with all other environmental regulations,” Griffin said.

The study also recommends mandatory reporting of all groundwater uses by all classes of water users, bringing more transparency.

For more information on Griffin, see his webpage.

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