‘Til Your Wells Run Dry
Gas drillers are sucking up
a sea of North Texas water.
By JEFF PRINCE
The water honcho in Everman was working in his office when representatives from a gas drilling company showed up in May wanting to buy a bunch of the wet stuff. More than a dozen counties, including Tarrant, are straddling the hottest onshore natural gas play in North America, the Barnett Shale. Drillers who are scrambling to grab a piece of that bonanza need lots of freshwater, the key ingredient in the process that unlocks the earth and frees up the valuable gas.
“I told them I’d need to know what their daily demand would be,” said Public Works Director Michael Box, who oversees Everman’s water system — four city wells tapped into the Paluxy Aquifer about 900 feet down, and three more wells stretching down to the Trinity Aquifer even farther below.
Turns out, the drillers, for a short stretch, would have needed almost twice as much water each day as the whole town of Everman uses — in the summer. Not surprisingly, the city and the drillers didn’t make a deal.
Everman covers less than two square miles and has about 5,700 residents who depend on those wells for water to bathe their bodies, clean their Calvin Kleins, and douse their daffodils. The city’s storage capacity is 1.5 million gallons of treated water, and about half of that is used each day during the hot summer months. The city also buys 150,000 gallons a day from Fort Worth, not so much out of necessity but to stay connected with another water source in case of emergencies.
Water isn’t a problem, and Box doesn’t intend to let it become one, even if gas drillers are waving a lot of money at the city. “We’re going to look after our water system before we start worrying about money [from drillers],” he said. “It depends on how much water they need and how quick they need it.”
Turns out, they need tons — an estimated five million gallons or so for each gas well. The companies want it quick — about a million gallons a day for several days in the early drilling stages. And they want it cheap — they’re willing to pump from ponds, lakes, and rivers, drill wells to tap groundwater sources, or buy from cities that rely on area lakes.
Everman’s water system couldn’t spare a million gallons a day, especially during this summer’s unusually dry weather. Box explained the situation to the drilling representatives, who went away. Weeks later, they began laying a water line to the drill site. “They must have an agreement with somebody,” Box said.
Futurists predicted years ago that water would one day be the new oil, the new gold (blue gold as it is sometimes called), increasingly in demand. In 1997, corporate raider and oilman Boone Pickens said the water on his West Texas ranch would be worth more than its oil, and he began buying water rights and uniting landowners to sell and transport water to parched cities such as San Antonio and El Paso. Pickens even made his pitch to Fort Worth and other Metroplex cities that can see demand for water outstripping the supply by 2030 unless new sources are developed. Water planners are considering alternatives such as spending $1.6 billion to build an East Texas reservoir (wiping out thousands of acres of timberland and lots of native wildlife) and then piping water more than 130 miles to the Metroplex.
Despite this growing need for water, cities and counties are throwing down welcome mats to drillers seeking to capture natural gas using a method called fracturing. In that process, freshwater and sand are pumped through pipes at high speed to fracture — or “frac” — rock formations and release gas. Frac drilling has been used for years with gels and solvents, but was considered cost-prohibitive for the kind of horizontal drilling necessary in the Barnett Shale formation that holds the valuable gas beneath North Texas. Then in the late 1990s, a version of the process was developed that relies almost exclusively on less-expensive freshwater. The Barnett Shale field is serving as guinea pig for this new process.
After a frac job, most of the “flowback” water is a useless gray, gooey broth contaminated by salt, sand, and various chemicals. Each year in Texas, drillers dispose of more than 100 billion gallons of oil and gas fluids, including this frac “mud,” by injecting it into underground disposal wells, sometimes thousands of feet below the earth’s surface, other times on the same level as drinking-water aquifers. Environmental groups such as Bluewater Network wonder how much flowback is dumped illegally, or leaked into aquifers, or spilled onto the ground, contaminating soil and wildlife. Few others seem to be worrying about frac drilling’s effect on North Texas water supplies.
Whose responsibility is it to watch what gas drillers are doing to the state’s groundwater? The question set people scurrying in a six-pack worth of state agencies. The Texas Railroad Commission, the state’s lead oil and gas agency, referred a reporter to a water board, where someone suggested asking the state environmental protection agency — which sent the reporter back to the Railroad Commission. Independent water experts and the local water district weren’t much better.
For more than two weeks, agency spokespersons tossed the questions back and forth. None wanted to take responsibility for determining whether this new burden on water supplies could speed the need for fresh sources or create problems with aquifers. A Tarrant Regional Water District spokesman told Fort Worth Weekly to call a local driller to get information about the amount of water used. Environmentalists complain that leaving drillers to monitor themselves is akin to putting Hannibal Lecter in charge of the dorm kitchen.
So far, there have been few reports of groundwater pollution problems caused by the gas wells that are popping up daily all over this part of the state. And the huge amounts of water used during the first several days of each drill aren’t a problem for relatively water-rich cities like Fort Worth.
But who’s really watching? And what about rural areas, where soured wells or dropping water tables could cause disaster for farmers and small towns that rely on groundwater? In some parts of the state, groundwater protection districts monitor such issues. But few such districts exist, at this point, in Tarrant County or the surrounding area. Meanwhile, gas drillers in the Barnett Shale in the last several years have used an estimated 15 billion gallons of water — enough to supply Everman for 50 years.
“I saw two concerns as the Barnett Shale increased — a shortage of good help and the demands on our water sources,” said petroleum geologist Billy Caldwell, a longtime consultant to the oil and gas industry. “If you use a million gallons of water on fracing, that is a tremendous drain on aquifers, reservoirs, and our lakes and streams.”
Texas produces more oil and gas than any state in the country. As of 2003, about 68,000 wells were producing natural gas alone in 2003 — before the Barnett Shale boom really took off. Currently, an estimated 4,000 wells are producing in the Barnett Shale, stimulating the local economy in counties from Montague to Palo Pinto to Bosque and getting an enthusiastic nod of approval from the Bush administration on down. The numbers are startling — if gas wells used an average of 5 million gallons of water apiece, then 4,000 wells would have required 20 billion gallons. Not counting the 25 percent or so of the water that is reusable for frac jobs, that leaves about 15 billion gallons — enough water to fill Lake Worth one and a half times.
One might think that an industry with so many potential environmental issues would be regulated with fervor, yet when it comes to gas wells and water, few people are paying attention.
The buck stops with the Texas Railroad Commission, established in 1891 to regulate the railroad industry and, later, oil and gas. Agency spokeswoman Ramona Nye, like numerous other officials interviewed for this story, didn’t know how much water the gas drillers are using or where it comes from. “You would have to ask the companies where they are getting their water,” she said.
A large portion is being pumped out of the ground. Minerals such as oil, gas, and water lie underground in widespread deposits that have little to do with surface property lines. The state’s rule of capture law allows surface owners to pump out all the minerals they can get, regardless of whether they are also removing water or minerals from beneath a neighbor’s land. Groundwater gathers inside the cracks and openings of the earth, among beds of rock and sand. Rain that seeps into the ground can recharge supplies, but it usually occurs slowly during wet times, and not at all during droughts.
In Haslet, for instance, tests have shown that the Paluxy reservoir has dropped about two and a half feet in the past 18 years, as residential development has increased and people have drilled more water wells. “We know our Paluxy in this area has gradually been going down,” said Haslet public works director David Rogers. “A lot of that has been due to housing developments out here around us. There’s a number of these subdivisions, especially west of Haslet, and that’s all [the water] they have out there.”
Water levels in the deeper Trinity Aquifer have dropped during dry years but returned to normal during wet years, he said.
Nye suggested contacting the Texas Water Development Board or a local groundwater conservation district to gauge the impact of gas drilling on the aquifers. But Tarrant and most other counties involved in the Barnett Shale don’t have such districts, and the Texas Water Development Board focuses on surface water issues. A TWDB employee suggested calling Tarrant Regional Water District. Another said she would try to find somebody in her own agency to discuss groundwater issues related to drilling. But she called back later to report little success: “For people who like to bill themselves as experts I didn’t have a productive day in finding somebody to talk to you.”
Roger Quincy, an Austin-based hydrologist with Texas Water Development Board, had not heard of the Barnett Shale and didn’t know much about groundwater issues. He suggested calling Shirley Wade, a staffer who studies groundwater availability. But Wade offered no help. “I know nothing about that,” she said. “I don’t know enough about the situation to even comment.”
Quincy suggested calling the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ). The Railroad Commission offered the same idea.
That wasn’t the right answer either. “Drilling and all is the Railroad Commission’s jurisdiction; it’s not under our jurisdiction,” TCEQ Regional Director Frank Espino said.
The Tarrant Regional Water District seemed equally uncertain.
“I’m afraid I couldn’t give you a whole lot of information on a scientific basis,” said water district oil and gas attorney Ken Brummett, when asked about gas drilling’s effect on groundwater sources. “We are not a groundwater district; we operate the lakes.”
When asked if he could think of an agency that monitors groundwater in the area, he paused. “I really can’t,” he said.
The Texas Groundwater Protection Committee is a consortium of nine state agencies and the Texas Alliance of Groundwater Districts. Created in 1989 by the Texas Legislature, the group oversees the aquifers that provide more than half of the water used in Texas. “Managing such an essential resource requires a lot of coordination,” says the committee’s web site, which lists TCEQ’s Cary Betz as the primary contact.
Betz seemed caught off-guard by questions about gas drilling’s effect on water supplies in North Texas. “I’ll be honest with you, I have no idea what water resources they are using or the effect they have,” he said. But he offered to find somebody with expertise to answer questions. The next day, TCEQ’s senior staff geologist Kelly Mills called. He too was unfamiliar with the Barnett Shale, and his knowledge of water-based fracturing technology was shaky, but he had seen the effectiveness of groundwater districts.
Growing demand for dwindling water supplies is usually what prompts creation of a district, Mills said. In such cases, residents can ask the legislature to schedule a countywide election to establish a groundwater conservation district to regulate water usage. “If there is not a groundwater district, the rule of capture applies, and whoever brought that water to the surface ... can use it however he sees fit.”
There is nothing illegal about gas drillers capturing groundwater or relying on surface water for frac jobs. But it seems inefficient to Mills in this era of shrinking water sources. “Freshwater, drinking-water quality, being used like that is not the best use of the water,” he said. “The state’s population is going to double in the next 40 years, but our water supplies aren’t.”
Groundwater protection districts have been around for more than 50 years. Currently, 83 districts cover 124 counties and provide agencies such as the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality with more regulatory power to do such things as determining how far apart wells must be drilled, providing environmental oversight, and regulating the amounts of water pumped. But Tarrant and most other counties over the Barnett Shale don’t have these districts. TCEQ, the state’s primary environmental regulatory agency, pays little attention to groundwater issues until a district has been established, and even then they have little control over gas drillers who dig their own water wells.
Closest to Tarrant County is the Middle Trinity Groundwater Conservation District, established by voters in Erath and Comanche counties in 2002. Farmers, peeved about the cost of surface water and the growing number of water wells being dug as the population increased, contacted their legislator and pushed for the necessary election. Since then, however, several water wells in the area have been dug by oil and gas companies, and district officials realized that they didn’t have as much regulatory power as they thought.
The part of the Texas water code that gives authority to groundwater districts also exempts water wells used solely for support of gas and oil drilling from the permitting process. That effectively strips the groundwater conservation district of the ability to regulate the wells. “I guess oil is big business,” Middle Trinity district general manager Joe Cooper said. “It’s kind of a loophole in the law. We can control a lot, but that’s the one thing we really can’t.”
He’s not overly concerned, since his district is on the outskirts of the boom and there are only a few gas wells nearby. But in the Barnett Shale’s hottest spots, such as Tarrant and Denton Counties, a lack of regulation could prove more worrisome.
Cooper called the Texas Railroad Commission months ago to see what they could do. “They don’t do anything to regulate those wells,” he said.
A licensed water-well digger must be used, but, after that, the property owner can pump out all the water his heart desires. And when gas drillers come offering hefty royalties and revenues, a property owner usually desires to turn the taps wide open.
Peewee Walker, as one might suspect, is a man of small physical stature, but he’s thinking big when it comes to cashing in on the Barnett Shale. He owns mineral rights on the 32-acre spread in southeast Fort Worth that he has called home for most of his 89 years. A gas well is slated for his property, and Walker envisions a financial windfall. He’s hoping the ka-ching will reach thousands of dollars a month, if only for the sake of a beloved organization. He has promised to give the Boy Scouts of America 75 percent of his gas proceeds. “I don’t have any idee what it will bring,” he said recently while dining at Hickory Stick Bar-B-Q, a café in Everman where talk about natural gas drilling is as common as mustard in tater salad.
For years, Walker drew water from a private well 570 feet deep. When the well began having problems years ago — too much sand in the water — he tied into Fort Worth’s water lines. He isn’t concerned about the huge amounts of water needed to pump out natural gas in North Texas. “This Barnett Shale is big,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of lakes we’re drawing from. There ought to be plenty. The Trinity [Aquifer] is big, and it’s been around a long time, and it’s got a lot of water.”
Walker was having lunch with longtime friend Gene Watts, who isn’t so sure that demand on area water supplies won’t create problems. “I get the feeling we’re going to reach the stage where the water is going to be at a premium,” he said. “That’s going to be our next big problem.” Watts, 71, lives on a small lot in Everman and doesn’t stand to profit from the gas play.
Fort Worth’s water supplies are already being sapped because of increasing development and population. Little towns such as Everman, which rely on groundwater, could find themselves buying more water — and passing the costs onto residents — should water tables sink. “I hope it never happens but I can see the possibility,” Watts said.
For some, using water to extract natural gas is a trade-off of two valuable resources. “It’s balancing one resource against the other,” said Burke Burkart, a University of Texas at Arlington geology professor. “To get valuable gas, you have to expend some valuable water. Which is more important? I can’t judge that.”
Groundwater resources are strong in the Metroplex, and he doubts that the gas industry will affect them noticeably, but he expressed surprise at the lack of groundwater protection districts in the Barnett Shale. “That’s something to think about,” he said. “There ought to be some mechanism of bringing people together to at least discuss the matter.”
Burkart suggested calling Billy Caldwell, a geologist, author, teacher, and oil and gas industry consultant.
Contacted by phone, Caldwell wasn’t keen on pointing fingers at the gas industry. Complaining about frac drilling’s reliance on water can anger drillers — the same people who hire him. Still, he worries. “I don’t want to be an alarmist, but water is very precious,” he said. “We must conserve it every way we can.”
Rather than kicking the oil and gas industry for using freshwater, he advocates the development of recycling techniques. “As we drill more and more wells we need more and more water, and rather than disposing of saltwater [water that’s already been used in a drilling process] like we do now, we should desalinate it and process it so that we can reuse it in wells,” he said. “We’re just putting it by the thousands of gallons in disposal wells.”
He wasn’t aware of a pilot project occurring on a Wise County ranch that could greatly reduce the gas industry’s demand on area water supplies. Recycling efforts don’t typically dominate in an industry known for its bottom-line mindset, but one of the Barnett Shale’s biggest drillers — Devon Energy — is in the early stages of figuring out how to turn mucky flowback into blue gold.
A couple of miles east of Decatur, a stretch of caliche road in Wise County is marked by faded ribbons hanging from a tree. The road juts off from Farm Road 2264, cuts through a ranch, and disappears amid rolling hills and trees. On a recent scorcher of a day, wild turkeys grazed along a fence line, and a lanky jackrabbit hopped half-heartedly nearby. A thirsty wanderer lost in the countryside might pass by this dusty place, not realizing that the road leads to the future of water conservation among gas drillers. Hidden from passing motorists are the pumps, tanks, and distilling equipment designed to take flowback from frac drilling and make it reusable for other frac jobs, reducing the need to pump out more and more freshwater.
At least, that’s the plan. The pilot project began in March, bogged down, and is still struggling. “There is a lot of pioneering going on with this project,” said Jacob Halldorson, chief executive officer for Fountain Quail Water Management, an oilfield services company leading a project designed to take millions of gallons of flowback and remove the salt that prevents if from being reused. But flowback is also tainted with anti-friction chemicals that allow drillers to bore thousands of feet underground through dense shale. “Those things have to be removed,” Halldorson said.
He is installing a pre-treatment system to remove chemicals from the flowback to render it clean enough to be fed into sensitive distillation equipment. “It needs to really be cleaned up before it can be recycled,” he said. “Devon has been very patient with us. We’ve just run into some problems we weren’t expecting.”
Devon’s patience could benefit the company financially and serve as an environmental feather in their cap. Paying to dispose of about 4,000 gallons a day of flowback — and incurring the even higher costs of transporting the mud to far-flung disposal sites — prompted the area’s most prolific gas drilling company to become a recycling pioneer, Devon operations manager Jay Shyer said.
Commercial disposal wells sit at various depths beneath the earth’s surface. Some are far below freshwater aquifers, some are much shallower. More than 100 disposal sites are sprinkled around North Texas, but high demand among drillers has made accessing them difficult and costly. Recycling could reduce the need to dump tainted water and create a new water source for drillers. In the meantime, billions of gallons of oil and gas fluids, most notably saltwater, are being stored in natural, underground reservoirs. The water isn’t much good for anything now, although if desalination becomes more cost effective in the future, that enormous supply of saltwater could be pumped up, treated, and turned into freshwater. Until then, it sits — and makes some people nervous, especially considering that the Railroad Commission is in charge.
“It can be tough to determine natural contamination from contamination caused by a leaking well,” said Steve Seni, the commission’s assistant director of environmental services.
In 2003, only one person in the Barnett Shale area complained to the Railroad Commission that a water well was contaminated by oil and gas. The Railroad Commission investigated and determined the evidence wasn’t conclusive that an oil and gas driller was at fault. The 2004 report has not yet been released. There have been no reports of contamination of public water systems.
If a gas driller weren’t complying with state law on controlling and disposing of polluted water, it might be a long time before the commission knew about it, however. The agency has only 125 inspectors to monitor the state’s 356,000 oil and gas wells, and only two in 10 are inspected in any given year. The number of inspectors could go even lower, since the legislature this year chose not to increase fees on oil and gas operators. “We’re going to have to look at [staff] cutbacks as a possibility,” commission spokeswoman Nye said.
The distillation equipment Halldorson is testing is designed to be moved from drill site to drill site, taking flowback as it comes out of the ground, cleaning it up, and making it ready to use again for another frac job. Devon hopes to have several of the mobile machines available by year’s end, once the prototype’s kinks are worked out in Decatur. “Hopefully we can see some appreciable lowering of our water needs,” Shyer said.
Railroad commissioners approved the pilot project earlier this year, and chairman Victor Carrillo has claimed that the technology would cut freshwater usage by 85 percent at each frac job. Halldorson is more optimistic, predicting as much as 95 percent of the flowback could be recycled. Those are figures that excite geologists such as Caldwell.
“The secret is always in recycling,” he said. “We’re in the first phase of 50 years of drilling. Five years ago is when the [frac] activity really started, and it is just now the start of boom time where they will be drilling everywhere.”
Water supplies are stable, but it makes little sense to wait until problems arise before seeking solutions — the distillation project is a large step in the right direction, he said.
“It would be a great relief on our aquifers,” he said.
Relief would also come with more oversight and involvement by water agencies, said local environmentalist and Greenpeace member Don Young. “The groundwaters are low and getting lower, and people keep coming, and water is supposed to be like the price of gasoline in the future,” he said. “You can’t manufacture water. It’s very short-sighted to use water so frivolously these days.”
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