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Recycling Efforts by Drilling Industry a Focus of House Hearing

Much of the discussion at a Wednesday House committee hearing centered around efforts by drilling companies to recycle water or reduce their water consumption. Environmentalists questioned whether they are doing enough.

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Representatives of the natural gas drilling industry said at a joint state House committee hearing Wednesday that they were working to reduce their water consumption, mainly through recycling water.

Water shortages and safety in regard to hydraulic fracturing were the big topics of the day at the hearing of the House Energy and the Natural Resources committees. 

The committees heard from at least 20 people who represented mining or drilling interests. Fewer than half of that total spoke on behalf of environmental organizations.

In addition to testimony from industry representatives and environmentalists, members of the Texas Railroad Commission said that they are looking at ways to amend their rules to make water recycling easier for the industry.

Recycling water is more costly for companies than putting wastewater in a disposal well and buying fresh or brackish water, and tax incentives proposed in past legislative sessions to get drilling companies to recycle have failed.

Representatives for several drilling companies testified that making it faster and easier to acquire permits for commercial recycling would encourage increased recycling efforts. They also touted the potential benefits of expanding the acceptable uses for recycled water, which can only be used in other oil and gas operations. Otherwise, it must be disposed of.

“No matter how much we treat it, it's still considered an oil and gas waste,” said Jay Ewing, manager of completion and construction at Devon Energy. If regulations were adjusted, they could use the recycled water to irrigate crops or give to cattle, he said.

Opinions varied on the importance of reducing the consumption of water by the oil and gas industry in Texas.

On average, oil and gas companies accounted for about 2 percent of the state's water usage in 2010, according to the Water Development Board.

Railroad Commissioner David Porter said that total is a relatively small amount, especially when compared with agricultural irrigation's 56 percent, and municipal water use accounting for 27 percent of the state’s 2010 usage.

“The truth is, even if we didn't use another drop of water for drilling operations, water is still going to be an issue because of the drought and our state’s tremendous population growth,” Porter said. “I want to be clear: Hydraulic fracturing should not be the scapegoat for the water shortage in Texas.”

Environmentalists and others argued that although the overall percentage used by oil and gas is relatively low, communities around fracturing wells can be disproportionately and significantly affected.

Ron Green, a hydrologist with the San Antonio-based Southwest Research Institute, said South Texas' Winter Garden region has been especially affected because of increased pumping of the Carrizo-Wilcox Aquifer as a result of the Eagle Ford Shale boom, and that water levels have been devastated.

Water not recycled must be injected into a disposal well. There has been debate concerning the safety of disposal wells and the potential for them to pollute nearby water supplies.

L'Oreal Stepney, deputy director of the Office of Water at the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, said that of the 4,000 reported cases of contaminated water in the state in 2010, none were linked to pollution from disposal wells.

“What we find is when there is a problem, typically it is from human or mechanical problems — worn gaskets, valves or hatches that need to be closed,” Stepney said. “But usually the operator acts quickly to get back into compliance.”

Others insisted the science is not sufficient to rule out a threat to the water supplies.

“There are many abandoned or unplugged wells, and as serious as a breakout would be if it flowed up out of the ground, it would be even worse if it went into the aquifer, because we would never be able to tell” that a spill occurred, Green said.

Additionally, inspections of these wells can be limited because of a high number of wells and small number of inspectors, said Luke Metzger, director of Environment Texas. Metzger also pointed to a ProPublica study that said that one out of every three wells that were inspected in Texas received a fine.

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