Editor's note: This story has been updated to include a response from Ryan Sitton.
Saying Tuesday that underground wastewater disposal is “not an effective long-term solution for our state and environment,” Democratic Railroad Commission candidate Steve Brown called for regulators to halt permitting of disposal wells for hydraulic fracturing water by 2020 — a bold proposal that his opponents dubbed “naïve” and "out of touch."
Brown’s proposal, part of a broader plan that he said “completely eliminates the use of freshwater for hydraulic fracturing,” comes as the number of disposal wells has exploded amid Texas’ drilling bonanza. The state is home to 3,600 active commercial disposal wells and counting. In 2013, the Railroad Commission of Texas, the state's oil and gas regulator, approved 668 permits for disposal wells, doubling the number of approvals in 2009, according to state data.
Those wells are at the root of concerns about the uptick of mild earthquakes in North Texas, and groundwater conservation districts’ fears that the continued injection of wastewater deep into the ground threatens brackish water supplies that could – with improved filtering technology – be put to future use.
Brown, the former chairman of the Fort Bend County Democratic Party, said that spending millions of dollars to get recycling technology up to scale could reduce the need for more disposal wells and aid parched communities. He called on the Texas Legislature to use $50 million in Rainy Day Fund money for research and development grants, and he said the state should issue tax credits for energy companies that use recycled frack water.
“There are companies that have the technology now, so it’s a matter of investing in them, so they can get their technology to market in a way that isn’t cost-prohibitive for the industry,” Brown said. “That solves not only the disposal well issue, but the freshwater issue – that we’re using too much freshwater to do this.”
Water recycling is a growing trend on Texas oilfields as drought continues shrink resources, but it is far from a mainstream practice due to its cost.
Mark Miller, Brown’s Libertarian opponent, said he would like to see water recycling grow, but he was not convinced Brown's proposal would work.
“He probably ought to get a petroleum engineer to help on these types of things,” said Miller, a petroleum engineer, calling the plan "kind of naïve.”
Miller noted that most of the water that flows back from a drilled and fracked well is not fracking fluid, but produced water, a byproduct of oil and gas laced with natural contaminants that are especially difficult to filter out with current recycling technology.
“You still have to dispose of the water somewhere, unless you stop producing those wells,” Miller said. “You’re really not going to cut back on the water you're putting in the ground very much.”
Miller was also skeptical of Brown's research and development proposal. "I just don’t know if that’s something government should be involved in,” he said.
Ryan Sitton, the Republican candidate for railroad commissioner, said wastewater disposal wells are “critical” for oil and gas production and called efforts to eliminate them “out of touch and not carefully constructed to consider consequences and the impacts on our economy.”
“These wells are strictly regulated and they are constructed and constantly monitored to protect the surrounding environment, groundwater and surface water,” Sitton, a mechanical engineer, said in a statement.
John Tintera, executive director of the Texas Water Recycling Association and a former executive director of the Railroad Commission, did not comment specifically on Brown’s plan, but said it was not practical – and perhaps not possible – to completely do away with new disposal wells for fracking waste.
“Texas has been blessed with the geology that lends itself toward disposal, and I see disposal as an important part of the overall oil and gas framework virtually forever,” he said. “Disposal and recycling are not mutually exclusive. There’s almost always some portion of the recycled product that needs to be disposed of.”
Tax credits could help speed the evolution of recycling technology, Tintera added. “I think anybody who is recycling water and trying to preserve a natural resource deserves some extra consideration.”
Texas has taken other steps to kick-start the water recycling industry. The Railroad Commission recently exempted “mobile” recyclers, which can recycle water on or near a fracking site to avoid trucking the water long distances, from applying for permits. And state lawmakers last year clarified that drillers would not be liable for mishaps involving wastewater that they have already handed off to third-party operators who might reuse the water.