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Sitton: Don't Blame Oil and Gas for Texas Water Woes

How does the oil and gas industry play in Texas’ water shortage? Not very much, says Ryan Sitton, the Republican candidate for railroad commission.

Ryan Sitton, the Republican nominee in the 2014 race for Texas railroad commissioner.

*Correction appended

How much does the oil and gas industry factor into Texas’ water shortage? Not very much, says Ryan Sitton, the Republican candidate for railroad commission. 

“Even if we eliminated all water usage for oil and gas production, that would only save the state less than one percent of the total water used in the state,” Sitton, a mechanical engineer, said Wednesday. “I believe strongly that we need comprehensive solutions that evaluate every type of water usage in Texas.”

The statement came as Sitton released a pre-election position paper on water use in oil and gas development. The paper drew upon state data showing that­ Texans use far more water from other activities on a statewide basis. Steve Brown, Sitton's Democratic opponent, dismissed the paper as "industry talking points." 

Though drilling and completing one horizontal well requires millions of gallons of water, the industry consumes less than 1 percent of statewide resources, he wrote. Other consumers, such as public water systems, farmers and ranchers, manufacturers — and even people watering their lawns — use considerably more water, state data show.

The paper makes passing reference to additional context often raised by critics of the oil and gas industry: “The water usage rates by the oil and gas industry are significantly higher than the statewide average in certain geographic areas of the state,” one footnote says.

The industry, in fact, is among the biggest water consumers in some parched drilling communities. For instance, hydraulic fracturing in McMullen County, which sits atop the Eagle Ford Shale, guzzled more water in 2012 than the entire county used in 2011, according Ceres, a Boston-based sustainability advocacy group. In several other counties, the amount of water used for fracking in 2012 equalled more than half what was used by all customers in 2011. 

“Texas is ground zero for water sourcing risks due to intense shale energy production in recent years and a projected doubling of hydraulic fracturing-related water use over the next decade,” the report said.

Sitton argues that the oil and gas companies should continue water conservation efforts by increasing recycling and reuse as technology expands. But he says singling out the industry could raise energy prices without solving Texas’ overarching problems.

“This would only return less than one percent of the total water usage in Texas,” he wrote. “As our population expands, this savings would be virtually unnoticeable.”

Brown said he was glad the Republican "finally weighed in on the most important natural resource crisis facing our state," but he called the paper as "industry talking points that don't address the needs of Texas families."

Brown last month called for regulators to halt permitting of disposal wells for hydraulic fracturing wastewater by 2020, part of a plan that he says “completely eliminates the use of freshwater for hydraulic fracturing. ” His opponents called the proposal “naïve” and "out of touch."

Mark Miller, the Libertarian candidate, said he agreed with Sitton's overarching conclusions, but he was not convinced that adding water costs to operations in Texas would increase energy prices, which are more dependent on the global market. Miller also panned Sitton’s support of a statewide water plan as a move that would “require more government” and trump local control, which the Libertarian favors.

“It's not clear to me how or even if the Railroad Commission should enter into this issue in any meaningful way. It has no mandate from the Legislature to do so,” Miller added. 

Correction: An earlier version of this story suggested oil prices could rise if the industry is singled out for water use; Mr. Sitton said energy production prices, not oil prices, could rise.

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