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In 2011, when we first began field and laboratory studies to help assess the potential environmental impacts of unconventional oil and gas extraction (UOG), there was very little literature on the subject. Further, the polarizing nature of the topic made it quite difficult to navigate the middle ground. While some voices contended that UOG was perfectly safe, others insisted that it should be banned in its entirety because it is destroying the environment. As with any topic that is both complex and elicits the attention of a large number of people (like our past election or politics, in general), my skepticism forces me to believe that the answer actually lies somewhere in the middle of extreme views.
According to the Wall Street Journal in 2013, more than 15 million Americans live within one mile of an oil and gas extraction well drilled since the year 2000. The process of unconventional oil and gas extraction (UOG), including hydraulic fracturing or “fracking,” is a major industrial process, and as such, has risks. In 2011, when we first began field and laboratory studies to help assess the potential environmental impacts of UOG, there was very little literature on the subject. Further, the polarizing nature of the topic made it quite difficult to navigate the middle ground (1). While some voices contended that UOG was perfectly safe, others insisted that it should be banned in its entirety because it is destroying the environment. As with any topic that is both complex and elicits the attention of a large number of people (like our past election or politics, in general), my skepticism forces me to believe that the answer actually lies somewhere in the middle of extreme views.
Since 2011, a significant number of relevant studies have been completed, by our group and by others (2–11). It is still a field with just a few players, and this limited field is largely due to the logistics associated with acquiring sufficient funding and collecting large numbers of samples. Performing a “comprehensive” water quality analysis based on 500 water well samples taken in the Barnett Shale of North Texas is something I have written about previously in an LCGC Blog (12). In the various analyses performed, there are numerous instances of abnormalities that have been detected. It has become clear that the entire UOG process, not just hydraulic fracturing, must be considered to understand the full potential for environmental impact. More recently, we have reported on a time-course analysis in West Texas, where we were able to take and measure samples before, during, and after the onset of significant UOG activity (13). We were able to see significant variations over time, which seemed to some degree to be attributable to UOG operations.
The biggest problem is that we had very little insight into UOG development over the course of the study. We had information from sources (for example, fracfocus.org), such as the number of new wells that were introduced between our sampling trips, but this information was largely gathered after our sampling and analysis was complete. A couple of things were clear. First, water resources exhibited some resilience. Abnormalities, once detected after the onset of UOG, seemed to fade with time and return to close to baseline. Second, we could not definitely connect our findings with knowledge of specific steps in the UOG processes. We were unable to time our sampling to coincide with the operators as they developed and extracted from a new well. This blindness made it very difficult to draw solid conclusions.
After the study, we expounded about the need to join forces with an industrial partner to coordinate sampling and analysis with the different steps of the UOG process. We had previously approached various operators to establish a collaboration, but were unsuccessful. It was not a surprise to anyone that they did not want to have us looking over their shoulder.
At the same time, we were drawn to an area in West Texas, in and around the Balmorhea State Park. This area has a natural oasis with sensitive ecology where UOG is likely to increase significantly in the near future. We sought to raise funds to conduct at least baseline monitoring of groundwater in the area before UOG ramped; the initial funding campaign was largely unsuccessful, even though there was significant support in the area for our work.
The area in question is to be principally developed by Apache Corporation, one of the largest oil and gas producers in Texas. Unexpectedly, they contacted us to see if we would be interested in having them support the baseline monitoring work.
Previously, we had been extremely careful not to tie our names with entities from either side of the industry–environmentalist debate. Early on, we had learned caution in this regard based on others’ mistakes to this effect, and their subsequent work being discredited. However, at this point, we feel that we have established ourselves as neutral and objective scientists with the work we have performed. We voiced the need for industry to partner with an independent environmental science entity, and now this opportunity has presented itself.
As I write this, the first baseline water samples are being taken by our team in the “Alpine High Play” and Balmorhea State Park area of West Texas. Apache Corporation provided us enough support to perform one year of baseline water quality testing in the region. We have autonomy to perform our testing and report our findings. Most importantly we will have greater resolution in our sampling than ever before, as the shale play (or formation) develops, to understand where, when, and how Apache will be developing the area. We will collect a large series of baseline samples. When development fully commences, we will have an exceptional opportunity to work together with industry, in an unrestricted fashion, to help the community closely monitor water qualities for abnormalities, and if they occur, to have a direct line to work with Apache to correct action immediately.
Because the sampling and analysis will be carefully timed with the UD process, this area of development will have the closest monitoring and most responsive effort to date performed together by industry and a third-party monitor. There are some groups that would assert we have lost credibility by partnering with Apache. Personally, I consider that an affront to the ethical commitment of our team. This partnership is indeed an opportunity to set a new precedent, which should, in my opinion, become best practice for UOG operators to provide assurances to communities that they have the best interest of the environment at heart. Apache has shown this with their commitment, and we will follow through with ours to report the science in an unbiased and objective fashion.
Kevin A. Schug is a Full Professor and Shimadzu Distinguished Professor of Analytical Chemistry in the Department of Chemistry & Biochemistry at The University of Texas (UT) at Arlington. He joined the faculty at UT Arlington in 2005 after completing a Ph.D. in Chemistry at Virginia Tech under the direction of Prof. Harold M. McNair and a post-doctoral fellowship at the University of Vienna under Prof. Wolfgang Lindner. Research in the Schug group spans fundamental and applied areas of separation science and mass spectrometry. Schug was named the LCGCEmerging Leader in Chromatography in 2009 and the 2012 American Chemical Society Division of Analytical Chemistry Young Investigator in Separation Science. He is a fellow of both the U.T. Arlington and U.T. System-Wide Academies of Distinguished Teachers.