Last month, something remarkable happened here in Texas. The city council of Dallas, home to Halliburton and J.R. Ewing and a world icon of oil and gas drilling, voted to reject a proposal by a natural gas company to drill and “frack” on city-owned land. Faced with enormous community opposition to drilling over fears of water contamination, air pollution and misuse of public park land, the council voted not to gamble with public health.
Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings told the city council, "To paraphrase Ecclesiastes: There is a place for everything under Heaven, and I don’t think the place for drilling is in Dallas." The city is now poised to adopt a tough new ordinance which will effectively ban drilling within city limits.
There are other signs of trouble for fracking in the state where the process was pioneered. Drilling’s heavy water use during a historic drought, damage to roads from thousands of trucks going to and from drilling sites, and growing concerns about air pollution and costs to taxpayers have all caused many Texans to take a second look at fracking and wonder if it’s not all it’s cracked up to be.
The city of Barnhart, a small town in West Texas, recently got international attention when excessive water use for fracking combined with drought to cause the city’s well to run dry. Amid a record drought that is threatening another 30 Texas communities with running out of water, oil and gas companies are using an estimated 25 billion gallons of water per year in Texas. State Senator Troy Fraser, Republican Chair of the Senate Natural Resources committee, told a group of water officials last month, “I have a great concern about what that does to the water supply if they continue to use fresh water to frack those wells.”
One county in south Texas, La Salle, projects that fracking will consume 40 percent of its water by 2020. Such increases may end up costing tax and rate payers a whole lot of money. The official Texas state water plan, for instance, projects the state will need to spend $400 million to provide water for the mining sector (including fracking).
In order to frack a single oil or gas well, it takes hundreds of heavy trucks to haul in water and haul away the resulting toxic waste products. According to a study by Denton County, the damage to roads used for this purpose is equivalent to that caused by 3.5 million cars. The Texas Department of Transportation “conservatively” estimates it will cost $2 billion to fix the roads damaged by drilling.
San Antonio has long been the largest city in America to not fail federal air quality standards, which has been good news for the 40,000 children in the Alamo city suffering from asthma. But now, with a fracking boom underway just outside the city, local air quality officials predict that air pollution from oil and gas drilling may push the city in to non-attainment with the Clean Air Act.
On top of all that, Texas taxpayers may also wind up on the hook for plugging and reclaiming orphaned wells. Texas already has more than 7,800 orphan oil and gas wells – wells that were never properly sealed and whose owners may no longer be in business. These wells pose a continual threat of groundwater pollution and have cost the state of Texas more than $247 million to plug. The fracking boom is now adding thousands of new wells to this mix.
But despite these growing concerns, Texas lawmakers will likely never take on the oil and gas industry, so communities like Dallas have to fend for themselves. And while that might occasionally work for a big city, few small towns and counties are ready to take on Exxon and Halliburton. And in other states, like Ohio and Pennsylvania and Colorado, the power of communities to ban, or even restrict, this dirty drilling has been eroded by the power of the oil and gas industry – in the courts, in the legislatures, in their governors’ mansions.
For all these reasons, communities living on the frontlines of fracking need federal protections.
In fact, last month more than a million people submitted comments urging the Obama administration to keep dirty gas drilling out of our national forests and parks, and the drinking water they provide. At a minimum, we need to keep critical areas of public lands off limits and close loopholes in federal law, especially for toxic fracking waste. Fracking waste is often laced with cancer-causing chemicals, and can even be radioactive. But shockingly, it is exempt from our nation's hazardous waste law—the same law that protects us successfully from numerous other toxic threats.
The late Larry Hagman (the actor who portrayed J.R. Ewing on the television show Dallas) once told The New York Times of his encounters with real oil tycoons, saying, “They had such a nice, sweet smile. But when you finished the meeting, your socks were missing, and you hadn’t even noticed they’d taken your boots.”
Unless the Obama administration takes much stronger action to curb this dirty drilling, then Big Oil will surely keep taking our boots.