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Oil and water: New reporting rules on fracking overdue

By Longview News-Journal
Dec. 18, 2012 at 11 p.m.


Beginning in February, there will be new rules on the use of hydraulic fracturing to extract oil and gas from beneath Texas soil. They will require those who use the process, better known as "fracking," to reveal what chemicals and how much water they are using.

It's about time.

The rules issued by the Texas Railroad Commission are being hailed by environmentalists, those interested in Texas' water resources and even some producers, many of whom already have to operate by similar requirements in any other state in which they drill.

Modern fracking, which was pioneered in the Barnett Shale right here in Texas, is a process in which water, sand and additives are shot at pressure into a well to create fractures in rock formations. Those fractures create pathways through which trapped oil and gas can flow. Though the process has suffered more than its share of criticism, the fact is it has opened new underground reserves that will be a big factor in our nation's energy future for years to come. It also has been a big boost to the East Texas economy.

None of that changes the fact we should know exactly what is being injected into the ground so we can know the costs and judge the risks, particularly to our underground water sources. Additives in the fracking process include acids, chlorides, hydroxides and, well, we don't know what all else. That is one set of facts we will get, come February, as producers begin reporting. All the information will be posted to a website, fracfocus.org, which will be accessible to everyone.

The chemical composition of fracking fluid, however, is probably not the most important knowledge we will gain. As a percentage, it is only a tiny part of the total material being pumped down well shafts. According to one industry source, typical ratios are 90 percent water, 9.5 percent sand, and 0.5 percent other additives.

In a state that has been suffering through a persistent drought during the past few years, the total water use is important to know. An industry source has estimated a single well requires from 1 million to 5 million gallons over three to five days. That is quite a wide range, and the difference is meaningful, especially in times of drought and areas hurting for water.

Having to post the numbers could also lead drillers to conserve as much water as possible, or to seek more efficient ways to frack.

As indicated earlier, almost every other state where fracking is used already has rules that require such disclosures. Texas is bringing up the rear in making the industry accountable. Such accountability should make the industry better and better accepted.

We have not seen solid evidence that fracking is dangerous to the environment and most of the complaints about it don't have the backing of scientific or engineering fact. But given the nature of the process, fracking bears watching over the long term to make sure we are not causing greater problems down the road.

Oil and water aren't supposed to mix, and we would like to keep it that way.

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