SA should fear frack water demands, says (tree-hugging?) attorney

First water permit filed for SA River water to mine in Karnes, Dewitt.

Greg Harman

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Across more than a dozen South Texas counties, a band of mostly open country passing just south of San Antonio, millions of gallons upon millions of water are being shot thousands of feet underground to fracture the hard Eagle Ford Shale and drain out the natural gas and oil found there. And increasingly, supra-national Big Oil is entering the growing energy play and putting new drilling rigs in place. `Read â??The Next Petro Boom.'` Next week, an Austin-based landowner's attorney will meet with residents of the region to offer his best advice on how people can best protect their land and water while angling for an advantageous lease.

While attorney Ben Vaughan III believes the Eagle Ford will be extensively developed in the coming years, he's concerned what that development will mean for regional water supplies â?? including San Antonio's.

“One has to be concerned over removing this water from the hydrologic cycle,” Vaughan said. “This is not like taking this water and flushing it down the commode. This is taking this water and putting it 5,000 feet underground, from whence it shall never see the sun again. They're not recycling and cleaning it up, they're removing this water from human access.”

While fracking's bad rap has been largely earned in Pennsylvania, where cattle were recently quarantined after coming into contact with contaminated frack water. In Texas, what water returns from these deep shale formations is shot back down deep disposal wells as waste.

While a couple wells eating up as much as 10 million gallons wouldn't impact San Antonio, the total cumulative impact of the formation's development could pose problems. Oil companies can use unlimited amounts of water in Texas â?? however much they can cajole from landowners in their leases or purchase from elsewhere. Recently, the first permit (PDF) was filed with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality to pump and transfer 200 acre-feet of water a year for 10 years â??that's 65 million gallons times 10 â?? from the San Antonio River to frack in Karnes, Bee, and Dewitt counties. “San Antonio ought to be concerned,” he said. “That's going to come out of the San Antonio system and this is just the first in a litany of applications would be my guess.”

The next expansion to San Antonio's water supply will come from Gonzalez County, where fracking activity is taking place, through piggybacking on Schertz's pipeline, according to SAWS officials.

But the loss of water across the area could also potentially reduce the amount of water flowing to the San Antonio Bay, putting additional pressure the endangered whooping cranes there. That, in turn, could force cities like San Antonio to make up for the water debt by being forced to release more water downstream, he said. “Two hundred acre feet is not going to make a dramatic difference â?¦ but it'd make a hell of a difference if it's combined with a bunch of others.”

While he sees the Eagle Ford as inevitable, Vaughan is skeptical it will reduce our reliance on overseas natural gas and oil the way proponents suggest.

“There's a jillion and six people, and even more money, that's convinced that this is the solution to the United States' problems. I've been piddlin' around in the oil and gas business all my life: If you'll call me in 10 years, if I'm still alive, I'll be amazed if this play solves the natural gas supply problem for the United States. I will be surprised if that's the case. I hope it does â?¦ I don't advocate sending this money overseas for paying for `liquefied natural gas` in Quatar or some of those places. My sense is there's quite a quantity of hydrocarbons in this formation, but getting out a reasonable percentage is very difficult and very expensive. And doing it right is even more so.”

So what knowledge will he be imparting to landowners when they assemble in Dilley to hear him speak? He's not sure yet. Certainly seek financial compensation for your water. Just say no to spreading possibly contaminated drilling muds on your land. Beyond that? You may have to storm the regulators at the Texas Railroad Commission for relief.

If you hadn't guessed by now, Vaughan isn't enamored with the long-term picture the shale play represents.

“I must sound like a green treehugger, of course I am to some extent, `but` whatever production you get is ephemeral. It's gone when it's burned. But water that stays in the hydrologic system never goes away. When your great-grandchildren get to thinking about it and they're sitting there in this desertification that occurs and is going to occur as a result of climate change, they're going to wish they had the water.”

Vaughan, an attorney at Graves, Dougherty, Hearon, & Moody, will be speaking to area landowners about Eagle Ford issues in Dilley next Thursday. For more information you can email him or his partner John McFarland.

Vaughan has been practicing law in Texas since 1967. He recently received the Hall of Honor Award from The University of Texas' College of Natural Science.

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