UH presents a polite debate on a fractious topic

Considering the sparring partners — representatives of an oil company and an environmental group — the bout over hydraulic fracturing was pretty friendly.

The two shared their thoughts on the often-contentious topic last week at the University of Houston, in the first of a four-part series of talks on energy issues.

Paul Krishna, the environmental health and safety manager for XTO Energy, a natural gas-focused subsidiary of Exxon Mobil Corp., emphasized the bounty of energy that hydraulic fracturing has made accessible, opening the door to billions of barrels of oil and gas resources across the globe.

“Natural gas supplies could fuel the world for the next 200 years,” Krishna said, noting that the United States is expected to overtake Russia as the leading producer of oil by the end of the year, thanks to hydraulic fracturing.

The process involves injecting water, sand and chemicals into reservoirs at high pressure, creating fractures that release oil and gas locked in tight rocks.

Combined with advances in horizontal drilling, the technology has driven a production boom by opening  new plays once thought unreachable.

But it also has created worries about the millions of gallons of water it requires, the wastewater it creates and its effects on drinking water supplies.

Scott Anderson, senior policy adviser for the Environmental Defense Fund, expressed some of these concerns in the debate, focusing on contamination of surface water.

He agreed with Krishna that no proven cases link hydraulic fracturing to contamination of underground aquifers — though he didn’t rule out the potential, especially with insufficient oversight.

“Just because it has not polluted drinking water does not mean it can’t,” Anderson said. “I am convinced that, given time, it will.”

Krishna noted, however, that oil and gas companies use about 1 percent of the water consumed in the Texas, far less than agricultural interests or municipalities.

And he said XTO studies ways to reduce its water use much as possible, both to contain costs and to ensure future sustainability.

“With more people on the planet, we are going to need to be using our water more wisely,” Krishna said. “We are looking at our footprint more closely.”

He discussed a range of new water recycling techniques that reduce the amount of water necessary and the potential of technologies that may eliminate water use altogether.

Anderson said he objects to recycling of the wastewater, arguing that disposing of it in injection wells is environmentally preferable to storing and then attempting to treat it.

“Instead of putting that salty, chemically laden substance down injection wells, recycling would mean storing this polluted water, then transporting it through pipelines that could leak,” Anderson said, adding that the possibility of spills and the need to dispose of more-concentrated waste after recycling could cause even greater environmental degradation.

Turning to the topic of greenhouse gas, Krishna said that hydraulic fracturing has helped reduce carbon emissions, by producing cheap and cleaner-burning natural gas that is replacing coal for power generation.

“Greenhouse gas emissions are at their lowest levels since 1994, largely due to the increased production of natural gas from hydraulic fracturing,” Krishna said.

But the two men agreed that many air quality issues surrounding hydraulic fracturing must be understood better, including how much methane the process leaks into the atmosphere.

Anderson and Krishna noted during the event that their employers have worked together on a recent methane release study.

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