Concerned residents held a community awareness meeting Aug. 23 to discuss exploratory oil drilling that is expected to begin in late September or early October near Lake Houston. The 107-acre site is in Huffman off Smith Road and E. Lake Houston Parkway near the Lakewood Heights subdivision. Long ago, property owners sold mineral rights, which were recently purchased by an oil exploration company that has been buying mineral rights on the shores of Lake Houston.
Concerned citizens say they have very reliable information that the company intends to start fracking this fall. The group has concerns about health impacts on nearby residents, as well as impacts to Lake Houston water, the primary source of water for Houston. To highlight these concerns, the group held two public meetings Aug. 23 – one in downtown Houston at First Unitarian Universalist Church and the other at a private residence in Kingwood. Presenters included Jere Locke of Austin, who is program director of the Texas Drought Project. Locke has been studying fracking and its impacts on water resources for the last five years.
Sharon Wilson and Priscilla Villa attended from Earthworks, a nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting communities and the environment from the adverse impacts of mineral and energy development while promoting sustainable solutions. They work with communities and grassroots groups to reform government policies, improve corporate practices, influence investment decisions and encourage responsible materials sourcing and consumption. Wilson has worked on the fracking issue for over a decade and was described by the group as the most knowledgeable person in Texas on fracking. Villa worked in the oil and gas industry for two years, then pursued a master's degree involving research on health risks faced by residents in the Eagle Ford Shale, located in Karnes County, Texas’ biggest oil-producing county.
Fracking is short for hydraulic fracturing, a type of drilling that has been used commercially for the last 65 years. Fracking used in combination with horizontal drilling has greatly accelerated U.S. oil and natural gas production. In fact, according to the International Energy Agency, because of this new methodology, the U.S. already leads the world in natural gas production, and could also become the world’s leading oil producer as early as this year. Specifically, fracking involves tapping into hard shale and other tight rock formations by drilling a mile or more below the surface, then drilling in a gradual horizontal direction for several more thousand feet. A single surface site can accommodate a number of wells. According to Energyfromshale.org, once the well is drilled, cased and cemented, a mixture of water (90 percent), sand (9.5 percent) and additives to prevent pipe corrosion (0.5 percent) is pumped under very high pressure to create microfractures in the rock.
Residents are concerned about the toxic chemicals used in fracking – ranging from 100-500 tons in the typical operation – which over time, will likely enter Lake Houston. The presenters cited credible studies attributing illnesses and damaging effects to these chemicals. For example, residents of Karnes County have a 100 times greater risk for cancer; furthermore, children attending school near the Eagle Ford Shale project had a marked increase in asthma-like symptoms, according to presenters. Residents are particularly concerned since two Huffman elementary schools are located very close to the drilling site. Additionally, the group cited other environmental concerns, such as the release of methane as a greenhouse gas, and evidence that fracking can lead to ground instability and earthquakes. The group also discussed noise and traffic issues, and noted that 20 percent of the fracking mixture, flowback, is put into rubber-lined pools which deteriorate over time and lead to chemicals seeping into the ground.
Anne Sheridan, an engineer from the City of Houston Public Works Department, attended the meeting to listen to residents’ concerns. Sheridan stated that in the last 10 years, there has only been one producing well on the east side of Lake Houston, and said it is unlikely that hard shale is present there. Sheridan said the City of Houston has very little control over the well. They control permits for the top hole and bottom hole, but do not control how the well is completed. That, she said, is controlled by the Texas Railroad Commission, which has designated the site as No. 32972. While the permit is currently designated for 9,000 feet of exploratory (wildcat) directional drilling, if the company finds oil or natural gas, they are not required to gain a separate permit, and can freely drill or frack at any time. Sheridan also noted that while fines and monitoring are in place to facilitate above-board drilling operations, both the City and Texas Railroad Commission have a shortage of manpower to actually visit sites. The City of Houston only visits about half of all sites. Both the City and State require the companies to plug wells after completion, but Texas currently has about 10,000 unplugged wells scattered across the state.
The residents said they still fear that fracking will soon come to the shores of Lake Houston and are focused on increasing community awareness. The group is encouraging Huffman residents near the site to document all activity around the site and call 311 with any issues. The citizens’ group will hold another public meeting at 7 p.m.Sept. 15 at the Kingwood Library.