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Why A Texas City May Ban Fracking


The town of Denton, Texas is embroiled in a debate over fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, to extract natural gas. Fracking has brought a steady stream of revenue to Denton for years, but this Tuesday, the Denton city council will consider banning fracking because of environmental concerns. For more, I spoke with Abrahm Lustgarten. He's an environmental reporter for ProPublica, and he explained what some residents of Denton are worried about.

ABRAHM LUSTGARTEN: There are concerns about what happens to ground water supplies as the fracking chemicals - the mixture that's used - is injected underground at very high pressure. There's concern that it will seep into aquifers - either the methane gas or the chemicals themselves.

The process also produces an enormous amount of waste called produced water. Both the fracking chemicals come out of the ground and also water that is contaminated with natural chemicals from deep underground that, you know, once it's brought back to the surface needs to be dealt with. That waste stream is often re-injected into what are called waste disposal wells.

RATH: Speaking of that wastewater being re-injected underground, there was actually a study out this month by researchers at Cornell University and the University of Oklahoma linking that wastewater to earthquakes. Industry is warned about a rush to judgment just based on this one study, but do you see this now shaping the debate?

LUSTGARTEN: I do. You know, what's changing with this study is the direct connection of those wastewater injection wells to the fracking process in that it is waste produced from fracking that is being injected into the wells and causing the earthquakes. Because of that association and the controversy and the news attention to the fracking issue, there is a lot more attention being focused on the cause of these earthquakes. Across the country though, it's something like the number of seismic events has increased fivefold in the couple of years since the drilling boom really began, since about 2010. Places like Oklahoma have seen these huge swarms of small earthquakes in large numbers.

RATH: Now, we should note that the fracking boom has brought the country closer to energy independence. You know, one might even say it strengthened America's hand on the world stage. But do you get a sense that the concerns are starting to outweigh the benefits?

LUSTGARTEN: In certain communities, I think, unambiguously, local groups concerns are outweighing their benefits. You know, I've also done some recent reporting in both Texas and in Pennsylvania about the financial side of this drilling boom, looking at royalty payments to the communities where the drilling is happening. And communities are not necessarily seeing, or not all seeing, the financial income that they would have expected or hoped for. When that happens at the same time that the environmental risks and the very tangible negative impacts in their communities grow and grow, over the years, I think that, you know, there's a tipping of the scale that is happening on a local basis.

RATH: But even if individuals aren't receiving any kind of direct benefits from this, is this something that still, you know, goes into state and county coffers and benefits everybody in a way, right?

LUSTGARTEN: Absolutely, especially in the State of Texas, which is one reason why, you know, what's happening in Denton is significant. You know, Texas enjoys floating atop this energy boom like no other state. It was largely sheltered from the economic recession that the rest of us experienced after 2008, because of the natural gas drilling boom happening there. You know, and Denton in particular benefited from the boom for many, many years. The drilling happened in the Denton area - began in the Denton area nearly a decade ago. It's well under way at this point.

RATH: Abrahm Lustgarten covers the environment for ProPublica. Thank you.

LUSTGARTEN: Thank you so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.