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Top Stories of 2012: Fracking Rattles Texas

2012 was a banner year for renewable energy. But in Texas and across the county, one energy story captured public attention like none other: fracking.

Fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, is a drilling practice used to extract natural gas from hard-to-reach deposits. Hydraulic fracturing fluid is pumped deep into underground wells to break up natural gas deposits. The fluid is then removed, and deposited into disposal wells, while the gas deposits are collected.

As KUT News’ StateImpact Texas reported throughout the year, the practice is controversial for several reasons. One involves the composition of the fracking fluid itself – a mixture of water, chemicals and sand – and whether it poses the danger of contaminating groundwater. Texas actually passed a law last December that requires new fracking wells to disclose the chemicals used in fracking fluid – but many of the chemicals are being kept confidential as a “trade secret.”

Another controversy centers on the relationship between earthquakes and disposal well sites used to dispose of fracking fluid and waste water. Several smaller earthquakes occurred in the North Texas area this year, in close proximity to the Barnett Shale’s fracking operations.

The high injection rates and amounts of fluid being sent into the disposal wells, plus the fact that wells can be shared among several drillers, are thought to play a role in the quakes. StateImpact Texas also spoke with a University of Texas seismologist, who noted some of the disposal wells in the Dallas-Fort Worth region are also on fault lines.

Environmental controversies weren’t the only issues to envelop fracking this year: “Frackademia” – the intersection of the drilling industry and academic experts – came under close scrutiny at the University of Texas.

In February, the University of Texas Energy Institute released a report stating that fracking, when executed properly, doesn’t contaminate groundwater, although accidents related to fracking may. Report director Charles “Chip” Groat further downplayed any connection, saying, “these problems are not unique to hydraulic fracturing.”

But in July, a watchdog group began highlighting Groat’s ties to the drilling industry, including sitting on the board of a drilling company and earning over $1.5 million in the last five years. The disclosure prompted the university to call for an outside review of the report.

The review found no “intentional misrepresentation” of the facts, but blasted Groat’s failure to disclose his financial ties as “very poor judgment.” Groat is now retired from the University, while the head of the Energy Institute, Dr. Raymond Orbach, is stepping down from his leadership role effective Dec. 31.

Fracking continues to capture the imagination: a Matt Damon-starring drama revolving around fracking’s effect on a community, “Promised Land,” is opening in time for awards season. But with fracking’s reverberations spreading from the shales of North and South Texas to the fields of academia, the truth may be stranger than fiction.

Wells has been a part of KUT News since 2012, when he was hired as the station's first online reporter. He's currently the social media host and producer for Texas Standard, KUT's flagship news program. In between those gigs, he served as online editor for KUT, covering news in Austin, Central Texas and beyond.
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