Sucking Up Water and Sand in the Quest for Natural Gas

On a bridge 10 miles outside of Saint Jo, Texas, a small, sleepy town an hour and a half drive northwest of Dallas, a handful of locals have gathered on a July afternoon to look at a sand mine being built off a remote country road. Rolling hills dotted with pockets of dense trees fill the horizon in this area near the border of Cooke and Montague counties.

Although the sun is sinking in the west, it still hurls heat, and the wind is like breath from a furnace. Colossal grasshoppers leap in the tall, dry grass, flickering and then landing with tiny thuds. Barn swallows nesting under the bridge fly in long, ecstatic swoops back and forth to a nearby canopy of green trees, their black bodies contrasting against the sun-poached sky.

Mountain Creek runs under the bridge and along the west perimeter of the sand mine site. Now the creek bed's bottom is dry and cuts through the land like stretched taffy, but when water runs through, it feeds into the Red River, which dives south into Texas just a mile north of here. Locals are worried about what is being fed into the creek with the construction of the sand mine just 50 yards away. They take a certain ownership-by-birthright approach to the countryside.

They lean over the guardrail, peering down to see where deer tracks are pressed into the soft sand, then look up at the sand mine under construction. Fifty acres have been bulldozed, once-green pastures stripped bare, trees razed and left in forgotten heaps of dried timber. A pit the size of a football field has been hollowed out of the ground, two stories deep, like an inverted welt on the land, with bulldozers now idle, yet ready to dig deeper and wider.

Wylie Harris makes his living off this land, as did four generations of family before him. Like many folks out here in Cooke County, he raises livestock and therefore depends on water for not only sustenance, but for income too.

"Just down the slope in back of the house there's a hand-dug well lined with limestone rocks that dates to my grandparents' time," Harris says. "For us, growing up, that well was a risk of snakebite or drowning, not a water source. But to the first generations of my family to live here, it was many long days of hard and dangerous work in exchange for a perpetual source of water."

The relentless drought baking Texas drives home the importance of water wells like his. Each week Harris carefully estimates how much water and grass are left on his land to sustain his cattle. Wearing jeans, a white button-down shirt, boots and a straw hat, his coarse beard contrasting with his youthful eyes, Harris is slow and thoughtful in choosing his words.

"I have one week for grazing and two weeks of water left in the pond. After that, for the first time in over 50 years, we'll have to use ground water," Harris says.

By now, the pond is dry. All across Texas, craters dot pastures where stock ponds have been reduced to cracked mud. According to Texas State Climatologist John Gammon, Texas is in the most severe one-year drought since records have been kept.

Grazing land is parched, meaning farmers have to truck in hay, which in turn has resulted in a spike in the cost of hay. Ranchers statewide are now selling cattle they can no longer afford to nourish. Many have resorted to well water to keep alive what's left, putting added pressure on the aquifers from which the wells draw. With no rain to replenish them, the aquifers are at all-time low levels.

"The general trend is a 20-foot drop in the Trinity Aquifer. But in some areas, as much as 80 feet," says Dr. Bob Patterson, president of the Upper Trinity Groundwater Conservation District.

Harris knows that eventually the grass will grow and the ponds will refill. What he does worry about, however, is the Trinity Aquifer a few hundred feet below. Even if the pressure from all of those farm pumps subsides, EOG Resources will soon need to pump large amounts of water for its sand mine just two miles from Harris' land because they don't just take the sand, they wash it. With the mine's capacity to produce 2,700 tons of sand a day, there's a lot of sand to wash.

EOG — formerly Enron Oil and Gas — needs the sand near Saint Jo for its primary business of fracking, the controversial method of extracting gas from tight shale formations by fracturing the shale. As the fourth-largest owner of gas wells over the Barnett Shale, EOG has a critical need for sand used in the process.

While Dallas leaders debate whether to allow gas companies to drill over the rich shale formations below the city and have appointed a special commission to review air pollution issues and other hazards, Harris and the residents in Cooke and Montague counties are at the other end of the fracking spectrum, fighting for their already waning water supply.

A domestic source of energy requires fracking, which requires sand and huge volumes of water. Mining sand also requires water. By the time natural gas reaches the consumer, copious amounts of water have been used to extract it. How willing are we to exchange water for gas? Is that answer already being handed to us?

Residents in southern Cooke and Montague counties had no idea EOG had purchased 1,400 acres of land with the intent to install a sand mine until they saw the brush being burned and land being cleared last fall. Locals who contacted their county commissioner and fire marshal were eventually directed to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ), which gave them the number for EOG's air quality permit application, which laid out the extensive plans for excavating, processing and transporting frack sand, including a list of pollutants emitted into the air and estimated water use.

J-lynn Hare has land near EOG's property where she and her family spend free time and lives in Muenster, 10 miles east and in the planned trucking path for sand mine operations.

"The trucking that will go by is going to be amazing," Hare says. "There could be a truck driving by my house every four minutes. And, I have land within a mile of the sand mine. The serenity that we've had out there isn't going to be there anymore."

Ozlem Altiok found out about the sand mine after nearly getting overrun by passing trucks on the small country road where she lives.

"My friend was driving and suddenly looked in her rear-view mirror, then pulled over," Altiok says. "Two trucks went flying past us. We weren't used to having those type trucks on these roads and had no idea what the traffic was from. I asked her why she pulled over and she told me the same thing happened the day before. She just wanted to get out of their way. I went home that day and someone called me and asked if I'd heard about the sand mine. And that's the first time I knew what was going on."

Harris and Altiok created the "Save the Trinity Aquifer" group to serve as a comprehensive source of information about EOG's sand mine plans. They also learned more about the value of the sand they live on and why an oil and gas company wants to set up shop in their backyard.

Over the past few years the demand for sand in the United States has sharply increased because of its use in fracking. Natural gas producer Chesapeake Energy estimates that each fracking job requires about 2,000 tons of sand. After a gas well has been drilled, sand, water and chemicals are pumped under immense pressure through a pipe. As the granules and water are blasted into the tight shale, the sand props it open. (Hence, its industry label as a "proppant.")

Not just any sand can be used. Sand comes in different shapes, sizes and has names like Brady, Colorado and Ottawa. The bad news for residents around Saint Jo is that their sand is considered ideal for fracking.

EOG states that when the mine is running at full capacity, it will be able to produce 2,700 tons of sand a day. In addition to noise, dust, pollution, water usage and being an eyesore to an otherwise beautiful area, seven tractor-trailers could be leaving with a load of sand every hour. Given all the changes this sand mine will bring, local residents are apprehensive.

Sand is a vital part of the natural geology over this part of the Trinity Aquifer, which is called the outcrop zone.

"The Trinity Group consists of rock formations that tilt roughly eastward into the earth," says Dr. Paul Hudak with the geography department at the University of North Texas. "In the outcrop area, the formations are exposed at the land surface, and the aquifer is generally more vulnerable to the various sources of pollution that originate near the land surface."

The Trinity Aquifer system starts just south of the Red River and covers a huge swath through the middle of the state stopping just short of San Antonio. Up near Saint Jo, the aquifer feeds into Elm Fork Creek, which flows to Lake Ray Roberts. Primarily, the aquifer is a source of water for rural residents throughout the center of the state. In Cooke and Montague counties it is the main source of water for about 40,000 rural residents.

In 2009, the University of Texas compiled a report for the Texas Water Development Board (TWDB) that focused on water use at industrial sand mining facilities, particularly because of the increase in the use of sand in fracking. Numbers are difficult to pin down because water reporting isn't mandatory but, by studying similar sand mining facilities around the state, the report found that roughly 600 gallons of water is used to wash one ton of sand. At most sand facilities, water is often recycled, sometimes as much as 94 percent. The 600 gallons per ton includes the recycled water.

Washing 2,700 tons of sand a day at 600 gallons per ton is 1.62 million gallons of water a day. To get a rough idea how much water 1.62 million gallons is, however, consider this: According to the U.S. Geological Survey, the average person uses roughly 100 gallons a day in the United States. Even with recycling, that's a number that worries people who live near EOG's mine since a large draw-down in the aquifer could affect all nearby wells. Many owners have already lowered pumps deeper into their wells to chase the falling water table.

After a public meeting about the sand mine in June at which residents of Cooke and Montague counties made their worries known, EOG issued a press release stating its plans to drill the mine's wells deeper down below the Trinity Aquifer into a zone of brackish water not suitable for drinking. Typical water wells in this area are around 200 feet deep; 700 feet down is a highly saline water. Of the first six water wells EOG drilled, according to state well reports, three are, in fact, below the aquifer. The other three are in the aquifer and EOG explains the latter will be used for drinking water on site and landscaping to prevent erosion. Plans for the total number of wells EOG will eventually need are unclear, however, and locals share rumors the mine might need as many as 40.

Highlighting the premium on the aquifer water, this expanse, including Cooke, Denton and Collin counties, was recently designated a priority groundwater management area (PGMA) by the state, meaning it is expected to experience "critical" water shortages now or within the next 25 years. Come drought or flood, water supplies are already tight in this region and getting tighter.

Experts familiar with the Trinity Aquifer in this area, while hopeful, are skeptical about EOG's brackish water plans. "The brackish water below the aquifer is very spotty," says the conservation district's Patterson.

UNT's Hudak expresses the same doubt: "Below the aquifer are tight rock formations that don't produce a lot of water."

Since these wells are being drilled in a PGMA, they will be metered, and beginning January 1, EOG will have to pay for the water it uses, even brackish water. The newly formed North Texas Groundwater Conservation District that will manage this area will have the right to permit EOG's water usage.

While using brackish water under the aquifer is preferred to using fresh water, the practice still has drawbacks. Not suitable for human consumption, the water also isn't good for the environment. With a massive holding pond of this highly saline water used for mining sitting over the aquifer in the outcrop zone near the banks of Mountain Creek, locals are worried about potential overflow into the creek and eventually the Red River less than a mile away.

When asked about possible overflow or spillage from the storage pond, EOG spokesperson K Leonard responded in a written statement: "The facility was carefully designed, engineered and permitted to prevent any runoffs into Mountain Creek."

Law professor Amy Hardberger, who has a master's degree in hydrogeology and has worked with the Environmental Defense Fund for Texas in both the energy and water programs, thinks using brackish water is a step in the right direction for oil and gas companies.

"My initial reaction is that the situation is definitely helped by the fact that they aren't using fresh water," Hardberger says. "The Trinity is both not particularly full and, more importantly, water often moves quite slow through it so such a large amount of pumping can create major draw-down issues for other users.

"Using water that isn't being used for drinking water is much better, assuming that there is no hydrological connection between the water-bearing units such that pulling from that one could somehow dewater the Trinity. As a general rule, this is a solution I have been pushing for a while."

Locals hope there's enough brackish water below the aquifer to sustain all of EOG's operations.

Comparatively, though, the water used in mining sand is a drop in the bucket compared with the amount used in fracking itself.

According to the Texas Railroad Commission, as of July more than 15,000 natural gas wells were over the Barnett Shale, which starts under the city of Dallas and stretches west and south covering 18 counties and 5,000 square miles.

In April, the University of Texas Bureau of Economic Geology released a report for the Texas Water Development Board that estimated that fracking each well used 3 million to 4 million gallons of water. The report determined that total water used for fracking statewide in 2008 was around 8.3 billion gallons. More recently the development board estimated total water use for the entire Barnett Shale in 2010 was 13.5 billion gallons. (Dallas' water customers used 1.42 billion gallons last year.) While EOG is using brackish water at its sand mining operation, water used in fracking is mostly fresh.

Estimating that natural gas production and drilling will decrease in the coming year, the UT report went on to project future water use for frack jobs over the Trinity Aquifer from 2007 to 2025 to be in the neighborhood of 59 billion gallons total, enough to supply a city like Dallas for decades.

"Because it's temporary, fracking will generally decrease over time," says Kevin Kluge at the water development board. "And, actually, it is still a very small part of the statewide use, but in localized areas it can be significant."

The UT report says that at some point fracking operations could compete with water for drinking and farming, but they aren't sounding alarm bells yet.

"On average for the aquifer, this is not a big deal," says J.P. Nicot at the Bureau of Economic Geology in a statement released by the University of Texas. "But for some heavily drilled areas like Denton County, it may be an issue. If that drilling expands elsewhere in the area it may become significant."

Aside from the quantity of water being used in fracking, another important issue is disposal. The water used to frack isn't just absorbed into the earth; it shoots back up to the surface and becomes what the industry calls "flowback."

The problem is that little is known about what happens to the water once it's used to frack, both in terms of chemicals added by gas companies and the various chemicals deep in the earth. In the end, the water ascends back to the surface filled with toxic junk and an extremely high salt content — three times that of seawater.

Flowback is not suitable for treatment at water utility plants, and while some technology is being developed, there's nothing readily available at this time to filter the water. Sometimes the contaminated water is put in large storage tanks. In other situations it is left in large above-ground pits lined with plastic; after the water evaporates, the plastic is rolled up and buried underground in waste disposal areas.

Another popular method is injecting the water a mile and a half down into the earth using saltwater disposal systems. According to Chesapeake Energy, it has two saltwater injection wells operating at DFW airport to dispose of the flowback associated with the 200 wells planned on airport property.

In all, there are more than 50,000 of these injection wells in Texas, which are used solely for the oil and gas industry.

Dr. Hudak at UNT has doubts about this practice.

"When used freshwater is injected as 'waste' into deep rock formations, that water will not actively circulate through the hydrologic cycle," he says. "It will be stagnant and typically very saline, and it will not be available for human use for a very long time."

With more than 13 billion gallons of water used last year alone by oil and gas companies for fracking over the Barnett Shale, one has to ask: How can an industry draw such phenomenal amounts of a limited resource?

Dominating water law in Texas is the principle of "right of capture," otherwise known as the law of the biggest pump, which arose from a court case decided more than 100 years ago. In 1904, W.A. East sued the Texas railroad for draining his water well for their locomotives. The judges on the case ruled in favor of the railroad because underground water is "so secret, occult and concealed" that it would be impossible to regulate. Therefore, landowners have the right to capture any water running under their properties.

Today, however, underground water districts have been created throughout Texas to manage the resource, though whether they'll actually be able to do that is now in the hands of the Texas Supreme Court. The case of Edwards Aquifer Authority (EAA) v. Day involves two property owners who owned farms over the Edwards Aquifer in the city of Van Ormy, just south of San Antonio. The details of the case are complex, but in essence, they needed more water than what the Edwards Aquifer Authority allowed them. So, they sued, and the case has worked its way up to the Texas Supreme Court, where arguments were heard in January 2010. A ruling could be handed down any day.

Ronald Ruiz with the Edwards Aquifer Authority says the decision could be "landmark-type direction in ground water usage."

A ruling in favor of the authority would most likely allow water districts to continue the business of regulating water in priority areas where supply issues are critical. If the court rules in favor of the landowners, water management across the state could drastically change as all conservation districts could be open to a lawsuit every time they tried to restrict usage.

Of course, water isn't the only natural resource in high demand. More than half of U.S. homes use natural gas as their main source of heat, and according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, Texas was the top user of natural gas in 2009.

The information administration estimates that there is possibly 100 years worth of natural gas under U.S. territory. While drilling for natural gas continues to be an environmental problem, it is actually a relatively clean-burning fossil fuel.

There is even a modest expansion in the compressed natural gas (CNG) vehicle market, with about 110,000 such cars in the United States.

A 2002 study compared a fleet of UPS trucks running on CNG with diesel vehicles. The CNG trucks produced 75 percent lower carbon monoxide emissions, 49 percent lower nitrogen emissions and 95 percent lower particulate matter emissions.

As promising as that sounds, for the gas industry there's a Catch-22: If the price for natural gas gets low enough that a significant portion of the population is ready to convert their vehicles, then the price is probably too low for gas companies to make enough profit. Natural gas prices are three times higher in Europe and Asia compared with the States, and some industry experts point to exporting as a way to bring about stability. Or energy companies could choose to drill for oil instead of gas.

According to the Energy Information Administration, in July 2008 the price for natural gas in the U.S. peaked at $10.79 per million BTUs. The average price in June this year was $4.12. These falling prices are what prompted EOG Resources to try the same natural gas fracking technique in oil fields. Recently they have scooped up long-since abandoned liquid-rich shale formations all over Texas and are using the same method of blasting water and sand into shale to release the oil. And they've had great success with it.

This year alone, EOG expects to have 250 of these types of oil wells completed and another 250 in 2012. Their recent second-quarter net income of $295 million earned them the designation of a "Hot Stock" by The Wall Street Journal. On an August 5 conference call, EOG's Chief Executive Officer Mark Papa discussed those earnings with nine Wall Street analysts listening in. To close out the meeting, Papa said this, according to a transcript from SeekingAlpha.com:

"I'm really just befuddled. Why anybody in the industry pays the slightest attention to natural gas growth in North America is beyond me. And I continue to see particularly well-sided write-ups that say, 'This company is growing at this rate.' In my mind, it doesn't matter if you're growing at that rate if your primary driver of your growth is natural gas, which is barely profitable at best."

Which brings us back to the issue of the parched land, empty ponds and a stressed aquifer. For the people around Saint Jo, this is a battle of David versus Goliath, and the fight is for clean land, air and water.

In a recent interview in the Muenster Enterprise (near Saint Jo), two EOG representatives attempted to smooth tensions by answering questions from locals about the sand mine. In a futile effort to get an invite to a potluck, they mentioned twice that EOG was listed on Fortune's list of 100 Best Places to Work.

Around the same time, Papa remarked on his Wall Street conference call that they have a new sand mine in Wisconsin that will be up and running by the fourth quarter. He added that by self-sourcing frack sand, " ... we expect to save about $1 million per well."

If EOG is able to save money by shipping sand from Wisconsin into Texas, one could only guess how much more they could save on transportation with Saint Jo frack sand.

There's always a bottom line.

As Amy Hardberger wrote in her article, "Water For Gas: A Tradeoff Texas Needs to Consider":

"Proponents of fracking argue that the water amount per unit of energy produced is smaller than other types of fuel. Others point to the lucrative nature of drilling to defend its importance. While both of these statements may be true in a vacuum, it will provide little solace to a region whose water supply is depleted by gas development."

All of these forces met on August 23 in the Muenster High School cafeteria when the TCEQ held a public hearing as part of the air quality permitting process. Filling in every seat and inch of wall space, locals had the chance to ask EOG representatives questions with state officials moderating and observing.

To the surprise of many, half of the audience was there in support of EOG. They stuck together in groups in the back; some had families with them; and almost all of them were employees or subcontractors of EOG from different cities around North Texas.

Even though the focus was supposed to be on air issues, since the application with the TCEQ is strictly for an air permit, locals pelted EOG representative Curt Parsons with questions about pollution monitoring, sand, truck routes, creek run-off and, of course, water.

At one point in the two-hour long informal comment period, Ivers Lusis stood at a microphone in the middle of the packed cafeteria and asked Parsons about sustainable brackish water supplies.

"A study done for the Texas Water Development Board by LBG-Guyton Associates," Lusis said, "determined that Region C [an area from the Red River to Freestone County south of Dallas] brackish water availability is moderate and productivity is low. Based on this, what contingency plans does EOG have for processing at the mine?"

"We made a good estimate that we think there will be enough water," Parsons answered.

"So, you're spending $25 million on this project," Lusis persisted, "and you have no contingency plan if you run out of brackish water?"

After a pause Parsons responded, "I've answered your question."

"If you run out of brackish water, you have nothing stopping you from using fresh water," Lusis stated, looking pointedly at Parsons.

"Is that a question?" Parsons asked dryly.

"Yes," said Lusis. "There's nothing legally stopping you from using fresh water, right?"

"That is correct," Parsons answered.

Wylie Harris was up next. With a dry stock pond in the middle of his pasture, he pressed further, asking detailed questions about pump capacity in their brackish water wells.

Referring to rumors that EOG intends on as many as 40 wells over the Trinity Aquifer, Harris persisted, "Do you have a specific number of wells you'll need? Not just one, two, three, a handful?"

"I've answered your question," said Parsons.

"Handful isn't an answer," Harris pointed out.

Now air permit application number 95412 is awaiting technical review and it's possible there will be another public hearing. For now, it's in bureaucratic limbo, which is better than in their backyard for many residents of Cooke and Montague counties.

By exploiting one premium resource to recover another, where do we literally draw a line in the sand? Where does the value of water exceed that of energy?

One weathered Saint Jo resident saw the question this way: "If worst comes to worst, I can ride my horse to town. But I can't drink oil."

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Lauren Drewes Daniels is the Dallas Observer's food editor. She started writing about local restaurants, chefs, beer and kouign-amanns in 2011. She's driven through two dirt devils and is certain they were both some type of cosmic force.