Fracking Standoff in Texas: One Woman's Struggle to Stop Drilling on Her Family's Land
Until she was nine, Frances Shure lived on a ranch in Anderson County, in the piney woods and rolling hills of East Texas. She inherited mineral rights in that area from her grandfather, a man she calls a "wheeling and dealing and poker-playing Texan." She also holds mineral rights a few counties south in Madison County. Both counties lie on the edge of the Barnett Shale formation, which contains large deposits of natural gas.
Again, she refused to sign over her mineral rights unless the third company agreed not to do horizontal drilling.
In January of last year, she was approached by an agent for a petroleum land management company. Such companies specialize in securing mineral rights for oil and gas corporations. In Shure's case, the land agent wanted her to sign a lease permitting gas exploration via hydraulic fracturing, also known as "fracking," in her Anderson County holdings.
A year later, she is still refusing to sign.
That wasn't the case in 2006, when Shure was first approached by a land agent to sign over her mineral rights in Madison County. Even though she wasn't comfortable with it, she signed the lease. She'd done some research and consulted with an environmental lawyer who had worked with environmentalists in Texas.
"He wound up telling me that really they had good regulations in Texas," she says, "and I didn't need to be so concerned."
However, Shure now questions the lawyer's assessment. And, regardless of quality of regulations in Texas, a spate of recent studies suggest that their enforcement is sorely lacking. In 2012, environmental watchdog group Earthworks released a report on enforcement of state oil and gas regulations that featured Texas as a case study.
"Based on their own data," Earthworks stated in the report, "every state we studied fails to adequately enforce regulations on the books."
The report notes that inspectors for the Texas Railroad Commission, which handles oil and gas regulation in the state, found 70,000 violations in 2010 alone. However, in 2012, the commission set a goal of taking enforcement action on only 250 out of every 81,000 violations.
Second time around
When she was approached a second time in 2012, this time for her mineral rights in Anderson County, Shure knew a lot more about fracking. She currently lives in Colorado, which is experiencing a fracking boom of its own and, according to her, "devastation happening wherever it's been going on." As a result, she is active in the antifracking movement there.
The fossil-fuel industry "enjoys sweeping exemptions" from at least seven major U.S. environmental statutes.
She had also done extensive research on the topic and learned there are two main types of drilling in hydraulic fracturing: vertical and horizontal. Based on her reading, she concluded that the latter has many more risks associated with it.
"I would agree with her on the following basis," says Anthony Ingraffea, an expert on fracking and professor of engineering at Cornell University. "A horizontal well in shale is going to be consuming a much higher volume of fracking fluid than a vertical well in shale."
According to Ingraffea, that's anywhere from 5 to 10 million gallons of fracking fluid—water, sand, and a mix of chemicals, many of which are toxic—pumped at high pressure through wells that can span more than a mile. From Ingraffea's perspective, it's important to take into account that more fluid means more chemicals and wastewater to transport, store, and recover.
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A 2010 report by climate news website DeSmogBlog details other risks associated with horizontal fracking, such as water contamination and well failure.
With facts like these in mind, Shure refused to lease her mineral rights again unless a clause was added to the lease stating that the oil and gas company would not do horizontal drilling. After a lot of back and forth, the company agreed.
"I was stunned that they would do that," Shure says. "Evidently, even though my percentage is tiny, they needed it so they could place the well in a certain area."
The mineral rights in that second lease consisted of 74 acres in a parcel of more than 1,200 acres. The land in that parcel, and in the others where Shure owns mineral rights, is what's called a "split estate"—a piece of land where the mineral rights and the land rights are separately owned. This practice is common in many states and leaves the people who own the land and live on it with no control over what happens to the resources beneath the surface.
Taking a stand
When she was approached the third time, in January of 2013, for mineral rights she owns in other parcels of land in Anderson County, Shure felt emboldened by her experience with the previous company. Again, she refused to sign over her mineral rights unless the third company agreed not to do horizontal drilling.
But, she says, "They made it very clear that the only reason they wanted to drill was to do horizontal fracking. That's the only way they can get the gas or oil that's left in that area."
Regardless of whether or not she can stop drilling, Shure says she's unwilling to sign the lease.
Since then, Shure has resisted the land agent's attempts to get her to sign. After she expressed her concern over fracking's environmental impacts, the agent sent her the lease's environmental protection clauses, which state that the oil and gas companies have to follow federal regulations.
But many of those regulations do not apply to the fossil-fuel industry, Shure says.
According to a 2007 report by the Oil and Gas Accountability Project, an arm of Earthworks, the fossil-fuel industry "enjoys sweeping exemptions" from at least seven major U.S. environmental and public-health protection statutes, including the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Clean Air Act, and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, which regulates the cleanup of hazardous waste. For example, the Accountability Project's report notes that thanks to the Energy Policy Act of 2005, "hydraulic fracturing (fracking) operations were completely exempted from regulation under the SDWA."
Shure's refusal to sign has caused tension with family members, some of whom own mineral rights in the same parcels as Shure. They were worried that her refusal might mean that drilling could not proceed—and that they would miss out on royalties.
Those tensions have eased somewhat since Shure learned that the percentage of the land she owns is so small that she can stop drilling in only one parcel.
Regardless of whether or not she can stop drilling, Shure says she's unwilling to sign the lease after learning about the health problems suffered by residents of areas where horizontal fracking is taking place. She grew up in Anderson County and her cousins still live there.
"They've heard the bad stories, but they feel completely helpless." She says they believe that there is nothing they can do to stop the oil and gas companies.
"I, on the other hand, don't feel helpless," Shure says. "I may not be able to stop anything and I understand that. But it feels like I have the power to make the decision that my conscience wants me to make."
Rachael Stoeve wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas and practical actions. Rachael is an independent journalist based in Seattle.
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