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Fracking on University of Texas Land Is Poisoning the Air, Soil, and Water

The University of Texas leases out 2 million acres of land to oil and gas companies and that's caused all sorts of pollution, some of which hasn't been cleaned up.
Photo by Cooper Neill/Reuters

The University of Texas has seen 1.6 million gallons of oil, waste water, and pollutants spilling from fracking sites into the ground and groundwater on lands that it leases to oil and gas companies in West Texas, according to a report from two environmental groups released today.

The university owns some 2 million acres of land in West Texas that it leases for oil and gas exploration as well as agricultural use. The report from the Environment Texas Research & Policy Center and the Frontier Group criticized the university for failing to enforce more stringent standards on fracking with the companies leasing its lands.


Luke Metzger, from the ETRPC, said that about 4,100 wells have been fracked on University of Texas (UT) lands since 2005, which has led to a "significant impact" on the environment. He cited six billion gallons of water that were used amid a drought in Texas while state and local leaders were calling for Texans to reduce their water consumption, 270 million gallons of chemicals that were pumped into the ground including hydrochloric acid and methanol, and the release of enough methane to rival the pollution of between 50,000 and 1.5 million cars per year.

He also said that of the 1.6 million gallons of oil, salt water, and other pollutants spilled from the wells on UT land, five spill sites were still being cleaned up.

"We think that it's alarming how much damage has been done to the environment on UT lands, and we think that if UT is going to continue to allow fracking on their lands, at the very least they need to work to end the very worst practices by oil and gas companies and write important protections into leases they sign," Metzger said.

Related: The Texas Legislature Wants to Charge Towns That Ban Fracking

Metzger worked with Texas State Representative Eddie Rodriguez in authoring the report, with the legislator requesting pollution records from the university for analysis by Metzger and the Frontier Group. In a statement released with the report today, Rodriguez said, "Fracking threatens the lands, resources, and health of too many Texans. I hope university leaders, energy producers and environmental experts act quickly and creatively to eliminate bad industry practices that threaten our health and environment."


Metzger also said the environmental groups had the support of students at UT, including the student body president and vice president, who joined him at a press conference calling for changes based on the report.

Mark Hauser, CEO of UT's University Lands Office, said that while school officials had not seen the report and had not had time to read it closely, it appeared very "one-sided, focusing primarily on fracking, which brings its validity into question."

"The report states that fracking is so dangerous to the environment and human health that it should not occur anywhere. With this statement the report seems to tell the people of Texas that oil and gas exploration should not happen here, as fracking is now the predominant method here and across the country. We disagree," Hauser said.

The 1.6 million gallons of spilled oil, salt water, and pollutants, Hauser said, was "about the equivalent of one can of Coke per acre per year, and all of the spills have been cleaned up. So that is an impressive record that is way ahead of any regulatory requirement. We are leaders in this area but seek to do better."

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Scott Kelley, executive vice chancellor for business affairs at the university, said that the lands are a valuable source of income for the university system and the profits go directly to the benefit of students. The land in question was deeded from the state to the university more than a hundred years ago with an eye toward leasing them out for oil extraction in order to provide a permanent fund for both UT and the Texas A&M system, Kelley said. The endowment from those profits is now worth about $18 billion, from which about five percent of the earnings each year are given to the universities for capital construction and expansions, including the funding of a new UT medical school.


The contributions from oil and gas to the endowment in just the past six years, as the fracking industry boomed, has been $5 billion, Kelley said.

"So we've seen a lot of growth there based on both oil and gas prices," Kelley said. "And we believe there are still resources in those lands that can be extracted safely to benefit the students of Texas."

The university officials said they would have more detailed responses to the criticisms and suggestions in the report after having time to read it more closely, but declined to give a time frame.

Metzger said he hopes the university will put into practice safety standards enacted in other parts of the country, including clean air standards in Colorado and wastewater regulations in Pennsylvania, to protect the lands and residents of West Texas. He also called on the university to designate certain land areas as having "special environmental value," where drilling would be banned due to endangered species and migratory birds.

"If UT is going to continue to allow fracking, it must, at the very least, act immediately to eliminate the worst industry practices and safeguard the environment and public health," he said.

Watch the VICE News documentary Toxic Waste in the US: Coal Ash here: 

Follow Colleen Curry on Twitter: @CurryColleen