AUSTIN -- Oil and gas have led to booming economies in some parts of Texas, but new materials and techniques have some concerned the state may be leaving itself open to disaster. Lawmakers met Tuesday at the Texas Capitol to take a hard look at the benefits and potential dangers facing the state.
The old Santa Rita No. 1 rig on the University of Texas campus is a reminder that the history of energy is the history of Texas. The oil boom helped the school explode in size, and Texas has been pumping ever since.
"Roughly 12, 13 percent of the total jobs in Texas are directly or indirectly traced to the oil and gas industry," Texas Railroad Commissioner David Porter told KVUE. "Not only is it the magnitude of the number of jobs, but the fact these are many of the most high-paid jobs in the state."
Texas' latest boom has been natural gas, which Porter says in 2011 generated roughly $25 billion in gross regional product and 47,000 just in the 25-county Eagle Ford shale region. Texas produces fully one-third of the nation's natural gas, and is the nation's number one oil producing state.
As with nearly everything in the energy sector however, there's no shortage of safety concerns and cautionary tales.
Officials with the Texas Department of Transportation expressed concern at Tuesday's meeting of the House Committee on Energy Resources over crumbling roadways due to the shale boom's resulting increase in heavy truck traffic.
Testimony also touched on fracking, the method for extracting natural gas blamed by some for methane-contaminated ground water widely documented by videos showing homeowners able to ignite water from tap. A recent University of Texas study argues the phenomenon isn't a direct result of the fracking process.
The conclusion comes with a qualification.
"Rather, that contamination is a result of casing problems, well completion issues that could be associated with fracking, certainly, but could also be associated with any type of oil or gas drilling and operation," testified Melinda Taylor with the University of Texas School of Law.
The most heated testimony Tuesday regarded part of the Keystone XL plan to pump bitumen from Canadian tar sands to the Gulf Coast. Consumer advocates including Public Citizen warned that bitumen is more difficult to transport and clean up than heavy crude, and that the 36-year-old Seaway pipeline in East Texas isn't strong enough.
Michelle Barlond-Smith is a resident of Battle Creek, Michigan, where a pipeline owned by Canada-based Enbridge Inc. transporting bitumen burst in 2010, resulting in a two-year cleanup with costs totaling $725 million.
"A hundred and fifty families gone," Barlond-Smith said of the spill's impact. "We've lost businesses. We've lost tax base. Some businesses have gone under, and the real thing that I've been focused on is the health issues."
"If it's contaminated, what are we going to do?" asked Reklaw, Texas mayor Harlan Crawford, whose town straddles Cherokee and Rusk Counties in East Texas. "Our concerns are our water, our first responders that's not going to know what's in that stuff, and also the safety and welfare of our citizens."
"The age isn't the issue; it's how well the pipeline is kept up. A well-maintained pipeline can last indefinitely. That's what's very important," said Larry Springer, Houston-based spokesperson for Enbridge. Springer disputes the concerns about bitumen's dangers. "That is a very similar product in that pipeline to other heavy oil moving in pipelines today."
"It's been safely operated and has actually transported the other direction heavy crude in the past," Springer said of the Seaway Pipeline, which is owned by Enbridge and operated by Enterprise Partners L.P.
Energy is on the menu again Wednesday at the Texas Capitol, where lawmakers are set to take a look at the impact the drought may have on energy production.