Fracking on Federal Land

Overview of the Permian Basin


A recent announcement by the United States Department of Interior about the Permian Basin oil and gas reserves in Texas and New Mexico could have serious environmental implications in the discussion of climate change action. According to the US Geological Survey, the Permian basin has billions of untapped barrels of oil and an estimated 281 trillion cubic feet of methane reserves trapped in the shale [35]. 

          Methane is marketed as a renewable energy by some oil and gas companies because there could be an infinite supply underfoot [16]. Fracking is the act of inserting chemical laden water under high pressure beneath Earth’s crust to mine the methane trapped in shale rock beds, but the energy product uses nine times the amount of water to mine the gas it produces. Thus creating 9 gallons of wastewater with each gallon of methane extracted. [7]. Fracking is the most recent and common mining method for natural gas extraction in the US [20], and quickly spreading in popularity worldwide.

          Due to the BLM leasing to oil and gas companies for gas extraction, fracking is occurring on Federal lands. The question is whether the Federal government is compliant with the Public Trust Doctrine, and water regulations enacted by the Federal government. If the Federal government is aware that the causes of climate change are exacerbated by fossil fuel extraction, why are they leasing Federal land to oil and gas operations, using freshwater in an arid climate and producing more fossil fuels?

          In September 2018, a Federal lease sale conducted by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) in Southeast New Mexico in the Permian Basin grossed almost a billion dollars, coming in at $967 million. The Albuquerque Journal noted that the sum more than tripled the total bids of all lease auctions for all of 2017, and more than doubled the previous record [32].

          The Federal and state governments are making a great deal of money from methane extraction from corporate leases of federal land. For this reason, environmental laws have largely been ignored, overlooked, changed, or written in ways that would explicitly exclude fracking water from water protections. This is a violation of the Public Trust Doctrine that assures the government will hold public lands for the free and unimpeded use of the public [24]. Yet that isn’t possible on government leased lands with oil and gas operations on them. This public land is meant to be held for the public to have free use of for recreational, or commercial purposes, and assures citizens that the resources will be protected [24].

          Fracking for methane, and creating a stockpile of the gas, has been an energy strategy of most of the leaders of the developed countries for several generations [24]. Stockpiling methane is the retirement plan for many business owners and global leaders, at the risk of environmental destruction in the form of rapid aridification, wildfires, increased flooding, longer lasting weather episodes, and more landslides than historically [20].

          However, science has shown that if people burn all the methane there currently is in stockpile in the US alone, that would rapidly accelerate the temperature of Earth and thus ensure the extinction of most animals including humans [1, 19]. There are better solutions for energy security than a finite fossil fuel with a dozen cleaner alternatives. The Permian Basin has enough methane stored to ensure that extinction, if it is mined. In the future what the basin will lack, is water.

          This paper addresses whether the Federal government is violating multiple regulations and laws by leasing to oil and gas operations on Federal land. Also, addressing the costs and benefits of fracking for gas in the arid west, and the effect of localized climate change from the drought fracking causes by mining water. That drought then causes conditions for chronic wildfires, seasonal flooding, loss of crop and livestock, and citizens’ livelihoods; destroying local economies and devastating wildlife and the personal and professional lives of many community members.

          Losses from climate change have rippling affects that begin in rural areas usually with a gas well that pulls up the groundwater, deposits polluted water on the ground and leaves toxic chemicals in drinking water, when there is any water left. The water table loss around the cone of depression on each well is immediately apparent and affects the forest and the trees begin to brown, inviting insects and blight. With dead standing trees, wildfire dashes across the landscape destroying ecosystems for miles.

          With the snowmelt and summer monsoon rains, the soil washes away and causes flooding and landslides. Farmland is lost, ranchland is lost; homes, lives, businesses, culture, wildlife, beauty, community are lost. Preserving the water by preventing fracking on Federal land will both reduce the effects of localized climate change, and restore the economies of small business people who rely on the land for their livelihoods.

Water is Power

          All social/economic energy thrives with water [20]. Hydroelectricity, cleaning coal, or fracking for gas.  Water is the critical ingredient in all energy production [20]. Without water, there is no energy, no power. No water, no power. 

          Industrial water usage is how nations have gained wealth, built machines, as well as feeding millions of people [13]. Water is the life blood of all industry, and thus sustains the economy. Water controls the budget by the government, and the systems of every agency are controlled by the belief that there will always be enough clean water to go around.

          Industrial usage is the largest consumer of this precious resource at 77 % [15]. Earth has only 1% of freshwater available to life [15]. Most of it is being used for industrial, mining, and agricultural usage [15]. There are still over a billion humans without access to clean water for drinking, hygiene, and sanitation [18]. Yet corporations prioritize the water for consumptive industrial usage.

          Fracking is a large consumer of water and contributes to the rapid aridification in the west [3, 5, 6, 7]. The landscape is rapidly changing, and the climate becomes more severe every year [1]. Without immediate change of water usage in industrial uses like fracking, the west could be permanently altered in a few short decades. The arid desert of Texas and New Mexico will not sustain the loss of its water table. The Permian Basin BLM leases ensure the production of enough methane to rapidly accelerate climate change, and ultimately deplete the freshwater supply for the region. This threatens the existence of citizens everywhere.

          Mining water has been a human occupation for as long as it was needed [5, 13, 14]. There is ample evidence throughout all of history that humans have built villages and homes next to freshwater sources and used it for all their livelihood purposes [13]. Therefore, it is logical that humans use water to mine fossil fuels as well. However, water is more precious than fossil fuels. Water is a requirement for all life and must be preserved at all costs, including leaving fossil fuels in the ground.

          Water is the most critical ingredient used in the mining method of hydraulic fracturing of shale bed methane, otherwise called, “fracking” [7, 8, 9]. The process requires thousands of gallons of water per gas well [7, 8, 9]. Water alone is not enough of a force to properly fracture the shale so potassium, proppants, and hundreds of chemicals are inserted into the water to prevent corrosion of machinery, to lubricate fracture penetration, fracturing deeper, and a necessary cocktail of potassium and solvents to keep the chemicals flowing freely in the water [6, 7]. Mining millions of gallons of water a day in the arid west that has no ability to recharge the water loss and creating a saline wastewater byproduct is an unsustainable business model.

          Water is a non-renewable resource in the Western United States that receive less than 20” of rain a year [5, 14]. There is no way of renewing the dwindling freshwater and it is being pumped up in millions of gallons a day to serve the mining industry, thus creating millions of gallons of saline wastewater that is largely untreatable afterwards [5, 14, 3].

Environmental Protections of Water

          According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), access to high-quality drinking water in the United States will be affected by changes in climate and water usage [9]. 30% of the total area of the United States has experienced moderate to extreme drought conditions in the last two decades [9]. Declines in freshwater resources have led to increased withdrawals and depletions of groundwater in some areas [8, 9]. As a result, unconventional non-freshwater resources (a.k.a. wastewater from sewage, brackish groundwater and surface water, and seawater) are increasingly treated and used to meet drinking water demand [8]. A contributing factor to this depletion is that the oil and gas industry are mining water so quickly from groundwater aquifers for use in fracking, that recycling wastewater is becoming the only option for drinking water in some areas. However, water treated from fracking isn’t useful for anything because it can never be pure enough to be used in fracking again and no biological creature can use it either [6, 7, 8, 9].

          Although oil and gas companies tell farmers they can use the fracking water for their cattle and crops, the animals won’t drink it and not much will grow with the wasted water [8]. This is certain to cause small business owners to lose money when their crops fail, or animals die, as was the case with the Gold King Mine spill in Colorado [11]. Small business owners like farmers and ranchers are the most affected by direct point source pollution from mining gas and the instant climate change it causes. Local residents look to government agencies like the EPA to protect the damages to their assets caused by destructive mining practices, instead of the corporations that made the mess originally.  

          Mining water for fracking and industrial purposes threatens human safety, because it permanently depletes a critical necessity of existence. It is a threat against small businesses, and the communities, and families living nearby [1, 6, 15]. Gas feeds machines, but water is life.

          Future generations in places like the Permian Basin will be drinking recycled wastewater if fracking continues unchecked, and there will be nothing left to save. The safety of the air, soil, and water are at a risk of being permanently polluted by this toxic fuel source [6]. People everywhere will suffer if they live along any water ways that will now flood annually and create devastating losses for those communities. Towns will wash away and entire season’s losses of crops and earnings will accumulate. That includes the more than a billion citizens that live near water ways globally [1]. Melting ice and snow will contribute to a possible 100 feet rise in sea levels over the next few hundred years [1]. This will considerably throw off weather patterns and potentially permanently alter local climates to receive drastic fluctuations in precipitation [1].

          Federal laws have been previously implemented to protect our water, soil, and air like the Clean Water Act of 1972, or the Endangered Species Act of 1973 [5]. These two critical pieces of Federal legislation have been powerful allies in the race to save Earth from corporate greed. They are the key to success in the future for changing legislation to better reflect the safety and well-being of citizens over corporations. Using them to create a net of protection across all water resources is critical.

          Although oil and gas interests are working overtime to pump as much methane as possible, there is already enough of the gas stored to last us for the next hundred years without pulling up anymore [10]. If people burned all the methane currently in storage, the planet would be on a fast track to certain destruction [1]. The last time Earth had this much CO2 in the atmosphere, the average temperature was up to 18 degrees higher than it is now [1]. Very little life on Earth could sustain that sort of an increase in temperature.

           According to the EPA, one pound of methane traps 25X more heat in the atmosphere than CO2 [17]. Which suggests that it is far more dangerous than anyone is reporting. The combination of an atmosphere richer in CO2, water vapor, and methane means the future for humanity is heating up. 


          Energy security is the main reason for all fossil fuel exploration on a nation’s own land [13]. When a nation pumps oil in their own vicinity their costs of shipping, production, and labor are reduced considerably [20].  The ability to pump, refine and pipeline all one’s own fossil fuels is very appealing to every world leader. The reason is that energy is the source of all human productivity: all industry, all government, agriculture, municipalities, and all life activities [13]. Without water, nothing exists. No water, no power.

          Cheap and local energy is the dream for leaders, because it decreases government reliance on war-torn, oil-rich countries in the Middle East and South America [20]. It also significantly reduces the likelihood of a conflict over those oil reserves and reduces the volume of CO2 produced in shipping fossil fuels.

          Local energy production adds jobs to the economy often in rural places that are economically depressed and need a financial assistance an industry may bring [20]. Increasing taxes and investing in local community infrastructure benefits all the citizens that live there [20].

          The citizens of the communities are benefitted in multiple layers, but it starts with taxes. The states of New Mexico and Texas are currently the largest producers of natural gas, and combined in 2018, they enjoyed over a $4 Billion surplus from mining activities [12]. Local schools and infrastructure in rural and economically depressed areas largely benefitted from that surplus [12, 20].


          Water is the most precious resource that drives life, the economy, the industrial, mining, and agricultural worlds, and life as we know it. Since water is the most valuable resource on the planet, it is illogical to use it to pump up a fuel with many proven reliable alternatives. The only benefit of pumping up endless supplies of fossil fuels is to the stakeholders who own the oil companies and receive record returns that renewables will not guarantee. The largest battle oil and gas companies face is their reputation in public opinion. People have testified across all forms of the literature reviewed for this paper about not fully understanding the environmental impacts of fracking. Public concerns about fracking seem to have caused rapid fire increase in well production and development [20].

          Citizens have expressed concern about the potential for groundwater pollution, surface-water destruction, air quality degradation, accidental greenhouse gas emissions, induced seismic activity and ecosystem fragmentation [20]. None of these issues have been directly addressed by oil and gas, in fact propaganda is often released to confuse citizens about the actual costs and benefits of fracking [3, 19, 20]. The purpose of this propaganda is likely to enable oil and gas to drill as many wells as possible before legislation changes so that they are free to pump the wells after laws have been in place to protect the environment from oil and gas production. Any existing wells will then be grandfathered into the laws that allowed fracking to occur with little to no regulation or environmental protections, and thereby be exempt from new laws [20].

“Public concerns about the environmental impacts of hydraulic fracturing have accompanied the rapid growth in energy production. Moreover, extensive industrial development and high-density drilling are occurring in areas with little or no previous oil and gas production, often literally in people’s backyards.” [20] -The Environmental Costs of Fracking.


        Energy security is a necessary concern for government leaders. The largest stakeholders in energy production, storage, conservation, and usage is the public. The stakeholder with the highest risk of safety of the air, water, and land. Governments must represent their public.

          The next stakeholder is global governments who will ultimately be responsible for management of the natural disasters that are already occurring at record levels for millions of people around the world. They will have a great deal of accounting to do, and every dollar earned from fossil fuels today, will need to be tripled to mitigate the harm caused by those fuels tomorrow. Tax incentives and subsidies to drill will be the largest issues to address in the agenda.

          The last stakeholder in this scenario is the oil and gas investors themselves. They have opted for rapid returns on investments with known adverse effects. They should not be rewarded for crimes against humanity any longer.

Federal Responsibilities

          Dependence upon foreign oil, has caused the Federal government to overlook some of the costs of fracking regarding the environmental laws placed to protect the air, water, and land.

“No comprehensive statutory scheme for regulation of public lands exists, and management of these lands is fragmented among a number of agencies housed under different departments, which have different directives and land management philosophies…The BLM is responsible for 261 million acres of public land.[24]” Environmental Law, 8th Ed.

          This suggests that Federal government is simply too large to properly govern the entire country and has to rely on local authorities to decide what’s best for them. The BLM opted to lease land in the Permian Basin for fracking.

1. Federal Water Pollution Control Act of 1948

This act formalizes the government’s obligation for the control of water pollution. Later amendments to the act strengthened the role of the Federal government but left most of the responsibilities to the local state governments [24]. This act should be enough to protect the water used in fracking operations on federal land. It is concluded that fracking creates millions of tons of wastewater, while mining oceans of freshwater. This is not a fair trade.

2. Safe Drinking Water Act

This law is meant to protect the public from toxic substances; fracking byproducts certainly fall under that category [24]. Water is pumped full of potassium and toxic chemicals in order to properly fracture the shale rock. These chemicals and salts are left in the crust of the Earth to mix with groundwater, but it is also pumped up to evaporate from tailings pools. This law should theoretically protect water on Federal land that is being polluted with toxic substances. The EPA has concluded that a third of Americans will have scarce drinking water supply within the next 20 years, which means that current mining methods that destroy drinking water supplies are threatening the existence of life in arid regions.

3. Energy Policy Act of 2005

The cure that kills environmental protections is the Energy Policy Act, revised in 2005 by Dick Cheney and George Bush, both oil executives [28]. This act gave tax subsidies for energy efficiency, and investments in energy efficient programs, and was meant to have several areas of focus such as: energy security, energy and economic efficiencies, future energy supplies, environmental quality, and research and development [29]. This appeared to have environmental protections, but ultimately was criticized by the public for giving oil and gas production too generous of incentives to drill [28]. This policy deliberately excludes fracking so that the method would be unregulated by Federal agencies. A fracking boom has occurred since this Act was passed in 2005.

4. The Resource Conservation and Recovery Act

RCRA imposes criminal liability for any violator knowingly committing environmental crimes of dumping hazardous waste [24]. However, the penalties are weak and easily avoidable for nearly all corporations and individuals by diluting liability. This is done by selling assets, declaring bankruptcy, and changing business names or hands to confuse ownership. RCRA also allows citizens to hold the EPA liable in its lack of action or effort if needed. Since fracking is known to create oceans of wastewater, under RCRA the Federal government should not allow fracking to continue dumping hazardous waste into the environment, and certainly not on Federal land.

5. The Fracturing Responsibility and Awareness of Chemicals/ FRAC Act

This bill was introduced in 2017 and was read twice by the Senate and referred to an Environmental panel for review. The Act would define fracking as a federally regulated activity under the Safe Drinking Water Act. It has yet to be voted upon [34].   


The oil and gas industry is the only industry in America that is allowed by EPA to inject known hazardous materials directly into or adjacent to underground drinking water supplies [24]. All point sources of pollution are subject to permits for discharge into surface water, many discharge pools of fracking wastewater are not permitted according to the State of Colorado [14]. Thousands of gas wells have been abandoned, are uncapped, polluting directly without consequence to anyone but the environment and public health [21].

From a 2004 EPA report:

“-Natural gas and shale gas extraction operations can result in a number of potential impacts to the environment, including:

-Stress on surface water and ground water supplies from the withdrawal of large volumes of water used in drilling and hydraulic fracturing;

-Contamination of underground sources of drinking water and surface waters resulting from spills, faulty well construction, or by other means;

-Adverse impacts from discharges into surface waters or from disposal into underground injection wells; and

-Air pollution resulting from the release of volatile organic compounds, hazardous air pollutants, and greenhouse gases [30].”

From the EPA website:

“We studied the relationship between hydraulic fracturing and drinking water resources. The study includes a review of published literature, analysis of existing data, scenario evaluation and modeling, laboratory studies, and case studies. [30]” states the EPA’s website on the effects of fracking on drinking water. “Our report concludes that hydraulic fracturing activities can impact drinking water resources under some circumstances and identifies factors that influence these impacts. [30]”

          The keywords here can and some were perceived by the Republican administration of 2004 to mean that there is no threat to drinking water, and oil and gas production should ensue. This implies that the Federal government is aware that fracking indeed damages drinking water, but they have given the green light to drill for oil and gas anyway. Regardless of the various laws in place to protect this very thing from occurring.

          In 1997, the U.S. Court of Appeals ordered the EPA to regulate hydraulic fracturing under the Safe Drinking Water Act. This decision followed a 1989 CBM fracking operation in Alabama that landowners say contaminated a residential water well [28].In 2000, in response to the 1997 court decision, the EPA began a study of the threats to water quality safety associated with the fracking for methane production [28]. The main goal of the study was to assess the potential for fracking to contaminate underground drinking water supplies. Meanwhile, in 2001, a special task force on energy policy convened by Vice President Dick Cheney recommended that Congress exempt hydraulic fracking from the Safe Drinking Water Act [28].

          The EPA completed its study in 2004, finding that fracking “poses little or no threat” to drinking water. The EPA also concluded that no further study of hydraulic fracking was necessary [28]. Looking at it from a different perspective, the 2004 study acknowledges that fracking can and does harm water sources, thus proving the government’s knowledge of fracking polluting the water.

          When the CEO of fracking chemical producer Halliburton, Dick Cheney was appointed to a high office in the Executive government, the administration actively became involved in assisting the EPA with what activities must be excluded from the Safe Drinking Water Act [28]. Fracking swiftly was added to the list of activities excluded from the Safe Drinking Water Act [28]. Despite a mountain of evidence that fracking uses massive amounts of freshwater and turns it into a toxic wastewater full of dangerous chemicals, while producing a fossil fuel that when in its whole form unburned, is 26 times deadlier than CO2. The Halliburton loophole has kept frackers fracking, without regulation for years. The Permian Basin on New Mexico and Texas’ border has enough methane that if mined, would ensure rapid extinctions across the globe. Earth’s temperature would rise to an unsustainable high level, and our atmosphere would be like a rapidly heating oven.

Climate Action: Common Sense Initiatives (CSI)

          Common Sense Initiatives can be enacted that will review business-impacting rules, helps businesses navigate regulatory obstacles to reduce fossil fuel reliance, and lead initiatives to improve protections concerning climate action. A renewable energy Common Sense Initiative will be funded by corporate and community tax dollars, stamps, and mill levies. The CSI will be governed by an NGO and have a rotating board that will not be former energy executives, but community leaders, citizens, and scientists. Initiatives must be placed in communities that prevent pollution of community resources like the air and water. The goal of the initiatives will be to maintain the safety of the community, wildlife, and natural resources everything requires to sustain.

          Monitoring wells all around oil and gas productions sites would be a check and balance for allowing for responsible energy production, while simultaneously protecting the air and water from pollution caused by mining activities.


        Although there are many alternatives to fracking for fossil fuels, the real argument is that Earth cannot sustain the heated atmosphere that comes from using fossil fuels. Studies have shown that with more heat in the air, the ice caps are melting at record rates. With more water in the atmosphere, comes more severe storms that are slower moving and cause more damage to the areas affected. Climate change is a cyclical issue with more than just one cause or solution. Enforcing Federal regulations designed to protect the land, air and water are just one way that citizens can ensure a better and safer future.


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35. USGS Identifies Largest Continuous Oil and Gas Resource Potential Ever. United States           Geological Survey. November 28, 2018.     

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