Christi Craddick, Chairman of the Texas Railroad Commission, testified in Washington yesterday before the House Science and Technology Committee, chaired by Lamar Smith, as part of a panel addressing environmental effects of hydraulic fracturing and wastewater disposal. Introductory remarks and testimony can be viewed here. The testimony reflects, I think, the political polarization in Washington. Because of recent reports about earthquakes in North Texas and Oklahoma, a lot of the testimony related to those issues, as well as the ability of local municipalities to regulate drilling in their jurisdictions – an issue now before the Texas Legislature.
The Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission now allows landowners with complaints against operators to file their complaint online. Go to http://cogcc.state.co.us/ and click on “Complaints” in the left-hand column.If you’re a surface owner with no mineral rights and you have objections to a proposed well location, you can also get the COGCC to inspect the site and consider your objections and require the operator to accommodate your concerns.
The online portal is very user-friendly and a real effort to make it easier for the public to participate in the process. The Texas Railroad Commission should take note. The COGCC has also significantly increased its oversight staff, increased its collaboration with local governmental entities, sponsored studies on air and water impacts, and adopted policies on health and safety issues.
A recent “swarm” of small quakes in Irving has caused a stir and ignited a series of articles about the relation between oil and gas activity and seismic events. The quakes in Irving were strong enough to knock some books off of shelves.
After residents of the town of Azle experienced a series of quakes in 2013, residents protested in Austin before the Texas Railroad Commission, and as a result the RRC hired its own seismologist to study the problem. Most scientists have linked quakes in Texas and Oklahoma to injection of large volumes of produced water. Recently one study in Ohio linked quakes there to recent fracking of wells in the area.
Most if not all of the actual studies of recent quake activity are being done by Southern Methodist University. It has studied the quakes around Azle, and a report of its study is expected soon. After the quakes in Irving, SMU is installing seismic monitors in that area.
Stories about the quakes:
In a letter to the Texas Railroad Commission commenting on the RRC’s proposed rules on curbing earthquakes caused by high-pressure injection of waste fluids, the Environmental Protection Agency “applauded the RRC’s efforts to ensure it has sufficient regulatory authority to respond to any event of the type where concerns may arise.” Maybe the agencies will kiss and make up? Not likely. But the EPA agrees with proposed rules published by the RRC that would require applicants for disposal well permits to submit information about the area’s risk for earthquakes as part of their application. The rules also strengthen the RRC’s authority to limit or halt injection from existing wells where earthquake events occur.
Initially the RRC was slow to respond to complaints about earthquakes. At one point, citizens from the town of Azle, particularly affected by earthquakes, staged a protest before the RRC at which Azle citizens serenaded the commission with their own composition based on Elvis Presley’s All Shook Up. The RRC has now hired its own seismologist, and although Commissioners are cautious about connecting earthquakes to oil and gas activity, the proposed rules are a step in the right direction.
Texas now has more than 3,600 active commercial injection wells; it granted 668 permits last year alone. Earthquakes strong enough to damage homes have occurred in the Barnett Shale region. Similar problems have occurred in Oklahoma and other regions.
The proposed rule can be found here. Other comments on the proposed rule can be found here. Texas Tribune article on the proposed rules is here. SMU is conducting a study of the quakes around Azle and has installed seismic stations in the area to monitor seismic activity.
The Atlantic Council, a Washington-based think tank, has published a draft white paper on the exploration industry’s use of water in Texas. The draft paper, “Sustainable Water Management in the Texas Oil and Gas Industry,” was written by John Tintera, of the Austin firm Sebree & Tintera. Tintera, formerly executive director of the Texas Railroad Commission, is now president of the Texas Water Recycling Association. The draft paper can be viewed here: DID264_1_073014.pdf. The Atlantic Council also has a white paper, “Produced Water: Asset or Waste?“, on its website.
Investigations continue in response to complaints of alleged contamination of water wells from drilling activity in the Barnett Shale.
In May, the Texas Railroad Commission issued a report of its investigation of complaints of well contamination by methane in Parker County. It concluded that “the evidence is insufficient to conclude that Barnett Shale production activities have caused or contributed to methane contamination in the aquifer beneath the neighborhood.”
But Parker County resident Steve Lipsky, who’s complaint at the RRC caused it to conduct its new study, continues his battle with Range Resources, arguing that its wells are responsible for the methane in his water well. Two other scientists who have reviewed the RRC test data concluded that the gas in Lipsky’s water is definitely the result of fracking operations.
Lipsky’s battle with Range continues in the Texas Supreme Court, where Lipsky and Range have both filed petitions for writs of mandamus. Lipsky has asked the court to dismiss Range’s claims against Lipsky for defamation and business disparagement. Range accused Lipsky and his expert Alisa Rich of fabricating evidence in Lipsky’s suit for damages for contaminating his well. Range asks the court to reinstate its claims that Lipsky and his wife and Rich conspired to fabricate evidence to defame the company. The court has not yet ruled on the petitions.
Meanwhile, the University of Texas at Arlington, along with UT’s Bureau of Economic Geology, are conducting a study of 550 water wells in North and West Texas, including baseline testing of wells in Nolan County using samples taken before commencement of drilling in that county, to investigate the impact of drilling and disposal operations over time. Some states, including Pennsylvania — but not Texas — require drillers to test nearby water wells before drilling to provide baseline data on groundwater.
In the last century in West Texas, oil and gas exploration in the Permian Basin scarred the landscape. Below is a Google Earth view of an area of Ward County in far West Texas, showing the drilling pads and roads from oil and gas development.
At the time of this development the surface of this land, dry and semi-desert, was considered relatively worthless, and the impact of oil exploration to the surface of the land was considered a small price to pay for the wealth of oil found under the ground.
Today, landowners have become more ecologically conscious and protective of the natural environment of their lands. Increasingly, oil and gas leases are including provisions requiring restoration of the surface by exploration companies. But restoration of semi-arid lands in West Texas is not a simple task and requires patience and expertise, as well as significant resources.
I recently ran across a series of publications by the University of Wyoming that describes strategies for restoring Wyoming lands disturbed by oil and gas activities. The University has created a Reclamation and Restoration Center in its College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, working with its School of Energy Resources. It has published a series of informative bulletins describing best practices for restoration of severely disturbed lands – how to preserve topsoil, re-establish plant species, and preserve natural habitat. One bulletin describes considerations for including restoration requirements in oil and gas leases on private lands. The bulletins are online and can be found here. While Wyoming habitat is not the same as West Texas habitat, they have a lot in common.
A resource for landowners wishing to learn more about habitat restoration in South Texas is the Caesar Kleberg Wildlife Research Institute at Texas A&M University in Kingsville, which has experts on native habitat and vegetation.
There’s lots of buzz about a recent verdict in a case filed by a landowner in Dallas County alleging injuries from air emissions from drilling and production of Barnett Shale wells in Wise County. The case is Lisa Parr v. Aruba Petroleum, Cause No. 11-01650-E, in the County Court at Law No. 5 of Dallas County. The jury returned a verdict for personal injury and property damages of $2.9 million. According to the petition (Parr – 11th Amended Petition.pdf), Aruba had 22 wells within two miles of the Parrs’ 40 acres, including one within 800 feet.
CNN quotes the plaintiff, Lisa Parr, as saying that says she’s not opposed to the work oil companies do. She simply wants them to do their business responsibly.
“We are not anti-fracking or anti-drilling. My goodness, we live in Texas. Keep it in the pipes, and if you have a leak or spill, report it and be respectful to your neighbors. If you are going to put this stuff in close proximity to homes, be respectful and careful.”
Here is a chart of pending cases related to hydraulic fracturing done last year by Arnold and Porter: http://www.arnoldporter.com/resources/documents/Hydraulic%20Fracturing%20Case%20Chart.pdf
Emissions of methane from oil and gas exploration, production and transportation facilities have become a big topic in the news recently. The E&P industry touts natural gas as a more environmentally friendly fuel than coal for electric generation, reducing greenhouse gas emissions. But methane is a powerful greenhouse gas, and there is much debate over the amount of fugitive emissions from wells, pipelines, processing facilities and other industries handling the fuel.
- The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has endorsed natural gas as a “bridge fuel” to reduce greenhouse gases.
- The EPA has issued estimates of methane fugitive emissions that have been criticized as low by environmental groups.
- The Obama Administration has recently outlined a new strategy for reducing methane emissions.
- Colorado has recently adopted regulations to require operators to reduce and capture fugitive emissions and monitor for leaks.
Emissions from oil and gas exploration and production also are being blamed for increased ozone readings in shale-boom areas in Wyoming and Texas. In Texas, a state-funded study by the Alamo Area Council of Governments is underway to determine whether drilling in the Eagle Ford is contributing to increased ozone readings in San Antonio. San Antonio may soon be cited by the EPA as a nonattainment area for ozone, which would require the city to impose additional air quality regulations. Recently, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, which is funding the study, froze increased funding because the Alamo Council issued a statement tying increased ozone levels around San Antonio to Eagle Ford drilling without getting clearance from the TCEQ.
San Antonio’s problems are reminiscent of a debate a few years ago over whether oil and gas exploration in the Barnett Shale was contributing to air pollution in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. The TCEQ has concluded that Barnett Shale drilling has had no significant impact on local ozone levels. But a recent study by a graduate student at the University of North Texas concluded that ozone is higher in areas with drilling activity in the Barnett Shale.
I expect that the Texas Railroad Commission and the TCEQ will come under increased pressure to tighten rules for fugitive emissions of methane from oil and gas activities in Texas.
I ran across this article from the Miami Herald: “Colorado’s new drilling rules seen as making an impact in Texas.” Colorado recently adopted tough air emissions rules applicable to the oil and gas exploration, production and transportation industries, intended to reduce emissions of methane. Those rules were adopted in collaboration with oil companies active in Colorado, and were supported by Anadarko, DCP Midstream, EnCana, and Noble Energy. According to the article, several companies have approached the Environmental Defense Fund expressing interest in getting Colorado’s rules adopted in Texas. Jim Marston, VP at EDF, said that “The companies are often ahead of the Texas state government” on environmental issues.
Texas regulators often tout Texas as the nation’s leader in oil and gas regulation. Recently, the Texas Railroad Commission, which regulates oil and gas in Texas, has been having to play catch-up. It only recently hired a seismologist to study seismic activity caused by wastewater injection and has not yet agreed that injection is a cause or earthquakes near injection wells. Last year, the RRC adopted tougher casing regulations in response to concerns about possible groundwater contamination from drilling and completion operations. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, the agency that regulates air emissions, has increased its monitoring of air emissions from oil and gas operations, particularly in the Barnett Shale, in response to complaints and concerns raised in and around Fort Worth.
Colorado’s new rules are an effort to significantly reduce methane emissions from oil and gas facilities by requiring better emissions controls, better detection and faster fixing of leaks. Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas, and capturing fugitive emissions of methane also saves money for the companies and their royalty owners. EDF recently commissioned a study by ICF International to quantify the cost and savings of reducing methane emissions. The study found that industry could cut methane emissions by 40 percent below projected 2018 levels at an average annual cost of less than one cent per mcf of produced natural gas by adopting available emissions-control technologies and better leak-detection practices. The practices would have the additional benefit of reducing emissions of volatile organic compounds and other hazardous air pollutants.
Texas’ regulation of air emissions from the oil and gas sector were recently criticized by a University of Texas researcher and faculty member, Rachael Rawlins, who recently published an article in the Virginia Environmental Law Journal concluding that state and federal regulatory programs don’t effectively measure or regulate emissions from oil and gas facilities in urban areas. Rawlins’ conclusions are based on a comprehensive review of air quality monitoring and health-effect studies in the Barnett Shale. Rawlins concludes that “Texas’ reactive and ultimately inadequate effort to respond to citizen concerns on the Barnett Shale reflects a continuing need for across-the-board improvement in monitoring, health-based assessment and public communication.” See UT’s summary of the article here. As drilling has increased in the Eagle Ford in South Texas, complaints of health affects from air emissions have increased. According to a study by the Center for Public Integrity, the Weather Channel and Inside Climate News, “Big Oil, Bad Air,” there are only five permanent air monitors in the 20,000-mile Eagle Ford Shale region. That report was heavily criticized by David Porter, a RRC commissioner, and by the industry website Energy In Depth.