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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.

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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.

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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.

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Ever heard of the Groningen gas field? Neither had I, until I read a recent article in the New York Times. It is in the Netherlands, and was discovered in 1959. 

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The field is operated by a joint venture of Royal Dutch Shell and Exxon Mobil. Today, the field produces about one-third of all natural gas produced in the European Union.  It produces more gas each year than Russia recently committed to sell to China, and contributes some $16.4 billion a year to the Netherlands’ national government. According to Wikipedia, as of 2009 the field had produced 39.3 trillion cubic feet, 60% of total reserves, and production is expected to last for another 50 years. It is listed as the ninth largest gas field in the world, based on estimated recoverable reserves. For comparison, the EIA estimates total U.S. proved shale gas reserves at about 129 tcf.  Some gas field.

The NYT article reports that earthquakes linked to the depletion of the field have recently been increasing in number and intensity, and the Dutch government has required the operator to reduce production by 20% to see if that will quell the tremors. That will put more pressure on the EU to find alternate gas supplies.

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A jury has awarded damages in a second nuisance case against an operator, this time against Chesapeake Energy.  In Crowder et al. v. Chesapeake Operating Inc., case number 2011-008169-3, in Tarrant County Court at Law, the jury awarded the Crowders $20,000 for what the jury found to be a temporary nuisance – drilling operations conducted by Chesapeake in a field behind their house, where Chesapeake has drilled 13 wells. The Crowders complained of offensive odors and extensive noise. The jury failed to find that Chesapeake’s operations created a permanent nuisance, which would have entitled the Crowders to additional damages. The Crowders filed their suit in 2011.

While the jury award in Crowder will not excite plaintiffs’ attorneys to look for additional such cases — unlike the $2.9 million verdict recently awarded in another case, Lisa Parr v. Aruba Petroleum, Cause No. 11-01650-E, in the County Court at Law No. 5 of Dallas County — the case does show the viability of nuisance claims aimed at oil and gas operations near residences, especially in urban areas.

The Dallas city council recently adopted a drilling ordinance prohibiting well locations within 1,500 feet of any residence, effectively prohibiting most drilling within the city limits. The setback in Fort Worth is 600 feet. There are more than 1,700 wells in the City of Fort Worth.

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Here are two emerging technologies that could change how we might use natural gas to fuel our cars and electrify our homes and offices.

A company called Redox Power Systems is building a plant in Florida to produce The Cube, a dishwasher-sized system that generates electricity from natural gas using electro-chemical fuel cell technology. 

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With almost no moving parts, The Cube can provide enough electricity to power a gas station or a small grocery store. It also generates heat that can be used to heat a home or business. It’s technology was developed at the University of Maryland. The system also emits carbon dioxide, but according to a review by MIT, its emissions should be lower than those associated with power from the grid. Redox plans to complete a 25-kilowatt prototype and start selling complete systems by the end of this year.

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Recently my son was watching the movie “Holes,” a great adventure movie based on a book by the same name written by Louis Sacher in 1988. Sacher also wrote the screenplay for the movie, which came out in 2003. In the story, Stanley Yelnats IV, a teenager, is sent to Camp Green Lake, a juvenile detention camp, for stealing a pair of sneakers. Green Lake was a dried-up lakebed in Texas where the camp detainees were forced by the evil warden (played by Sigourney Weaver) to dig holes looking for a buried treasure. It’s a great growing-up story. 

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The movie reminded me that Green Lake is a real place in Texas that has its own fascinating legal history.

Green Lake is the largest natural fresh-water lake in Texas. Located in Calhoun County near the coast, it covers an acre of about 10,000 acres.

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The Texas Supreme Court has granted the plaintiffs’ petition to review a case important for Texas mineral owners, Hooks v. Samson Lone Star. I wrote about this case when it was decided by the Houston First Court of Appeals in 2011. The court of appeals’ opinion reversed a judgment for $21 million against Samson Lone Star in a case involving alleged bad-faith pooling and fraudulent misrepresentations by the Hooks’ lessee. The court of appeals threw out the judgment, holding that Texas Supreme Court precedent required it to hold that the Hooks’ claims were barred by the applicable statute of limitations.

The statute of limitations bars claims if they are not filed within four years (or two years for some claims) of the event that caused the damages or injury for which the claim is brought. In some cases, courts have excused the delay in filing claims if the damage or injury was not discovered until a later date. Under this “discovery rule,” the statute of limitation is “tolled” until the plaintiff discovered or, with reasonable diligence, should have discovered, her injury. Also, courts have held that the statute of limitations is tolled where the defendant fraudulently conceals the facts giving rise to the damage or injury.

Over the last several years, the Supreme Court has severely narrowed the circumstances under which plaintiffs can invoke the discovery rule or claim fraudulent concealment to toll limitations on a claim, particularly in suits by mineral owners against their lessees. In Exxon v. Emerald in 2009, the Supreme Court reversed an $18 million judgment against Exxon on the basis that the mineral owners’ claims were barred by limitations — despite an express finding by the jury that the plaintiffs had filed their claim within four years after they discovered or should have discovered Exxon’s fraudulent conduct. In 2011, the Supreme Court in BP v. Marshall overruled a jury verdict in favor of royalty owners, holding that their claim was barred by limitations as a matter of law even though the jury had found that the lessee had fraudulently concealed the facts and that the plaintiffs had no reason to discover the true facts until less than two years prior to filing suit.

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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.”

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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.
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The Ohio Department of Natural Resources has imposed rules on exploration companies requiring seismic monitoring around new well sites near fault lines and quake epicenters in the Utica Shale.  According to the Columbus Dispatch, the rules require monitors at new drill sites located within 3 miles of known fault lines or areas that have experienced an earthquake greater than magnitude 2.0. Monitors cost about $20,000 each, and as many as five are needed at each well. “ODNR officials said if monitors at drilling sites detect even a magnitude 1.0 quake, fracking will immediately stop and an investigation will start. If fracking is blamed, a moratorium would be instituted 3 miles around the epicenter,” according to the article. Earlier earthquake activity near Youngstown, Ohio was attributed to an injection well, which was shut down by Ohio DNR.

Earthquakes in Oklahoma and North Texas in the Barnett Shale, and more recently in the Eagle Ford in South Texas, have been linked to injection wells, but not to hydraulic fracturing. The Texas Railroad Commission has hired a seismologist to study the matter but has not imposed any new regulations on injection wells.

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