Texas Oil & Gas Accountability Project seeks more drilling oversight


The Texas Oil & Gas Accountability Project issued a report Thursday calling for the Environmental Protection Agency to oversee regulation of air emissions from oil and natural gas exploration and production equipment in the state.

In the meantime, the report said, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality “must significantly step up its currently inadequate efforts to protect public health by strictly enforcing emission limits from oil and gas exploration and production equipment.”

The group said the Texas Railroad Commission, the chief regulator of the state’s oil and gas industry, has been its “lapdog” but “must become a watchdog.” The commission “must adopt rules that provide the public with full disclosure of oil and gas drilling and fracking fluids,” the group said, in reference to chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing.

Hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” pumps large volumes of water and sand, along with a smaller volume of chemical additives, underground under high pressure to create fractures in dense rock formations and allow trapped oil and gas to flow into a wellbore.

To protect surface and groundwater resources from oil and gas contamination, the commission “must implement rules requiring closed-loop drilling systems and water-based drilling fluids,” the group said. The report, issued in conjunction with the Earthworks organization, focuses heavily on North Texas’ Barnett Shale, where thousands of gas wells have been drilled in recent years.

Ed Ireland, executive director of the Barnett Shale Energy Education Council, a pro-industry group, said the report makes some statements “that aren’t really fact-based.” As an example, he said, studies and testing by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and others have shown that Barnett Shale natural gas operations “are not a source of dangerous air emissions.”

The state agency, in response to the report, said it “has committed a tremendous amount of resources to the issue of Barnett Shale air quality, and we continue to do so.”

“We have increased our staff in the Dallas-Fort Worth regional office,” the agency said, and are “committed to responding to complaints within 12 hours” while providing “stepped up enforcement” and a network of round-the-clock monitors, “with five more planned.”

The Legislature “is also considering giving us more monitoring resources,” the agency said. “We have taken enforcement action against 14 sites in the Barnett Shale. Perhaps most important, none of our six operating … monitors have detected chemicals above levels of concern.”

The Railroad Commission responded that it “has a long and proud history of more than 90 years of regulation over Texas’ oil and gas industry.” It said it has become a resource “for other states and nations looking for a template on how to safely and effectively regulate their own energy industries.”

“Even with the recent intense hydraulic fracturing activity in the Barnett Shale of more than 14,000 gas wells, there have been no documented cases of groundwater pollution” caused by fracking in Texas, the commission said.

The Texas Oil & Gas Accountability Project’s report said, “Throughout the Barnett Shale, residents are concerned about air pollution from oil and gas operations and the risks of surface water contamination by fracking chemicals. Health problems have become central issues, with many residents complaining of odors, dizziness, nosebleeds, headaches, agitation, and in some cases, more severe symptoms.”

Bill Walker, a communications strategist for Earthworks, said the “many” reference was to “a few dozen people” in communities such as Dish, a tiny Denton County town where there is a heavy concentration of large natural gas compressor stations.

A Texas Department of State Health Services sampling of blood and urine from 28 Dish residents in January 2010 found no pattern of contaminants higher than in the rest of the U.S. population. Higher levels of contaminants were found in several smokers, but that would be expected, the agency said.

The report erroneously implied “hundreds of millions of gallons” are used to frack a well, rather than several million gallons typically used. For example, a frack job done simultaneously on two natural gas wells in Johnson County in 2010 observed by the Star-Telegram used 61/2 million gallons.

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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