War of the Wells

The Railroad Commission has failed to protect Texans from oil and gas drillers, so citizens are learning to fight back on their own.
by Published on
David Fredrick and Wise County residents

Neighbors say they move in quickly. Suddenly a tall, garish, mechanical contraption belching fumes and noise dominates the neighborhood. Heavy trucks pound the streets. These are the signs of the drilling rigs that are spreading across Texas. Depending on how much oil and gas lies beneath the ground, they can stay for a few months or years. High demand, combined with improvements in drilling technology, is making it cost effective to go after the last deposits. In 2000, there were 7,974 wells completed in Texas. By 2007, that number had nearly doubled to 14,247.

Industry observers have taken to calling it a “stampede,” and prospecting drillers are bumping up hard against an expanding Texas population. Protests and lawsuits are increasing. Almost everywhere there is intense oil and gas drilling these days, citizens’ groups have formed to fight pollution, safety, and proximity problems.

These groups include people like Evie Corso and her husband, who bought a home in a subdivision just outside the northwestern city limits of Fort Worth. They were dumbfounded when a “mechanical monster” moved in next door. The machines infiltrated the neighborhood and stayed for about two months. Just a few feet from Corso’s back fence squatted a 120-foot drilling derrick surrounded by tanks and huge service machinery. A roaring generator poured out black diesel exhaust. The groaning, chugging, clanking sounds of machinery could be heard day and night throughout her subdivision. Heavy industry had transformed a quiet neighborhood.

“We don’t sleep that much with all the lights, metal-on-metal sounds, and beeping vehicles. Sometimes the walls of our house vibrate,” Corso said before the machines left. “I have asthma and moved here from California for better air quality, and now my asthma’s back because of the fumes.”

Corso was helped and encouraged by Fort Worth Citizens Against the Drilling Ordinance, or FWCanDo. The group fights an onslaught of thousands of gas wells planned within the city limits of Fort Worth. FWCanDo pressured the Fort Worth City Council to keep the rigs away from people’s houses with setback rules, but there’s not much the city could do for Corso, who lives outside its limits. The Texas Legislature has consistently defeated efforts by counties to gain control over land use. As to regulating oil and gas activity, that’s the sole province of the Texas Railroad Commission.

The commission has three missions, according to its Web site: “[S]tewardship of natural resources and the environment; concern for personal and community safety; and support of enhanced development and economic vitality for the benefit of Texans.”

Railroad Commissioner Michael Williams let homeowners know where they fall on the list at a jam-packed public meeting on drilling issues in Nacogdoches in April 2007. Williams, whose campaign contributions from the oil and gas industry far exceed contributions from any other regulated industry, said, “What we have been directed to do by the Legislature is make sure that our rules help get as much hydrocarbon out of the ground as possible. If the Legislature wants to also tell me, ‘Mr. Commissioner, look at how much hydrocarbon you can get out of the ground and consider other issues,’ I’d be more than happy to do that.”

Williams also told the crowd, according to participants, that the commission wouldn’t and couldn’t do anything about noise and loss of property value. (Williams did not respond to an Observer request for comment.)

The statement confirmed what many had suspected: The Railroad Commission was not going to help them. They were going to have to help themselves, and in Nacogdoches and other places across Texas, that’s what they have been doing.

Recent citizen activism against oil and gas drilling really took off in Wise County, near Decatur, in 2005. The Observer first reported on this story and some related activism in East Texas in 2006 (see, “What Lies Beneath,” May 19, 2006).

It began when a group of Wise County residents, led by former private detective Jim Popp, contested the Railroad Commission’s permitting of a drilling waste disposal well near their property. To no one’s surprise, they lost. Most such permits are routinely granted. As of February 2008, there were 30,416 active injection and disposal wells in Texas, according to the Railroad Commission.

Evie Corso

Where many may have given up, the Wise County residents just kept fighting. The case went through the commission’s appeals process and state district court, all the way to Texas’ 3rd Court of Appeals, where, to almost everyone’s surprise, the residents won. In December ’07, the court ruled the Railroad Commission had “abused its discretion” when considering the public interest. The court ruled that the commission’s long-standing rationale for granting such permits-that the public interest was best served by facilitating oil and gas production-was too narrow. It ordered the commission to reconsider the case and broaden its interpretation of public interest to include public safety. According to David Frederick, the environmental attorney representing the group, it is too early to tell how this decision will ultimately affect commission decision-making (the commission is appealing). Nevertheless, the appellate court delighted the citizen’s group and its many spin-offs, and the individuals fighting injection wells and other intrusive oil and gas activities.

“People all around North Texas were whooping and hollering when they heard the news,” said Popp. In the long interval between the beginning of the fight and the December ’07 court decision, Popp became a kind of itinerant evangelist, preaching about the danger of disposal wells and the scant protection the Railroad Commission offers the public when problems arise from oil and gas operations.

Popp received a measure of vindication last November, when the Fort Worth Star-Telegram documented problems with injection wells in northern Texas. Among its findings, the paper reported that after citizen complaints, commission inspectors finally looked at a 30-by-80 foot pit of oil and production water at a disposal well in Parker County. The commission reported: “Usable groundwater in the area is likely to be contaminated by migrations or discharges of saltwater and other oil and gas wastes from the subject well.”

Near Chico in Wise County, saltwater and drilling wastes came bubbling out of the ground after a disposal well malfunctioned. And near Boyd, also in Wise County, the paper reported that high pressure discovered in four natural gas wells indicated a disposal well nearby could be leaking underground.

A subsequent story by the Star-Telegram on a poll of residents of Johnson and Wise counties, conducted by a Sam Houston State University professor, found residents thankful for the economic boost that oil and gas had given their communities, but apprehensive about the “social costs.”

While the overwhelming presence and scale of oil and gas drilling and related activities alarmed people, accidents and fires began to really scare them.

In January 2003, a flash fire occurred near Rosharon, south of Houston, when workers from BLSR Operating Ltd. were unloading drilling waste by-product into a well. Three workers were killed, and four were severely burned. In 2005, there was a dramatic explosion at a gas well near Mineral Wells, followed by burning of natural gas through fissures in the earth of the half-acre crater created by the blast. Demonstrating just how porous it can be underground, gas was found to be venting through earth fissures and abandoned oil-well bore holes for a mile around the blast site. The fire lasted for days and burned about a square mile of property before air tankers finally managed to extinguish it.

In light of the accidents and increased production, more communities began to organize, educate themselves, and fight back. In the small town of Era, north of Denton in Cooke County, neighbors discovered that a waste hauling company had bought nearby land and applied for a waste disposal permit on the site. Not only did the well pose a potential threat to groundwater, the tiny roads in the vicinity would be crowded with hundreds of tanker trucks hauling in the waste. Led by Donna Fleming, a professor at the University of North Texas, friends and neighbors formed a community group, raised money from bake sales and barbecues, hired a lawyer, and fought the permit at the Railroad Commission. Dozens of Cooke County residents, including their county commissioner, made repeated trips to commission hearings in Austin to testify against the well. At press time, the case remains unresolved.

Further south near the towns of Cleburne and Stephenville, there was a “firestorm of protest against proposed disposal wells,” said community activist Bill Gordon. More than 800 people sent letters of protest to the commission. Republican State Rep. Sid Miller and the entire Erath County Commissioner’s Court joined them. As a result, several disposal well permits were denied, but the battle continues over others. For example, Dena Day, an accountant in Cleburne, and her family have spent $250,000 trying to stop a disposal well that was drilled nearby and upstream from property that has been in her family since the late 1800s. That case remains unresolved.

There are many other such fights across Texas, often involving polluted groundwater from oil and gas operations, such as in Panola County on the Louisiana border. After an Observer story, the Panola County issue, which involved polluted drinking water in a poor African-American community, got some national media attention in The New York Times, but more often such problems receive only local interest. It wasn’t until the drillers started work in Fort Worth that the tension between the oil and gas industry and the public became a major media concern.

There are about 1,000 gas wells currently within the city limits of Fort Worth, and about 1,500 more on the way. “Eventually, they will run out of space to drill,” said David Lundsford, a gas well inspector for the city of Fort Worth. The intensity of this drilling activity has “ripped this community apart,” said Don Young, a Fort Worth native and glass artist who became angry when he found out the city planned to allow drilling rigs near Tandy Hill Park, just across the street from his house. “We moved here because of this park,” Young said. “When I heard the city was going to allow gas wells on top of the hill above the park, I decided I’ve got to do what I can to stop this.”

Young began to educate himself about gas drilling and became increasingly disturbed by the prospect of thousands of wells being drilled so close to so many people. He started speaking out publicly. His anti-urban drilling Web site eventually attracted hundreds of people to his Just Say No To Urban Drilling Campaign. Fort Worth now has a moratorium on new disposal-injection wells within the city limits, partly as a result of his group’s (FWCanDo) activism.

Fort Worth and at least two other municipalities have used their ordinance authority to pass setback requirements for drillers. The 600-foot setback distance within the city of Fort Worth has been criticized as much too close, but at least there is an enforceable setback. The Railroad Commission regulates only spacing between rigs, not proximity to homes. The dearth of protective regulations focused on people, and a perception among affected communities that enforcement of existing regulations is weak have made the Railroad Commission a focus of public ire.

Oil and gas drillers in Texas have relatively few restrictions on their activities-from drilling to pipeline construction to use of compressor stations, to heavy trucks, storage and collection facilities, and waste disposal injection wells. Nor is there much regulation on where they place their equipment. For example, with minimal exceptions for hazardous materials, pipelines can be built virtually anywhere without regard for proximity to houses. On a federal level, the oil and gas industry has been exempted by Congress from the Clean Air and Clean Water acts. Even drilling wastes, known to be full of dangerous chemicals, have been exempted from classification as hazardous.

Dale Henry

The priorities and “ineffectiveness” of the Railroad Commission deeply disturb Dale Henry, a petroleum engineer and former owner of a company that for many years plugged wells for the commission. He is in a Democratic primary runoff for a chance to take on Republican incumbent Railroad Commissioner Michael Williams. Henry describes the commission as the “most dysfunctional organization I have ever known. The commission was always understaffed, and many of the employees they have are untrained and inexperienced.”

The Railroad Commission has about one inspector for every 2,751 wells, although not all wells are on an annual inspection cycle.

Henry said inspectors never verified the work he was doing, such as pouring the appropriate amount of cement into a well, “because it costs too much to check it out.” According to Henry, operators commonly and easily avoided even minimal oversight by scheduling work when commission personnel were off duty. Petroleum engineers hired by Dena Day in her permit dispute looked at the cementing work on the injection well drilled near her property, and found it to be “questionable,” according to their report.

Frustrated by the lack of oversight from the Railroad Commission, many communities are looking to groundwater conservation districts to protect their water. First formed to limit the sale and export of groundwater from rural areas, at least two of these districts in North Texas-Middle Trinity Groundwater Conservation District and Hemphill Underground Water Conservation District-are already using their limited authority to protect their water from oil and gas operations. When drillers apply for disposal permits in their districts, these groundwater districts oppose them, forcing the permit into a costly and time-consuming hearing. Then they tell the drillers they will withdraw the opposition if the drillers agree to water quality testing and monitoring. Still, if contamination is detected, all the district can do is report it to the Railroad Commission.

“Our ratepayers are getting charged twice,” said Joe Cooper, manager of the Middle Trinity district in Stephenv
lle. “First, they have to pay to supp
rt the commission, and then they have to pay the district to do what the commission should be doing. Nobody feels certain that these things are being constructed properly. We’d like to see legislation that disposal wells not be allowed over aquifers. We tried to get that last session, but they rejected it.”

The same issues are also occurring in other states where there is intense oil and gas drilling, and some have come up with progressive solutions. Recently the states of Colorado and New Mexico passed precedent-setting legislation that creates the first sets of standards and rules protecting surface owners from the oil and gas industry activities. On a federal level, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee held hearings in October 2007 on the threat that oil and gas drilling poses to groundwater. That investigation is ongoing.

Rusty Middleton specializes in writing about natural resources and the environment. He can be contacted at [email protected]

Rusty Middleton is a freelance writer living in Wimberley.