Bill White’s BJ Services Problem

Have you heard about Bill White’s BJ Services problem? No, White isn’t involved in an Eliot Spitzer-style sex scandal. (Thank God.)

BJ Services is a Houston-based oil field services company under investigation by the House Energy and Commerce Committee for the use of “fracking” fluids that may be contaminating groundwater in Texas and elsewhere. Since 2003, while the mayor of Houston, White earned $2.6 million serving on the board of BJ Services.

This is problematic for several reasons.

Just on the most basic level, why did White feel the need to get entangled with a for-profit corporation while serving as mayor of the nation’s fourth-largest city? Few big-city mayors do so. And for good reason – even if you’re squeaky-clean, the public can perceive you as serving two masters. Even the appearance of a conflict of interest is something that public servants tend to avoid.

Rick Perry is certainly having a field day with the news. Today, his campaign released a statement calling White’s tenure on the BJ Services board a “sweetheart deal” and “shady.” Pot calling the kettle black, I know, but this is politics. Plus, if you’re going to attack your opponent for cronyism, it’s dangerous to leave yourself open to similar charges.

Houston is, as Robert Bryce put it in Pipe Dreams: Greed, Ego and the Death of Enron, “a place ambitious people go to make money,” so I’m sure many Houstonians had little problem with White making more than his $160,000 salary.

But I also think plenty of folks will be scratching their heads wondering what a full-time public servant did to earn $2.6 million. If White wasn’t the mayor, would he have been worth that much to BJ Services?

Finally, there’s the issue of BJ Services’ fracking activities. Hydraulic fracturing is an increasingly-utilized drilling technique that involves the injection of water and chemicals into “tight” formations deep underground to fracture the rock and release natural gas. The technique has opened up new frontiers in domestic gas production but is also linked to contamination of drinking water supplies, gas explosions, and even earthquakes (see: Cleburne, Texas).

In 2005, Congress – at the behest of Dick Cheney – actually exempted fracking fluids from the Safe Drinking Water Act. Under the Halliburton loophole, as it’s come to be called, companies can keep details about fracking chemicals a secret.

However, a congressional committee is asking some of the main companies, including BJ Services, for data on their activities. Houston Chronicle:

U.S. Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee, last month announced that BJ Services, along with Halliburton and several other oil field services companies will be investigated for the possibility that their gas recovery methods could lead to groundwater contamination.

Waxman noted that between 2005 and 2007, BJ Services admitted to pumping 1,700 gallons of diesel fuel into gas wells in Oklahoma and Arkansas. BJ Services self-reported the incidents, and no pollution has been directly attributed to a BJ services well in Texas. Waxman has asked the company for additional information.

White’s reaction has been to dismiss the fracking concerns. “Hydraulic fracturing is essential to an affordable supply of natural gas — a clean domestic fuel — and can be done in a manner that’s safe for both people and the environment,” he told the Chronicle.

Maybe so, but how? We’re all ears.

Forrest Wilder, a native of Wimberley, Texas, is the editor of the Observer.

Published at 10:31 pm CST
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