Aug. 12, 2015
In the wake of State House Bill 40, Texas cities in the Barnett Shale region, including Denton and Fort Worth, find themselves stripped of rights to develop health and safety ordinances for subsurface oil and gas operations and subjected to a vague standard for regulations governing surface operations.
The bill was enacted in reaction to Denton’s fracking ban and other cities’ strict drilling ordinances.
As a result, Denton City Council was struggling last month to revise their 2013 ordinance after the Legislature outlawed their ban on fracking. Health and safety regulation is an issue for two reasons, say oil and gas observers. Oilfield accidents are numerous. And state inspectors are too few, by the state regulatory agency’s own measure.
“Every week incidents happen,” says Sharon Wilson of Earthworks, a nonprofit oil and gas watchdog agency.
“Since HB 40 was passed, there has been a blowout in Arlington, a lightning strike [that caused a well fire] in a backyard in Denton, a Permian-site well explosion, Karnes City had an oil tank facility fire, Sherman had a explosion and DeWitt County had a pipeline rupture. That was just the first week or two. A 6,000-gallon spill, another pipeline leak, another tank battery explosion and a gas well explosion… They happen quite often. Every week there are serious incidents.”
“Better regulation and inspection could help.”
The Texas Railroad Commission regulates oil and gas production and conducts drilling and pipeline inspections. Numbers of inspectors is an important issue. Rita Beving, with Alliance for a Clean Texas, while attending a June 2013 hearing of the Legislature’s Texas Natural Resources Committee, recalls “the then-executive director of Texas Railroad Commission stated that in North Texas, currently there were 12 inspectors for more than 14,000 wells.”
Cyrus Reed, lead energy lobbyist with Texas Sierra Club, says that Texas Railroad Commission’s monthly reports show that about 20,000 permits are given monthly.
“To inspect each facility annually, we would need three times the number of inspectors, I was told by a Railroad Commission staffer,” says Reed.
“The default is, ‘Rely on self-reporting’” by the oil and gas industry.
In the recent session, TRC asked the Legislature to fund 33 additional oil and gas facility inspectors and 40 pipeline inspectors. The Legislature funded zero facility inspectors and 20 pipeline inspectors for the entire state.
The Texas Railroad Commission has been reviewed by the Legislature’s Sunset Committee in two consecutive sessions. Bills were introduced to enact Sunset recom-mendations, but not passed, in both 2011 and 2013.
Above, fracking sites near homes in Mansfield.
“Railroad Commission criticism was much debated in 2011,” says Beving. “It was scheduled for thorough review in 2013, then rescheduled for 2017,” she recounts. “The can was just kicked down the road.”
At the end of the 2015 session, Cyrus Reed intercepted yet another punt of the proverbial can, this one surreptitious. Driving home late on the final Friday of the session, he noticed a handwritten edit to the final “catch-all” Sunset conference bill setting agency review dates.
2017 had been struck and 2023 inserted.
“The change wasn't in either the Senate or House bill versions sent to the conference committee,” says Reed. “It lacked the cover page stating that the 10 committee members had agreed to go ‘outside the bounds’ of normal procedures.”
Rapid communication to bill sponsors – who defended their impromptu six-year delay – and to the legislators who had worked to set the 2017 date, as well as Texas cities affected by TRC regulations, halted the postponement. The Railroad Commission review is now back on track for 2017.
In the meantime, cities from Denton and Fort Worth to Lubbock and South Texas are left to promulgate protective ordinances under HB 40 that meet the standard of being “commercially reasonable.” It's a standard that Wilson, Beving and Reed report leaves cities uncertain how to proceed – and reliant on litigation as the only clear means to contest industry actions they consider dangerous to residents, property and natural resources.