Hydraulic fracturing has made plenty of headlines in recent years. But the drilling process involves many other steps beyond breaking up rock, and several opportunities for things to go wrong.
Recognizing this, the Texas Railroad Commission, the state’s oil and gas regulatory agency, is updating its rules to address the broad process of drilling, from the drilling itself to cementing and completing an oil or gas well.
The latest version of the proposed rule changes is expected today.
So far, the commission’s work is winning qualified praise from environmentalists and some in the oil industry.
Tuesday, the commissioners agreed to post the staff’s recommended changes on the TRC’s website today, but said it will continue accepting public comment until noon Jan. 2.
Debbra Hastings, the executive vice president of the Texas Oil and Gas Association, said she expected the new rules probably would be adopted by the TRC toward the beginning of the legislative session.
“We’re supportive of them moving forward right now, as long as they’re feasible and they can implement them,” Hastings said.
Careful construction of oil and gas wells is vital to preventing oil, gas or fracking-related fluids from leaking into aquifers.
A study last year for the Groundwater Protection Council found that from 1993 to 2008, faulty drilling or well completion was responsible for 10 documented instances of groundwater contamination in Texas.
The proposed rules span a range of topics related to what the industry calls “well integrity.”
They cover the quality of the protective cement placed between layers of pipe in an oil or gas well and a pressure test for the pipes themselves (which often are called casing) in wells being prepared for fracking.
They could create new requirements for the components of blowout preventer systems on certain wells, including those onshore in populated areas.
Among the most discussed provisions is a proposal that bans fracking operations at noncemented wells when the shale being fracked comes within 1,000 vertical feet of a usable aquifer.
Public comments initially had ended last month, and some drillers said the proposed rules were too restrictive. Keith Valentine, a lawyer with Clayton Williams Energy, wrote in a filing that the changes would have a “negative impact” with significant costs.
Environmentalists, while welcoming the proposals, wish they would do more.
In a public filing, the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club and other green groups urged the commission to improve oversight of cement work and to ban “toxic additives during the well drilling process.”
TRC Chairman Barry Smitherman declined to comment on the proposal ahead of the version being released today. The commission also is in the early stages of looking at rule changes that would affect wells built to dispose of waste fluids from fracking operations.
Keffer championed legislation last year requiring disclosure of some chemicals in hydraulic fracturing. For now, Keffer is not planning to introduce a bill on well integrity, leaving it to the TRC, Autry said in an email.
Anderson of the Environmental Defense Fund said the TRC long has been seen as a leader on drilling rules, but that it has not kept up on well integrity.
“Several of the other states have stolen a march on Texas,” he said, noting that Colorado, Wyoming, Pennsylvania and Ohio have updated well-integrity rules in recent years.