Texas should lead on gas drilling oversight

Posted Monday, Mar. 04, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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Rarely do national environmental protests occur in Texas. Our state is a challenging venue in which to highlight environmental issues, especially those related to impacts of popular oil and gas practices. Yet, an anti-oil and gas coalition convened its first national summit deep in the heart of shale country over the weekend and then marched in Austin on Monday.

While the coalition's focus may be increased federal oversight of the industry, it could not have selected a better place to stage its gathering than Texas, or a better time to schedule it.

The Legislature is in session, and regulators are in the process of overhauling several existing oil and gas rules that can help propel the state back to our rightful place as the leader in rigorous oversight of oil and gas activities.

Texas is home to the new generation of advanced drilling technologies that include hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling applied to shale formations. The state has a long-established set of drilling regulations, but these rules were designed to minimize risks of conventional drilling techniques, and many have not been updated in decades.

It's essential that Texas become the global leader in effective oversight of these advanced drilling techniques by modernizing its current set of rules to keep pace with innovative approaches to production. Modernized regulations, if designed and enforced vigorously, will place Texas at the forefront of responsible shale development.

The good news: The process of updating these rules is under way. Two years ago, the Legislature passed a bill that requires producers, under most circumstances, to disclose the ingredients in fluids used to extract oil and gas from shale formations.

Loopholes and missing elements in existing rules about numerous esoteric drilling issues are under review, including the all-important well integrity regulations. Earlier this year, the Texas Railroad Commission took a leadership position and published an updated draft well integrity regulation that is a key component in ensuring that wells are constructed to meet high standards that reduce risks of groundwater contamination and other accidents. We look to the commission to be bold in issuing a final rule that is the strongest one practicable.

In 2012, the Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation launched its own effort, the Texas Shale Regulatory Initiative, to bring together leading industry, environmental and academic experts to develop recommendations to modernize Texas' regulatory framework for the drilling, completion, production and transportation of oil and gas from shale formations.

Working collaboratively across these sectors, the initiative's participants explore areas in current regulations that can be strengthened. Areas of concern include fugitive methane emissions; air emissions at and beyond the well pad; wastewater disposal; surface water risks from tanks, pits, and spills; and water use.

While these topics lack the headline-grabbing drama and hyperbole that characterize most narratives surrounding shale development, it is exactly these mundane technical aspects of oil and gas regulations that make the real difference in ensuring the safety of advanced drilling applications.

Texas is home to the oil and gas industry and the birthplace of shale development. The state has a responsibility to lead the nation in developing regulations that ensure public safety through sustainable drilling practices guided by modernized regulations. Our policymakers have an opportunity to send a clear message: a new, better-informed perspective that shows how shale development can be done responsibly at the state level, led, as always, by Texas.

Marilu Hastings is the environment program director of the Austin-based Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation. www.cgmf.org

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