Texas Railroad Commissioner Ryan Sitton faced a highly skeptical crowd Thursday night to talk about wastewater injection wells following a request from an energy company to drill a well near the shores of Lake Arlington.
About 150 people armed with pointed questions attended the community forum at the Handley Meadowbrook Community Center because they are upset with BlueStone Natural Resources II’s permit application to drill a saltwater injection well. Public officials also are worried about the threat it poses to water quality and the dam’s structural integrity.
“I think it is such an incredibly bad idea to put an injection well so close to a public water source,” said Kimberly Frankland of Arlington. She said Lake Arlington is the primary water source for not only Arlington but for other communities in North Texas. For her, the threat it poses makes it far too serious to consider.
Acknowledging it was a crowd that likely would be opposed to the well no matter what he said, Sitton couldn’t talk about the specific permit but tried to calm the crowd’s concerns by explaining the permit process and pointing out the safeguards the railroad commission imposes to protect the public. The agency regulates the oil and gas industry in Texas.
“I know there is tension, everyone is concerned about this,” Sitton told the crowd. He said he understands their concerns because there are oil wells and pipelines not far from his Houston area home. And while he wouldn’t talk about the BlueStone permit, he said, “If I’m not convinced this thing is safe, not only will I not vote for it, I will be vocal about why.”
BlueStone filed the permit application earlier this year. The well would be used to collect excess gas and brackish, or salty, water produced by the company’s other natural gas wells in the immediate area. The company has said that its permit meets the strict guidelines established by the state for a wastewater injection well.
Fort Worth, Arlington, the Trinity River Authority and numerous residents have filed protest letters against the well saying that it threatens water quality and could jeopardize the structural integrity of the dam. Injection wells have been linked to seismic activity.
An administrative law judge was scheduled to hear the case in May. But BlueStone asked for a postponement and it has been rescheduled for Sept. 5-7. After the judge makes a recommendation, the commission votes on the permit.
Arlington Councilwoman Kathryn Wilemon said prior to the meeting that she is dead set against the well’s approval.
“Arlington has a lot of interest in this because that is our water supply. It’s also our dam,” Wilemon said. “We’ve had seismic activity in the area, less than 2 miles from there. In my own home, I felt the earthquake. So we know that there is the possibility of jeopardizing our water system. … We do not think this is a good idea.”
Rolling up his shirt sleeves
State Rep. Nicole Collier, D- Fort Worth, who coordinated the meeting, told the crowd from the top that the commissioner could not answer specific questions about the permit. As a matter of fact, Sitton said he had only looked at a single page of the application and found that on the surface it mirrors other drilling applications in the Barnett Shale.
Then Sitton took off his suit coat and rolled up his sleeves to answer questions. People asked about the chemicals used in drilling, how the wells are actually drilled and how closely the state inspects and monitors them.
Sitton. the first mechanical engineer to serve on the commission in years, described how, once an injection well is drilled, there is 1 foot of concrete and steel between the fluids pumped and the groundwater. He also described the geological formations made up of limestone, sandstone and shale that would lie on top of the injected fluids.
He also passed out a flier describing how a seismic review is required by the commission for when a well is drilled. Using historical data, the proposed well is evaluated for seismic issues if it is within 100 square miles of an event that is magnitude 2.0 or greater. If so, the agency could require special conditions, like the installation of seismic monitors.
“This is not a political issue. When you have concerns about the safety of your family or the safety of your children, that will trump everything else,” Sitton said.
Can cities ban injection wells?
BlueStone’s application is considered one of the first direct challenges to HB 40, a law adopted two years ago restating the railroad commission’s primary control over oil and gas activity. Specifically, bans on saltwater injection wells enacted by Fort Worth, Arlington and other cities may come under scrutiny.
In an earlier interview, Sitton wouldn’t speculate on whether Fort Worth’s ban violates HB 40, but he said the law made it clear where the line was to be drawn when talking about the commission’s authority. The cities have limited control over surface activity, while the state is the authority over activity below the surface.
“Any ordinance that gets in the way of the railroad commission doing its job … those ordinances will be in question,” Sitton said.
Assistant City Manager Fernando Costa said Fort Worth’s ordinance — portrayed as a model guideline when HB 40 was adopted two years ago — is valid, complies with state law and should be upheld by the state. “It is an important issue and the city council has carefully decided that the prohibition on injection wells is reasonable and defensible,” he said.