RR Commission credibility slips

06/04/2014 6:03 PM

06/04/2014 6:03 PM

The conclusion reached by the Railroad Commission in its recent report on levels of methane gas in Parker County water wells was not a surprise to many agency critics.

In a 13-page analysis of several water wells in the Silverado subdivision, the commission found that the amount of methane — the principal component in natural gas — in some of the wells tested was higher in September 2013 than in 2010 and 2011.

In other wells, the measured levels did not change appreciably, and in one well the concentration of methane in groundwater decreased during that time.

Commission geologist Peter Pope, who signed off on the agency’s report, did not believe that those findings decisively linked the rising gas levels to Barnett Shale production activities in the region.

Fair enough.

But even objective observers would agree that the data were inconclusive. Yet the report said that “further investigation by commission staff is not planned at this time.”

Instead, the commission recommended that “neighborhood residents properly ventilate and aerate their water systems.”

That is of little comfort to people living with concerns about contaminated water. Especially when several independent studies found higher levels of methane and more definitively connected them to nearby gas drilling.

At best, there is a lot we don’t know about the consequences of extracting natural gas from the earth. But as the state’s oil and gas industry regulator, it’s the role of the Railroad Commission to thoroughly vet these issues.

While the uncertain conclusions of the latest report are somewhat predictable (given the commission’s lethargy in responding to concerns about small earthquakes in Parker County also allegedly linked to natural gas drilling), the commission’s decision to forgo further study is worthy of an eyebrow raise.

There is enough ambiguity in the latest report to warrant further study, but the commission is reluctant to investigate.

Certainly, the agency has an interest in seeing the industry succeed, but it is also obligated to protect residents by identifying industry problems and seeing that they are corrected.

The commission’s credibility is contingent on its ability to balance those priorities. Its reluctance to continue investigating methane levels in water wells calls that credibility into question.

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