Proposed Rules on Fracking Gain Cautious Praise

12 10, 2012 by The New York Times

Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, the controversial process of shooting water, sand and chemicals underground to retrieve oil or natural gas trapped in shale rock, 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, Texas’ oil and gas regulatory agency, known as the Railroad Commission, 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 this week.

So far, the commission’s work is winning qualified praise from environmentalists and some in the oil industry.

“This is the biggest overhaul of Texas well construction regulations since the 1970s,” said Scott Anderson, an Austin-based senior policy adviser for the Environmental Defense Fund.

Debbra M. Hastings, the executive vice president of the Texas Oil & Gas Association, said she expected the new rules would probably be adopted by the Railroad Commission toward the beginning of the state legislative session, which starts in January.

“We’re supportive of them moving forward right now, as long as they’re feasible and they can implement them,” Ms. Hastings said.

Careful construction of oil and gas wells is vital in 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 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 are often 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 fractured comes within 1,000 vertical feet of a usable aquifer.

Public comments 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, say they wish they would do more. In a public filing, the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club and other green groups urged the Railroad Commission to improve monitoring requirements and ban “toxic additives during the well drilling process.”

Barry T. Smitherman, the commission’s chairman, declined to comment on the proposed rules before the new version is published this week.

Representative James L. Keffer, Republican of Eastland, the chairman of the House Energy Resources Committee, is “closely monitoring” the commission’s work, according to Evan Autry, his legislative aide.

Mr. Keffer championed legislation last year requiring disclosure of some chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing. For now, he is not planning to introduce a bill on well integrity, leaving it to the Railroad Commission, Mr. Autry said in an e-mail.

Mr. Anderson, of the Environmental Defense Fund, said that the commission has long 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.