Vol 29, Issue 47 Print Issue

At Texas Railroad Commission, a Flurry of Rulemaking

Chairman of the Railroad Commission, Barry Smitherman, talks with Evan Smith at TribLive on December 13, 2012.
Chairman of the Railroad Commission, Barry Smitherman, talks with Evan Smith at TribLive on December 13, 2012.

A veritable flurry of rulemaking is under way at the Texas Railroad Commission, involving everything from how oil and gas wells are drilled to the recycling of frack water.

The most immediate of these proposed rules pertain to “well integrity,” which covers the process of drilling a well, placing the pipe in it and cementing everything in place, as well as the hydraulic fracturing process itself. The well integrity proposals are “really big rules,” in the words of Barry Smitherman, the chairman of the Texas Railroad Commission. Their newest version was published this week and set out for public comment until January 2. A final rule should be adopted in the January-February timeframe, Smitherman said.

Scott Anderson, of the Environmental Defense Fund, reacted cautiously to the newest proposed version of the rules.

“For the most part, the revisions seem to do a good job of adequately dealing with industry’s objections without watering down the rule unduly," he said. However, he was still studying some of the changes before forming a complete judgment.

Debbie Hastings, of the Texas Oil and Gas Association, said that the new version appeared to be a “much better rule,” though some parts of it were not sufficiently changed for TXOGA's taste. The association still supports the rule-making process on well integrity, she said.

 

Among the changes are removal of language specifying that a certain piece of equipment (a “shear ram”) must be used in a blow-out preventer system in populated areas; the drilling industry had worried that “populated areas” was too vague a term. 

Another change: Removal of a sentence that specified that if fracking is to occur through a non-cemented well, the formation to be fracked must be separated from usable water by at least 1,000 feet. The significance of that change is still under discussion.

Other key rules, one of which would make it easier for companies to recycle frack water and another of which would adjust regulations for disposal wells (where post-fracking liquids are stored permanently in the earth), are in the early stages. The commission wants to “try to be pro-active,” Smitherman said, given the likelihood that the oil and gas fields are likely to be producing for a long time.

The frack water recycling rule is “getting very close to being released for additional comment,” Smitherman said. 

Smitherman also said he was focused on the Lesser Prairie Chicken, saying he was “really worried” about its potential classification as a threatened species by the federal government. The prairie chicken inhabits the oil and gas patch in Texas, Colorado, Oklahoma, New Mexico and Kansas. 

Another “overriding concern,” Smitherman said, was the federal government’s continued regulation of greenhouse gases. “We have to be very concerned about any attempts to unilaterally disarm the Texas economy,” he said.

Asked by the Tribune's Evan Smith whether he would run for attorney general in 2014, Smitherman responded that he had already begun his re-election campaign for railroad commissioner (because he is filling the unexpired term of Michael Williams, he must run for re-election in 2014).

He'll have to explain his job when he runs; at the Tribune event, Smitherman said that during his campaign for Railroad Commission, people were complimentary: "I’ve ridden your railroads, and your people are so friendly."