Four years ago, a 64-year-old Dimmit County well spewed roughly 260 barrels of petroleum fluid that killed grasses and shrubs on surrounding ranchland. The likely cause, experts say: injections into a nearby disposal well, a deep underground resting place for millions of gallons of oil and gas waste. Injected at high pressures, the waste migrated below ground, putting pressure on fluids that leaked from the oil well more than a quarter-mile away.
"This office considers the existence of the breakout to be a direct result of the injection," the Texas Railroad Commission told the disposal well's operator in May 2011, saying the episode offered "a threat of groundwater contamination."
Though the agency ultimately cleaned up the mess and shut down the disposal well, groundwater experts say, the incident served as a vivid reminder that waste injections gone wrong could endanger water sources.
Groundwater managers weren't closely tracking disposal wells in their districts in 2011. Now, amid a surge of disposal wells in drilling country – pipes designed to carry the waste far below freshwater aquifers – groundwater officials are trying to keep a close eye on the roughly 7,500 waste sites and counting. But groundwater conservation districts are struggling to track new permits, and they are looking for help from the industry and its regulators. They want energy companies to notify them directly when they apply to drill new wells.
“It feels like they don’t want people to know,” said Lisa Campbell, a Texas Tech University professor who heads public health departments across four South Texas counties and helped groundwater managers petition the Texas Railroad Commission to bolster notification requirements. “[Water] is a precious resource, and if we don’t protect it, we’re going to lose it.”
The Railroad Commission and industry groups say current rules are good enough, and they point to an online database of permits that anyone can check.
"The Railroad Commission’s existing notification requirements for disposal wells are transparent and fairly extensive," Ramona Nye, the agency's spokesman, said in an email.
Texas law requires some notification. Disposal well applicants must directly notify landowners bordering the proposed waste site and the relevant county clerk. Anyone else interested must scour local newspapers for one-column notices with a few details: the company’s name, the well’s depth and a vague description of its location (eight miles northeast of Carrizo Springs, for example).
Officials with the Wintergarden Groundwater Conservation District in South Texas, for instance, sometimes spot more than 10 notices a week, meaning that one employee spends hours checking three different newspapers for notices, they say.
“It’s just a very problematic set of circumstances,” said Hugh Fitzsimons, a bison rancher and member of the district. “It is inordinately taxing on our one person in the office to do that.”
The groundwater officials’ plea to drillers and regulators is simple: Send a note, even just an email.
“If you want to be a good neighbor, tell your neighbor you’re coming to town,” said Campbell. “We’re not trying to interfere with the commerce of oil and gas. That’s impossible. We’re in Texas – hello.”
But industry groups, which call disposal wells safe, say such a change is unnecessary.
The Texas Oil and Gas Association said its members "routinely engage with other stakeholders like groundwater districts near their operations," Todd Staples, the group's president, said in a statement, adding that districts can find information online.
Last legislative session, state Sen. Carlos Uresti offered Senate Bill 517, which would have required drillers to notify groundwater districts within 10 miles of a proposed well. The bill failed to draw a hearing amid pushback from several petroleum interests, including the Texas Oil and Gas Association, the Texas Independent Producers and Royalty Owners Association, and Marathon Oil.
“They just believed it was an additional burden for them,” said Jerry Needham, an aide to the San Antonio Democrat. “These groundwater districts should be aware of what’s going in, and have a say.”
“TIPRO maintains it is not necessary to enforce additional notification requirements for disposal well applicants because of the regulatory prerequisites already enforced by the state of Texas," Ed Longanecker, president of the royalty owner group, said in a statement to The Texas Tribune.
On April 13, the groundwater managers petitioned the Railroad Commission to adopt new notification requirements. The agency rejected the request two weeks later, writing that “the current rule adequately addresses notification procedures in a variety of circumstances.”
Nye, the Railroad Commission spokeswoman, said the agency "will continue to explore ways to enhance existing publicly available data on these permit applications," and suggested that groundwater districts should reference an online database that includes information about disposal well permits.
Critics said that continuously checking the database would prove more cumbersome than simply receiving a notification, and they worry that it would not be updated frequently enough for their purposes. Some groundwater district officials said they did not know about the database.
Groundwater districts or any other “affected party” can protest a disposal well permit at the Railroad Commission, often gaining some concessions from a company — agreements to drill deeper below a freshwater aquifer or to bolster other safeguards, for instance. Parties generally have 15 days after a notice goes out or an application is filed – whichever date is later – to file a protest.
The Railroad Commission generally updates its database every two or three days, Nye said.
Several South Texas districts challenge most permits they come across, usually reaching agreements before going to a contested-case hearing – drawn-out processes resembling trials, which are held before an administrative law judge. In the past two years, roughly 10 percent of Wintergarden's 230-plus challenges have resulted in hearings, Ed Walker, the district's general manager, said.
But to challenge a permit, the districts must first realize it exists.
The dispute over notification comes as some industry interests have sought to bar groundwater districts from challenging permits altogether, arguing that the extra scrutiny creates regulatory uncertainty. The Railroad Commission left that question unaddressed last year in a high-profile challenge of a Marathon Oil disposal well.
Marathon Oil declined to comment for this story.
Barbara Smith, who tracks disposal well permits for the Goliad County Groundwater Conservation District and was not previously aware of the database, said just knowing the GPS coordinates of a planned disposal well can help immensely, allowing her to quickly check for water wells nearby. And the district is happy to share that information with drillers, who are required to study the quarter-mile radius around the proposed well.
"We could help them out," Smith said.
Disclosure: Texas Tech University and the Texas Independent Producers and Royalty Owners Association are corporate sponsors of The Texas Tribune. Hugh Fitzsimons is a donor to the Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.