NEWS 8 INVESTIGATES
DALLAS – A WFAA investigation of water contamination in the sprawling Barnett Shale natural gas field has uncovered what appear to be numerous violations by drillers apparently ignoring mandates to seal wells with cement in order to protect groundwater.
The Texas Railroad Commission, which regulates oil and gas activities, says it exercises appropriate oversight over drillers and is unaware of any documented case of a hydraulically fractured oil or gas well contaminating underground drinking water.
Presented with WFAA’s findings -- which center on gas and oil wells drilled in Palo Pinto and Montague counties -- Cyrus Reed with the Lone Star Sierra Club says since the three elected Railroad Commissioners get roughly half of their campaign contributions from oil and gas industry insiders, enforcement is not a priority.
“I’m accusing them of being influenced by that money, and it clouding their judgment,” he said.
A commission spokeswoman declined to comment on the role of campaign money in enforcement.
The University of Texas at Arlington, which operates a world-class environmental laboratory, has undertaken two major studies sampling hundreds of water wells throughout the Barnett and found pollutants consistent with drilling.
Since 2013, WFAA has investigated how private water wells in rural sections of the Barnett Shale gas field have ended up contaminated. What we found is a pattern of drillers failing to properly cement their natural gas wells.
As operators drill their wells, state rules say they have to first cement through the water table in order to protect it from contaminants. As they drill deeper -- often thousands of feet to get to the lucrative shale layer of rock -- drillers often encounter other layers of rock containing oil and gas deposits. They may have no interest in bringing those resources to the surface to sell, but by drilling through them -- often at great pressures -- they release them.
To keep the gas and liquids confined to their original layer, drillers have to cement their drill pipe in place, trapping those materials in their respective zones.
Not doing this, experts say, can result in the pollutants traveling up the well and getting into fresh water supplies.
“We see a high degree of well bore integrity in this state, and we are very proud of that,” said Ryan Sitton, one of three elected Railroad Commissioners, during a recent interview with WFAA in Austin.
Two years ago, after WFAA started investigating well construction, the three commissioners voted to expand what’s known as Rule 13.
The old Rule 13 only required drillers to cement and isolate the groundwater up top and the fracking zone down below -- in this case, the Barnett Shale. It left it up to the driller whether to cement through intermediate layers of rock that might contain oil and gas deposits that they didn’t want to produce commercially.
The new Rule 13 requires operators to cement not just the top and bottom zones, but all “potential flow zones.”
A potential flow zone is generally any formation midway down a well that could contain oil or gas.
Environmental scientist Dr. Bryce Payne of Pennsylvania testified in support of the change to Rule 13.
“When you contaminate these aquifers with hydrocarbons, it changes the chemistry, and -- over the long term -- there will be consequences in terms of the chemical quality of that water,” Dr. Payne said.
But now, two years after the rule went into effect, WFAA has discovered multiple examples of drillers apparently ignoring the new cementing rule.
As part of the new Rule 13, the Railroad Commission posts a county-by-county list of all of those potential flow zones and their depths – a virtual road map of where drillers can find these underground rock layers.
Yet drilling records reveal one operator who appears to get around Rule 13 by simply claiming the flow zones in Palo Pinto County “don’t exist in the area.”
A few miles away, records show a driller not only ignores the multiple zones identified by the state, but indicates they never encountered the gas-rich Barnett Shale – from which they intend to produce gas.
In neighboring Montague County, another operator said they only encountered two of the 14 potential flow zones identified by the state.
Not finding these zones means not having to cement through the zones, which saves money for the drillers. But experts say that also leaves those rock layers open underground, where leaks could be traveling through faults and seeping into aquifers.
“It appears to be an obvious violation of the rule,” Dr. Payne said. “There’s no way that all of them are not going to be present at any location in the county.”
Especially, he says, when drilling records filed by other operators appear to be finding each one of those zones and sealing them off as required.
And how does the Railroad Commission monitor adherence to Rule 13?
“I know that we do very extensive testing and very extensive monitoring of thousands, hundreds of thousands of wells in the state right now,” Sitton told us.
Yet when a Rule 13 complaint was filed last month, agency officials took just three days to dismiss the complaint. A commission lawyer wrote that it would take a “geologist with local knowledge to interpret” the data provided about the alleged violation.
“They are quick to defend the industry, and say there really are no problems,” said Reed, with the Sierra Club in Austin
Dr. Payne said the price of not following the rules will be paid by Texans whose well water is being destroyed.
“And the longer this goes unattended and the longer these regulations are not enforced, the worse... the more permanent... and the larger that problem is going to get,” he said.