Bill Gives Local Option on Permitting Water Wells for Fracking

One industry lobbyist wants words ‘hydraulic fracturing’ removed, fears ‘ballyhoo’ from fracking foes.

Groundwater conservation districts could chose to require conservation permits for water wells drawing large volumes of water for hydraulic fracturing operations under a bill that drew objections from the oil and gas industry Tuesday but gained support from several water districts and environmental groups.

A committee substitute for Senate Bill 873 by Sen. Glen Hegar, R-Katy, gives local water conservation districts the option, if they chose, to require permits and closely monitor production from water wells drilled for fracking. However, it also gives the water districts the option to exempt the wells from permitting if they chose.

The topic of water and fracking during the third year of the Texas drought is a sensitive topic for the oil and gas industry. Indeed, one industry lobbyist told Hegar he’d like to see the words “hydraulic fracturing” removed from the bill altogether because of all the “ballyhoo” over the controversial practice.

Fracking involves blasting four to five million gallons of water mixed with chemicals and sand a few miles below the surface to break up shale rock and free up oil and gas deposits. The practice has transforming the United States into a major oil and gas producer and pumping up the state economy and treasury. The industry insists the practice is safe, but opponents worry it could contaminate fresh water supplies.

Hegar told the Senate Natural Resources Committee the bill is needed to provide better clarity to water districts, especially in arid regions, that fracking water wells are not automatically exempt from permitting.

Just over 60 percent of the state’s water conservation districts report fracking activities in their areas, of which half reporting significant levels of activity. About 38 percent require permits for wells drawing considerably more water for fracking.

“The short of what we’re trying to accomplish is just provide certainty,” Hegar said adding some districts believe they are required to permit the wells while others aren’t so sure. “This bill gives them the option. I don’t want wells, drilling, to be help up in any shape, form or fashion.”

Under existing law, water districts are required to exempt water well permit requirements for domestic and livestock water use, oil and gas exploration and surface mining. It’s the second category that confuses districts and the industry alike.

Cory Pomeroy, vice president and general counsel of the Texas Oil & Gas Association, said the state’s largest oil and gas industry group would “respectfully would oppose the bill.” He contended that the bill overrides an existing exemption from water well permitting for wells used in fracking. It all comes down to how one defines an “exploratory” oil and gas well versus a production well.

“It’s our position that you have to frack the well before it goes to production,” Pomeroy said.

Natural Resources Committee Chairman Sen. Troy Fraser, R-Horseshoe Bay, said he thinks completing the well through fracking is a step beyond the exploratory drilling of a well. Drilling the initial hole in the ground uses considerably less water than fracking.

“You’ve done the drilling portion,” Fraser said. “Now all of a sudden you’re using a lot of water.”

“TXOGA thinks completion is part of exploring,” Pomeroy replied. “We’re left with legal arguments on both sides of the issue.”

Hegar, noting that Pomeroy recognized that certain water districts require the conservation permits for fracking water wells, asked why TXOGA’s members were not suing those districts.

Pomeroy said those who were getting the permits thought they were required to do so, including relying on the legal advice of their attorneys.

Sen. Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock, said he is concerned about equity in water conservation permitting, an issue Hegar said his bill does not address.

“Why grant an exemption to an oil and gas operation but not to the corn farmer?” Duncan asked. “You now have local control in granting exemptions to fracking operations, but you don’t have that for corn farmers.”

Teddy Carter of the Texas Independent Producers and Royalty Owners Association said his group was most concerned about delays in getting water conservation permits, especially from districts with sparse staffs. Hegar noted that those are the districts that might likely opt out while Fraser said the bill could stipulate the permitting must be “timely.”

Bill Stevens, representing Texas Alliance of Energy Producers, said he was “taken aback” to see language in the bill including the term “hydraulic fracturing,” saying that “threw up a red flag” to fracking opponents.

“I would like to exclude that terminology,” he said, noting the “ballyhoo” over fracking.

The bill has garnered opposition from several large oil and gas companies, such as Exxon, Conoco, Chevron and Occidental. Registering in favor of the bill were Sierra Club, Environment Texas, Texas Farm Bureau, Texas League of Conservation Voters, Texas Association of Realtors, Texas Campaign for the Environment and several water conservation districts.

By Polly Ross Hughes

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