About Air and Water

Monday, March 10, 2008

Lack of scrutiny for Tarrant County gas wells questioned - 30% in Tarrant have not seen state scrutiny in past 5 years

By Mike Lee, and Jeff Claassen - Star-Telegram Staff Writer


In Fort Worth, restaurants get inspected by the Health Department at least once a year.

Construction sites are inspected from stakeout to top-out.

The one thing that may not be inspected is a natural gas well.

About 30 percent of the gas wells operating in Tarrant County have not been inspected within the past five years. The inspections are the responsibility of the Texas Railroad Commission, which enforces safety and environmental rules for gas drilling.

Neighborhood groups and local officials say they want the state to step up and do its part, particularly since cities cannot impose stricter safety rules than the state.

Matthew Hudson, past president of the Fort Worth League of Neighborhoods, used the analogy of a building permit. He recently paid more than $800 in permit fees to build an addition to his home, and the addition had to be inspected more than a dozen times.

"It makes sense that when somebody files a permit to drill, that there's enough money in that permit fee to do these inspections," Hudson said.


It actually costs less to get a drilling permit than Hudson paid for his building permit. The maximum fee, set by the Legislature in 2001, is $300, and the total can rise to $650 if a drilling company asks for an expedited permit and exceptions to density rules. By law, that money goes to a state fund to clean up plugged wells and other environmental problems.

The issue of inspections was first raised in a report by the state auditor's office, which came out in August. The report said 46 percent of the oil and gas wells statewide had not been inspected in the previous five years. The report also said Railroad Commission inspectors had chummy relations with the companies they oversaw, often accepting caps, meals and gift baskets.

Fort Worth has its own gas well inspectors, but they can enforce only local rules such as those that govern noise, setbacks, fencing and landscaping. The city inspectors visit every well in Fort Worth annually and can report any problems to the Railroad Commission.

Many in sensitive areas

Railroad Commission officials said at the time of the audit that there is no need to inspect every well, since many of them were plugged or were located in nonproductive fields. They said they had instead tried to concentrate on high-priority inspections, such as wells in environmentally sensitive areas or highly populated areas -- particularly the Barnett Shale field in North Texas.

"If there's a gas well in a rural area, where the water table is not going to be impacted, that well is not going to pose a risk to the environment or public safety," commission spokeswoman Ramona Nye said.


But a Star-Telegram analysis of Railroad Commission data for the same period as the state audit found that there are a lot of uninspected wells in Tarrant County. Out of 1,010 active wells in Tarrant County, the commission has inspected 696 and left 314 uninspected. About 180 of the uninspected wells have been drilled since 2005, according to the commission.
Many of the uninspected wells are in highly populated and environmentally sensitive areas:

ZIP code 76179, which includes new subdivisions such as Sendera Ranch, Bonds Ranch and the east side of Eagle Mountain Lake, has 108 uninspected wells out of 392, meaning 28 percent of the wells haven't been inspected.

ZIP code 76248, which includes Keller and parts of Fort Worth, had one of the highest rates of uninspected wells, 48 percent (11 out of 23). That's higher than the Tarrant County average and about the same as the statewide average.

ZIP code 76135, which covers Lake Worth, a major source of drinking water, had a 50 percent rate of uninspected wells -- five out of 10.


Also, each well in the Barnett Shale has a surface casing that runs from the surface to a level below the water table. Each casing has to be installed and sealed with cement to protect the groundwater before drilling can continue. Inspectors didn't check 33 percent of cementing operations in Tarrant County, according to the commission's statistics.

Limited staff available

Richard Varela, the commission's executive director, said the agency does the best it can with limited staff. There are 377,000 wells in Texas, each with associated pipelines, tank batteries and other equipment. And there are only 83 inspectors. That's about 4,500 wells per inspector.

The inspectors try to make up for their lack of numbers by randomly picking wells for important inspections such as surface casings.

"That way, the operator doesn't know when we're going to show up," Varela said.

Also, drilling companies have to submit a detailed report to the commission after each well is completed.

"For all the wells we did not get to check physically, we can do an audit to see if they're at least telling us what was done," Varela said.


The number of field staff (which includes inspectors, well-pluggers and cleanup specialists) has increased about 10 percent, from 125 to 137 since 2002, even as the agency's overall staff has dropped from 803 to 712. But the agency is struggling to keep the positions filled -- there are currently nine vacant field positions -- since the petroleum industry can pay better than the state, Varela said.

During the same five years, the number of active oil and gas wells has climbed by about 9 percent, from 240,357 to 263,057.

It would take a change in state law to add more inspectors or increase permit fees, Varela said.

'They don't protect you'


That's cold comfort for Jerry Bonds and his neighbors near Eagle Mountain Lake.

Bonds' front door is about 250 feet from a cluster of five gas wells operated by Fort Worth-based XTO Energy. The noise, dust and truck traffic have been hard to take, and Bonds figures his 1-acre property is worth about half what it was before the drilling started. There's a double-decker stack of empty cargo containers along his fence line, and a portable toilet next to his driveway.

When it rains, chalky runoff from the site comes down Bonds' driveway, headed for Eagle Mountain Lake, which is a major source of Tarrant County's drinking water. If there's ever an accident, both his home and the wells are at the end of a two-lane blacktop road.

"I want every kind of safety inspection that can be done on it," Bonds said of the gas wells. "My family lives here."


Bonds leased his mineral rights to XTO and got a $1,000 signing bonus, a monthly royalty check and an advance payment for damage. The company asked him not to disclose the damage amount, but he said it's not enough.

"I'd be happy to give them their check back every month," he said.


His next-door neighbor, Lisa Woolsey, pointed out that the wells probably wouldn't be allowed in Fort Worth or other cities, which have limits on how close wells can be to homes.

"The state standards, they don't protect you," she said. "Otherwise, all these other cities wouldn't have these distance limits."


XTO officials didn't return calls seeking comments about Bonds' or Woolsey's situation.

Industry safety record

Joe Waller, president of the Lake Worth Alliance, said he's concerned about wells near the lake where he lives, too. The alliance has been campaigning for more than a year to clean up and dredge Lake Worth, and Waller has asked the city to impose extra restrictions on gas drilling near the lake.

"If one thing should happen out of a thousand, it'd be catastrophic," he said.


Nye, the commission spokeswoman, said the oil and gas industry has a successful safety record, but there have been several incidents in Tarrant County over the last five years, including a blowout at a well in Forest Hill that killed a worker, Robert Gayan.

There have been two other blowouts, one in Haslet in 2002 and one in Fort Worth near Benbrook Lake in 2007. No one was injured in either. All three of the wells had been inspected before the blowouts.

Also in 2007, a contractor at a housing addition cut a 16-inch oil pipeline in southeast Tarrant County, causing a spill of about 420 barrels of oil. About 50 barrels ran into a dry creek bed and pond. About five barrels remained soaked in the ground two weeks later, according to Railroad Commission reports.

The Fort Worth Fire Department has responded to five incidents involving gas wells, Lt. Kent Worley said. Most of those cases involved were minor incidents in which a pressure relief valve was set off; no injuries were reported in any of them.

Mayor wants local office

Mayor Mike Moncrief said he is working with the Railroad Commission to open a satellite office in Fort Worth, with the city possibly providing office space.

Currently, inspectors work from their homes, but the nearest field offices are in Kilgore, Abilene and Wichita Falls.

"They need to be here where all this action is taking place," Moncrief said.


The city and the Railroad Commission are also discussing joint training of each other's gas inspectors.

"This is important, that we really work together and are each other's eyes and ears," Railroad Commissioner Elizabeth Ames Jones said in an interview.

Jones said the commission also does "a lot of work on the front end" to ensure safety before the agency issues a permit.

Colorado: All wells inspected

In Colorado, which is also undergoing a natural gas boom, state regulators inspect every gas well. Colorado inspectors also do spot inspections, said Deb Frazier, spokeswoman for the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission.

Still, lax inspections are a problem throughout the West, said Gwen Lachelt, director of the Oil & Gas Accountability Project in Durango, Colo.

High energy prices have kicked off a drilling boom from Texas to Wyoming, and state regulators are struggling to keep up, both in the number of inspectors and in up-to-date rules. Last year, Colorado passed legislation that expanded the commission's powers. The law added specific language regarding "protection of public health, safety and welfare, including protection of the environment and wildlife resources."

"Most state oil and gas regulations are terribly outdated," Lachelt said. "They need to be revisited, given the recent surge in new drilling activity, especially in areas where this drilling is within a very urban area. There need to be fees or severance taxes in order for states to hire the inspectors."


By the numbers

1,010 gas wells in Tarrant County as of fall 2007.

314 wells not inspected between 2002 and 2007.

696 wells inspected during the same period.

Texas Railroad Commission

The Railroad Commission oversees the oil and gas industry in Texas. It is run by three commissioners, who are elected statewide to six-year terms. Commissioners earn between $92,000 and $137,000 a year.

The three current commissioners each get a substantial amount of their political contributions from the oil and gas industry, according to an analysis of contributions for 2006 by the Web-based watchdog group followthemoney.org.

Chairman Michael Williams, who has been on the commission since 1999, got a third of his contributions -- $138,000 out of $400,000, from people and companies in the oil and gas business, during the 2006 election cycle.

Elizabeth Ames Jones, who was appointed to the commission by Gov. Rick Perry in 2005, also got about a third of her contributions from the oil and gas sector -- $695,000 out of $2.1 million.

Victor Carrillo, who was appointed by Perry in 2003 and re-elected in 2004, got 54 percent of his contributions from the oil and gas sector, $194,000 out of $355,000.

Online: www.followthemoney.org

Texas Railroad Commission, www.rrc.state.tx.us

Gas well inspections

Texas Railroad Commission inspectors make several kinds of checks when they visit a drilling or a completed gas well:

Leaks in the wellhead.

Oil on the ground.

Whether signs are posted correctly.

Whether water sources are protected.

They also make on-site visits when drillers are setting surface casings. At that stage, the well has been drilled to a predesignated depth -- 100 feet below any potable water. A pipe or casing is inserted and cement is pumped into the well until it flows back up the outside of the casing to form a seal between the casing and any water-bearing rock formations. The commission inspected about 67 percent of those operations from 2002 to 2007.

Source: Texas Railroad Commission

Read more in the Fort Worth Star Telegram

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