texas railroad commission

Examining the Texas Railroad Commission’s Pursuit of Carbon Sequestration Primacy

The Texas Railroad Commission’s bid for primacy in issuing permits for carbon sequestration projects has drawn attention from various stakeholders, including Congress, environmental advocates, and regulatory bodies like the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). While there’s support for granting primacy, there is a consensus that the Commission must demonstrate its commitment to meeting EPA standards and ensuring responsible oversight.

Regulatory Oversight and Environmental Concerns

Representatives Joaquin Castro and Lloyd Doggett have expressed reservations about the Texas Railroad Commission’s application for primacy. Their concerns primarily revolve around ensuring that the Commission upholds environmental protections and addresses community concerns. They advocate for a thorough review of the Commission’s regulatory practices and enforcement history to ensure alignment with EPA guidelines.

In a letter sent to the EPA, the representatives cite the Texas Commission’s “history of waiving its own rules and regulations to favor oil and gas companies over health and environmental protection standards.” Castro and Doggett refer to the case of Schuyler Wight, a fourth-generation rancher in Midland, Texas. Over one hundred abandoned wells are present on his 20,000-acre ranch, which were later repurposed as water wells, or “P-13 wells”, and had ownership rights transferred to Wight’s predecessors. Wight claims that many of these wells are leaking contaminated water, poisoning his cattle and nearby wildlife. Further, Wight states that the Texas Railroad Commission has denied responsibility for the contamination, arguing that the paper trail of ownership over the wells precedes the documents in the TRRC’s database. The P-13 wells on Wight’s ranch account for only 5% of the state’s total P-13 well count, meaning it would be fair to assume this case would not be an isolated incident.

Challenges in Orphaned Well Plugging

Further, the Commission has failed to create an effective solution to orphaned well-plugging. Currently, the Commission plans to use federal money to plug around 7,000 orphaned wells, representing less than 5% of the total number of unplugged inactive wells in the state of Texas. In West Texas, a noxious body of water known as “Lake Boehmer” has been growing since 2003 as a result of unplugged orphan wells. The sixty-acre hydrogen sulfide lake just north of Fort Stockton seems to be nobody’s problem, as the Commission states the lake is not their problem because it is considered a water well by their standards. Clay Woodul, the TRRC Assistant Director for Oil and Gas Field Operations, stated on record that the “Lake” has “never been an oil and gas well” and will “never be an oil and gas well.” The well chiefly responsible for the leakage, Sloan Blair #1, is documented as a well once drilled for oil and gas but became “orphaned” once it failed to produce. The debate continues today regarding whether a converted dry well should be considered as an oil and gas well, and whether the Commission has a duty to resolve issues with such wells.

EPA Evaluation and Regulatory Balance

The EPA’s evaluation focuses on balancing state autonomy with federal oversight, emphasizing the need for rigorous scrutiny to safeguard environmental standards and ensure equitable treatment. To secure primacy, the Texas Railroad Commission must address concerns raised by stakeholders. This involves enhancing enforcement mechanisms, fostering transparency, reprioritizing dry-well plugging for inadequately plugged wells, and assisting communities previously affected by the Commission’s deferment of responsibility. The Texas Railroad Commission’s pursuit of carbon sequestration primacy presents an opportunity to streamline permitting processes and support innovation in carbon capture technologies. However, the Commission must demonstrate its commitment to meeting EPA standards and addressing community concerns promptly. Texas has the capacity to be a leading force in carbon capture. In displaying a commitment to align itself with the goals of the EPA, the Commission can ensure that Texans have an early hand in shaping carbon capture technologies, securing a competitive advantage in the emerging field.

Written by Ilan Gelman, Law Clerk at KMD Law.