Texas drilling regulator to form Eagle Ford task force

The Texas Railroad Commission is creating a task force in the Eagle Ford shale region of South Texas to ensure the state is able to keep up with the oil and gas development boom underway there.

In an interview with FuelFix, Texas Railroad Commissioner David Porter said the effort is being kicked off to avoid problems the state’s main drilling regulator faced when gas drilling took off in the Barnett Shale in North Texas in the middle of the last decade.

The perfection of two drilling techniques -– hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling –- has allowed drillers to economically tap into prolific shale formations in the Dallas-Ft. Worth area and many other parts of the country.

The speed of development around Dallas and Ft. Worth led to backlash against drilling in some communities, Porter said.

“There’s a perception problem that no one was regulating the oil and gas industry,” Porter said. “And it’s still out there, that the oil companies are doing whatever they want.”

Porter said he’s bullish on the Eagle Ford, believing it has the potential to be the biggest single economic driver in South Texas’ history.

The task force will have about a dozen members from large and small producers, oil field services firms, local elected officials, landowners and environmental groups.

“We want to make sure the lines of communication are clear” in the Eagle Ford, Porter said.

But even if there’s good communication, the Commission may still fall far short of having the staff it hopes to have because of  deep cuts the Legislature is making this session.

During the last legislative session the Commission was funded for about 704 full-time equivalent positions -– a level that wasn’t considered full staffing.

Right now the number of employees is closer to 625, down due to 5 percent and 2.5 percent budget reductions that state leaders had asked all agencies to make in the past year.

The Commission hopes for 40 to 50 positions more than the 704 that once were funded, but Porter isn’t optimistic.

A staffing shortage could lead to a delay in permitting in the Eagle Ford, he said. Already some functions have slowed down, including work on enforcement actions, due to worker shortages.

Traditionally when staffing becomes short, the Commission moves workers from other divisions to the permitting functions, to keep the flow of new wells up to speed.

“That’s been the highest priority within the Commission, to keep everything moving economically,” Porter said.

The emphasis on keeping the industry humming might be seen as a potential conflict for an agency also charged with protecting Texan’s safety when it comes to drilling operations. This includes ensuring underground aquifers are safe from drilling and injection wells used to dispose of water from the drilling are operated properly.

“It’s a fine line we walk at the Railroad Commission, between protecting public health and safety and promoting the industry,” Porter said.

The dual focus is actually a strength, he said, because it helps the commission walk that middle ground and make difficult decisions.

The water issues in the Eagle Ford will be even more sensitive than in the Barnett Shale, Porter said. Not only is the area more arid, but the aquifers are deeper than in North Texas, meaning the well casing to protect the drinking water has to be run even deeper.