Railroad Commission rejects ranchers’ appeal to reconsider Hilcorp enhanced oil recovery project

The Railroad Commission of Texas, the state’s oil and gas regulator, rejected on Tuesday an appeal from a Gulf Coast water conservation district to block several injection wells, which local cattle ranchers fear will pollute their groundwater supply.

For years, the Texana Groundwater District has been fighting Houston-based Hilcorp Energy over an enhanced oil recovery project in Jackson County that will recover 60 million barrels of oil from an 80-year-old oilfield. Hilcorp is injecting produced water and carbon dioxide underground to help force oil to the surface. Locals say unplugged and poorly plugged wells riddle the oilfield, where they have found leaks and spills of chemicals in years past. The ranchers and farmers in the area wanted the commission to require groundwater monitoring as a condition of the project, but the commission opted to let Hilcorp run its own groundwater monitoring program.

Ranchers like Johnny Dugger, who relies on a well to bring water to hundreds of cattle on his land, say their concerns have been sidelined by a regulatory agency that consistently favors industry interests. Dugger and others have said they support the project, but on the condition that the groundwater be independently monitored.

The Railroad Commissioners, all of whom accept hundreds of thousands of campaign donations from the oil and gas industry, have said those donations do not affect their impartiality.

Hilcorp’s project is using carbon dioxide from NRG Energy’s $1 billion carbon capture plant in Fort Bend County, south of Houston. The Petra Nova carbon capture plant is the largest in the world and the first operational plant in the U.S. The plant has been running since late last year, but in April NRG hosted a grand opening, with Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and Secretary of Energy Rick Perry, to celebrate the plant’s completion.

In mid March, the groundwater district filed a motion to have the commission reconsider its decision to not impose extra groundwater monitoring requirements. On Tuesday, the commission rejected the motion and said it would not revisit the issue.