Texas Railroad Commissioner Ryan Sitton spoke to a crowd of over one hundred Tarrant County residents on April 20 to address the permit application process like the one from Bluestone Energy to build a wastewater injection well near Lake Arlington, a major drinking water source for a half million area residents. Commissioner Sitton entertained questions from the audience, but only those questions that fit within the ground rules set by Rep. Nicole Collier (District 95, State House) at whose invitation Sitton appeared.
Specific questions with regard to Bluestone's application at Lake Arlington were disallowed, with the commissioner's attorney standing nearby to keep the commissioner on a short leash, purportedly because he is not allowed to speak of specific cases while they await the hearing.
Some key concerns of residents
With ground rules set, Mr. Sitton opened with a brief summary of his intent, saying that he was there to "educate" the audience about what the injection well is, how it is built, how safe they are, and how tough the Railroad Commission is in dealing with applications. He then turned to the audience to ask their preliminary questions.
Many residents spoke of seismic activity in the area. One woman said that she had lived in Arlington until fracking had caused damage to her home, at which time she moved to Grapevine, only now to hear that Grapevine's water supply would be threatened by the proposed wastewater well at Lake Arlington.
Sitton replied to these concerns by citing a recent incident in the area in which the Commission determined the distance from the drilling site was too far for the seismic activity to have been caused by it. At other times, he said, the Commission has gone on record saying that seismic activity, in specific cases, has been caused by injection wells.
Testing and reporting
Others spoke of the testing procedures and frequency of tests during the construction and later operation of the well. Sitton said that the Commission was able to witness tests about 60% of the time. At other times, they could only rely on getting test results from testing firms paid by the drilling company, in this case, Bluestone.
Sitton referred, many times, to the high risks drillers face if they fail their tests or misrepresent their tests, saying they would lose their wells and their business, in many cases. One resident stated, "Then they will just go out and start another company and do it again." Mr. Sitton did not respond.
Nothing was mentioned about the high risks citizens face by a well's failure; business loss was the only risk mentioned by Mr. Sitton.
There were several concerns related to the toxicity of the "water." Sitton was called out by one resident for referring to the fluid as "just water." Sitton replied, mildly chastising the woman for asking the question with an antagonistic intent. Then, he answered the question by saying that the liquid is 99% water.
Nothing was said about the other 1%. When toxicity is measured in terms of parts per million (ppm), one percent is not a minor concern for residents.
Alternative methods of disposal
Throughout the evening Sitton spoke of the high costs of alternative methods for disposing of the water, such as purifying it and putting it back into the system. He did not get specific about those costs, appealing primarily to the cost increases relative to filling up their gas tanks on their vehicles.
Citizens' interests and the interests of oil and gas industry
Toward the end of the meeting a woman from the bleacher seats asked Sitton, Why does the Commission not protect the interests of citizens and their communities as opposed to protecting the interests of the drilling companies? It was the obvious question to ask, and it was obvious that Sitton could not answer it, copping out by saying it was not within his purview to deal with all matters of local citizens. His concern, he said, is to make sure that applicants satisfy the safety requirements of the Commission.
He also said, at one particular moment of tension, that he was elected by the people, just as the representatives and senators are, implying that citizens, in general, support his position, or else they would not have elected him.
The forum ended after two hours with residents pocketing their key questions, many frustrated by Sitton's obfuscation, and at least some by his condescension and his own antagonism.
(Readers can check back in a few days to see an analysis of who funded Sitton's election and the election of the other Railroad Commissioners. It is interesting and will help fill in some of the blanks as to why many of the questions are not being answered.)