High, Dry, and Hot Under the Collar
Danna Harper points out the gas well beside her house that turned her into an impassioned activist.
Gas drillers may have hit
a mother lode of angry citizenry.
By JEFF PRINCE
Danna Harper was doing laundry on Oct. 8 when her washing machine started making an unusual noise. Raising the washer lid, she was startled to find her clothes covered in muck. The water pump, overwhelmed with sand, had burned out. She called a water well technician, who figured her water table must have dropped. He prescribed a new pump and a deeper well. Harper had bought the 17-year-old house in south Parker County three months earlier and had experienced no problems. The previous owner assured her that the water well was good.
Harper didn’t believe it was coincidental that less than 400 feet away a gas company had been pumping out tons and tons of underground water to fill a reservoir. Gas drillers in the lucrative Barnett Shale formation, the hottest “strike” North Texas has seen in years, use large pools of water for “frac” jobs, shooting high-pressured water into the ground to fracture rock formations and release the natural gas contained inside. The drilling often requires about 5 million gallons of water, used over a matter of days, and so they fill holding tanks with water in advance.
“My well dried up when they started pumping all this water out and into this tank they had dug,” Harper said.
The following weeks brought one frustration after another. Ten days without water. A $6,500 bill to drill a new well and install a new pump. She had no proof that Chief Oil and Gas’ use of water had created her well problems, but she appealed to the company to investigate. Harper said a gas company official treated her brusquely on the phone, telling her, she recalled, that “people come out of the woodwork trying to get oil companies to pay for things.”
Chief Oil and Gas spokeswoman Kristi Gittins said the company isn’t responsible for Harper’s problems. “It’s not even possible,” she said. “Where Chief drills or any other operator drills is so much further down than a water well.”
Like many people who live in rural areas in Tarrant and surrounding counties, Harper relied on a well for water and tapped into the clean-tasting Paluxy aquifer. Most gas companies drill down to the deeper Trinity aquifer. The Trinity and Paluxy are separated by hundreds of feet in Fort Worth, but in nearby Parker County the aquifers are relatively close to the surface and closer to each other. For instance, in southwest Fort Worth near Everman, the Paluxy ranges from 600 to 900 feet deep, and the Trinity is 1,200 to 1,800 feet deep. Underneath Harper’s house, however, the Paluxy is at about 225 feet, with the Trinity only about 100 feet farther down.
Harper is convinced that Chief’s water pumping from the Trinity somehow affected her water availability. Chief Oil’s geologists and engineers aren’t swayed. “Everyone who has looked at this situation is comfortable that Chief had no part in her well running dry,” Gittins said.
Engineers are familiar with “draw down,” in which heavy use of water at one well can create problems with a neighboring well. But that typically occurs when both wells are tapped into the same aquifer, said Kitty-Sue Schlink, executive director of Texas Land & Mineral Owners Association. Her group represents property owners and mineral owners and tries to find common ground between them. She talked with several engineers and ranchers, but none had heard of problems occurring when adjacent wells were in different aquifers. “As far as I know, the Paluxy and the Trinity have no vertical connectivity,” she said.
Even if Harper could prove that Chief caused her problems, she would have little recourse. The state’s “rule of capture” law allows people to pump out all the minerals they desire, regardless of how it affects a neighbor’s output. “Everybody said she needs to get an engineer out there to find out what happened, and even then there is no recourse,” Schlink said.
Harper decided against challenging Chief in court. She couldn’t match attorney fees with a large oil company, much less pay $1,000 for an engineer’s study. So she did what is becoming common in these parts: She added her voice to a growing number of very public grumblers. Across North Texas, people are slowly banding together against gas drillers. They are writing and calling elected officials, organizing protests, and seeking legislative changes. One of the most vocal local groups is Fort Worth Citizens Against Neighborhood Drilling Ordinance (FWCanDo), led by Eastsider Don Young.
Young’s group is seeking to tighten the city’s drilling ordinance and is currently creating a video about gas drilling’s impacts. The video will be released without copyright restrictions so that anybody is welcome to copy it, pass it along, or use it any way they wish, he said. “It’s in the editing process right now and will be available in mid-January.”
Fort Worth City Council’s embrace of the oil and gas industry prompted FWCanDo’s 50 or so members to demand that a city ordinance restricting wells from being drilled closer than 300 feet from homes be strengthened tenfold, moving wells at least 3,000 feet away from residences. The group has also accused the mayor of being too friendly with oil and gas executives and characterized a city task force as being biased in favor of drillers.
Even invigorated activists such as Young and Harper realize that change won’t come easily. Gas drilling is bringing in big money, not only for drilling companies and mineral rights owners, but also for school districts, cities, and counties. Long-established laws regarding drilling leave little recourse for North Texas property owners complaining about quality-of-life issues. Local water agencies are preoccupied with protecting surface water and ensuring that environmental spills don’t affect lakes and other surface sources. These same agencies are almost clueless about drilling’s effect on underground reservoirs that provide rural homeowners with water, a phenomenon examined earlier this year by Fort Worth Weekly (“ ’Till Your Wells Run Dry,” June 29, 2005).
One way to protect water supplies is to establish a groundwater conservation district. Groundwater provides more than half the water used in Texas, and groundwater protection districts were first established about 50 years ago, when farmers began fighting to protect their water sources. Currently, these districts are established in about half of the state’s 254 counties, providing them more regulatory power. But the closest groundwater district to the Metroplex is the Middle Trinity Groundwater Conservation District, established by voters in 2002 in Erath and Comanche counties.
Harper said the natural gas boom has created a new need for oversight. Groundwater conservation districts have never been established in the 20 counties that comprise the Barnett Shale field, currently the most prolific onshore gas play in the country. Residents can push for a countywide election to establish one of these districts, and Harper is up for the challenge. Even if she succeeds, though, she might fail — the oil and gas industry has whipped the system. The Texas water code, which gives authority to groundwater districts, allows water wells used solely for support of gas and oil drilling to remain exempt from the permitting process, effectively stripping the districts of power to regulate those wells.
Still, Harper soldiers on. The divorced nurse and horse lover said she is surprised to find herself in an activist’s role, seeking to tighten regulations over Big Oil. In recent weeks she has talked to numerous state legislators, county officials, water agencies, and the Texas Railroad Commission — the agency that oversees gas drilling. She is urging legislators to support a tightened rule of capture bill in the 2007 legislative session.
She also wrote a stinging letter telling Chief officials that they had unleashed a tiger. “I want everyone in Parker County and surrounding counties to know how important this is, to protect themselves from companies like yours that do not care if [residents] have water or not, and that care more about money than people,” she wrote on Dec. 2. “It is now my goal to educate and inform every landowner in Parker and surrounding counties and start a groundwater conservation district ... so that this will not happen to other people.”
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