Energy and Environment Reporting for Texas

Testing the Water Before You Bore: Baseline Tests Give Clues about Contamination

Oil well in Frio County

Dave Fehling / StateImpact

Oil well in Frio County

Colorado now has what the drilling industry there calls “the most rigorous statewide mandatory groundwater sampling and monitoring rules in the United States.” Wyoming is considering similar regulations to make oil and gas well drillers test the groundwater on nearby property before they begin to drill.

Texas has over 800 rigs at work, far more than any other state, but has no such requirements for what’s called baseline water testing.

“I think it is a good idea to do baseline studies instead of figuring out ways to blame something or someone for something they might do. It might be better to figure what we have in our own backyard already,” said Don Van Nieuwenhuise, a former oil company geologist and now Director of Petroleum Geosience at the University of Houston.

Dangerous Contaminant or Healthy Mineral?

Baseline testing goes to the heart of what is often the key issue in lawsuits that allege drilling in Texas is polluting groundwater. Having the test results could help determine if chemicals found in groundwater were already there or came from drilling operations.

Don Van Nieuwenhuise at the University of Houston

Dave Fehling / StateImpact

Don Van Nieuwenhuise at the University of Houston

“It makes a lot of sense,” said Windle Turley, a Dallas attorney who has filed but not won any groundwater contamination cases involving fracking.

One of his cases that was later dismissed amid questions over the level of chemicals in the water involved a family’s property in Denton County.

In Harris v. Devon Energy Production Company, it was alleged that drilling nearby for natural gas had contaminated a family’s well water with “high levels” of metals including arsenic, barium and lead but also with lithium, magnesium and manganese; those also happen to be three chemicals found in Texas mineral water sold in fitness and nutrition stores.

Was there confusion as to what to list as “contaminants”?

“Yes, that all had to be sorted out, but we were bringing our lawsuits based on chemicals that should not be there ever,” said Turley in an interview with StateImpact Texas.

Turley said the suit was dropped when subsequent water tests showed that the “contaminants” had dropped to safe levels, most likely because they had migrated in the aquifer away from the family’s water well as drilling activity in the area slowed.

Turley himself owns a ranch in Oklahoma where drilling is happening on his property and where, like Texas, there’s no mandatory requirement for operators to do pre-drilling water tests. So Turley said he did it himself.

“When I saw this wave of drilling approaching, I tested all of our wells and thereby documented the clean water that we have. If things turn up troublesome, it’ll be easier to spot the cause,” Turley said.

No Tests Required in Texas

Sophisticated water tests can cost about $2,500 per well, and under the new Colorado rule, it’s up to the drilling operator to have the tests done.

The Texas Oil & Gas Association said through a spokesperson that it could not provide its position on baseline testing but pointed out that rules passed in 2011 by the Texas legislature require drillers to get a “groundwater protection recommendation letter“.

That rule doesn’t require water tests but, as explained in an email to StateImpact Texas from the Railroad Commission of Texas spokesperson, Ramona Nye: “To protect groundwater, our rules do require that the base of usable quality water be determined for each well … the Commission’s well construction drilling and completion rules require a well to have cemented surface casing set to the base of usable quality water.”


About StateImpact

StateImpact seeks to inform and engage local communities with broadcast and online news focused on how state government decisions affect your lives.
Learn More »