Fifty years ago, oil and gas drilling exploration often included the use of unlined pits which were built to hold produced water, drilling fluids, chlorides, hydrocarbons, and heavy metals. Once the drilling was completed, it was not unusual for the oil company to simply cover up the pit. When a new company leased the land, it might reuse the pit or dig a new one in another location. Today, oil companies usually dispose of their produced water in salt water injection wells which re-inject the water into deep formations below the surface at the drill site. Use of salt water injection wells has led to recent claims that such activities can lead to seismic activities (earthquakes).
Pits, injection wells, as well as leaking pipes, tanks and other infrastructure sometimes lead to claims by landowners that oil and gas operators, often many decades ago, caused their property to become polluted and contaminated with hydrocarbons, produced water, and other materials used in the exploration and production of oil and gas. These suits typically name every operator who ever worked at the site as defendants, regardless of when those operations took place.
Over the past few years, several key technical, economic, and energy policy developments have also spurred increased use of hydraulic fracturing for oil and gas extraction over a wider diversity of geographic regions and geologic formations. With the expansion of hydraulic fracturing, there have been increasing concerns voiced by the public about potential impacts on drinking water resources, public health, and the environment.
Can You Seek the Recovery of Your Cleanup Costs?
If the contamination was caused by a previous oil and gas operator, the current owner can file suit to seek recovery of the cost spent to remediate the property, but you will need the help of an experienced environmental trial attorney. I represent both plaintiffs and defendants throughout the United States in lawsuits which seek the recovery of costs and damages incurred in cleaning up properties as a result of oil and gas development. The typical causes of actions asserted in most of these cases arise under statutory or common law. Statutory law contains a complex set of federal, state, and local laws that address exploration and development.
Federal Statutes and Regulations
Under federal law, the main statutes include the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA), which regulates the underground injection of fluids from oil and gas activities; the Clean Water Act (CWA), which regulates surface discharges of water associated with oil and gas drilling and production; and the Clean Air Act (CAA), which limits air emissions from engines, gas processing equipment, and other sources associated with drilling and production.
State Statutes and Regulations
State laws also govern these claims. For instance, Section 85.321 of the Texas Natural Resources Code permits a mineral or royalty interest owner who is damaged by a violation of a Railroad Commission rule or order, to file suit against the offending operator for damages. Section 91.101 of the Texas Natural Resources Code also gives the RRC broad powers “to prevent pollution of surface water or subsurface water in the state” by regulating the following:
- The drilling of oil and gas wells
- The production of oil and gas
- The operation, abandonment, and proper plugging of wells
- The discharge, storage, handling, transportation, reclamation, or disposal of oil and gas waste associated with any operation or activity regulated in the previous three categories.
The RRC regulates such activities primarily through various “statewide rules.” For instance, Statewide Rule 8 states that one of its greatest responsibilities is the protection of fresh water resources. Water protection is a major consideration in many of the RRC’s statewide rules and is the sole purpose of Statewide Rule 8. Rule 8(b) states that “no person conducting activities subject to regulation by the commission may cause or allow pollution of surface or subsurface water in the state.” Rule 8(d) governs pollution control for disposal pits. Statewide Rule 13 regulates casing, cementing, drilling, and completion requirements to ensure that “all usable-quality water zones be isolated and sealed off to effectively prevent contamination or harm, and all potentially productive zones be isolated and sealed off to prevent vertical migration of fluids and gases behind the casing.”
Under the federal underground injection control regulations, wells used in oil and gas operations are classified as Class II injection wells. The RRC asserts its jurisdiction over Class II injection wells through Statewide Rules 9 and 46. Statewide Rule 9 regulates “disposal wells” that inject salt water and other oil and gas wastes into zones not productive of oil, gas, or geothermal resources. Statewide Rule 46, on the other hand, “regulates ‘fluid injection wells’ that inject water (salt or fresh), steam, gas, or other energy sources into zones that are productive of oil and gas…Rule 46 wells are often used for pressure maintenance, secondary and tertiary recovery, or cycling.” The RRC does not currently regulate hydraulic fracturing largely because the federal regulations for UIC do not include hydraulic fracturing within its definition of Class II underground injection. However, if the federal law changes in this area in the future, Texas would likely regulate hydraulic fracturing operations through Statewide Rule 46.
Local regulations also come into play. For instance, in Texas the RRC neither has jurisdiction over nor exercises its regulatory authority over private or public roads or road use. Further, the RRC’s permits for oil and gas exploration, production, and waste disposal do not limit the independent authority of municipalities, counties, or other state agencies with respect to road use. The RRC also has no statutory authority over noise–or nuisance-related issues; such issues are governed by local ordinances. Although the RRC does not have regulatory authority over odors or air contaminants, cities may enact ordinances with respect to such nuisances for wells located within city limits.
Due to the increase in oil and gas activity, several cities throughout the country have passed natural gas well ordinances to regulate issues such as distance requirements, sound level, water usage, and permitting processes. Setback distances (the minimum length between a dwelling and a gas well that is required by a city) and limits on noise levels that may be generated in both daytime and nighttime operations are the most common municipal regulation. However, these requirements may vary from city to city. For example, the City of Southlake ordinance provides that a well must be at least 1,000 feet from any habitable structure, or from the property line of any occupied public or private school or hospital, whereas the City of Fort Worth ordinance only requires that the well be 600 feet away from such structures.
We Understand the Law
Legal actions related to oilfield contamination fall under a highly specialized area of the law. Michael Goldman has experience with these kinds of cases and will quickly get to the heart of the matter for you. Do you have questions? You can get our FREE ebook, Environmental Litigation: What Every Attorney and Environmental Professional Needs to Know, just by providing your name and email address. We promise your information won’t be shared with third persons. And if you’d like to speak with me about your case, I welcome your phone call at 972-850-8490. I look forward to speaking with you.