New rules for hydraulic fracturing and basic well construction in the energy stronghold of Texas seem poised for adoption early next year.
Officials at the Texas Railroad Commission, which oversees oil and gas production, released a revised version of the technical rules this week after months of haggling with industry and environmentalists.
The rules aim to fortify wells against spills, leaks and blowouts that can foul water and land. Accidents like that fuel heavy criticism from those who say oil and gas development -- specifically the fast pace of shale development -- is putting health and the environment at risk.
Scott Anderson, a senior policy adviser for the Environmental Defense Fund, called the rules a crucial overhaul of well construction standards.
"These rules are an important first line of defense to make sure that the environment is not polluted by wells that fail to meet proper standards," he said.
The rules would strengthen oversight of well casing, the pipe that lines a well, along with cement jobs, the layer of leak defense that wraps around the casing. Operators would have to pressure-test casing before use and mix cement with lower volumes of water to ensure a stronger bond.
Other provisions lay out requirements for levels of cement, depending on the well, and requirements for well control systems like blowout preventers and drilling mud.
For wells where hydraulic fracturing may be used to enhance production, especially in the massive swaths of shale present in Texas, the Railroad Commission has a few more rules.
When workers are shooting the millions of gallons of chemical-laced water and sand underground, for example, the operator must monitor pressure and stop all work if the readings tick above a specified safety zone. After that, operations cannot restart until a state official approves a remediation plan.
The casing would have to be pressure-tested at levels higher than the maximum intensity planned for well stimulation. And any well where fracking could affect protected water would be subject to stricter construction standards.
When the rules were first proposed earlier this year, industry balked at many of the provisions as excessive and burdensome, but following some amendments included in the most recent version of the rules, operators have not expressed much resistance.
"We're supportive of them moving forward right now, as long as they're feasible and they can implement them," the Texas Oil and Gas Association's Debbra Hastings told The Texas Tribune.
But Anderson cautioned that industry and regulators should understand that rules must always be evolving in order to be effective.
"Even though this is the biggest overhaul in decades," he said, "certainly the commission will need to turn its attention to this subject again in the future. The work is never done."
The commission is expected to approve the changes and adopt them in the first three months of 2013.