Oil and gas commission discussed at Legislative hearing in Sidney

Experts and public offer testimony to lawmakers

 

Several state senators were in Sidney on Tuesday for a Natural Resources Committee interim hearing.

The hearing was part of two studies prompted by Legislative resolutions passed last session.

A resolution introduced by Sen. Ken Haar seeks to examine a process for shuttering the Sidney-based Nebraska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission and transferring its duties to other agencies. A separate resolution, introduced by Sen. John Stinner, calls for a study into the oil and gas commission’s authority over wastewater wells.

Both resolutions were at least partially spurred on, the lawmakers said, by the oil and gas commission’s approval of a commercial wastewater well in Sioux County in April.

The hearing, which was scheduled to conclude at 1 p.m., ran about an hour late as senators listened to testimony from a handful of experts and dozens of members of the public.

The two lawmakers who had introduced the resolutions spoke briefly at the start of the meeting.

“Water is Nebraska’s gold,” Haar said. “It’s the lifeblood of our most important industry – agriculture.”

He said the wastewater well approved by the oil and gas commission will be used to dispose of fracking fluid from other states despite a recent poll indicating a majority of Nebraskans are opposed to that.

“And the public is rightly concerned,” he said. “We’re talking about the disposal of this wastewater over the life of the earth.”

Haar said he questions the performance of the commission.

“I introduced LR 247 because I think the oil and gas commission has dropped the ball,” he said.

Stinner said his concerns were prompted by the Sioux County wastewater well, but have since expanded.

“The focus of this hearing should be on commercial wastewater disposal wells,” he said. “My understanding is the state has four. My hope is this is the start of a process – to accumulate data and information to make informed decisions.”


Matt Joeckel, the state geologist, addressed concerns regarding human-caused earthquakes near wastewater injection sites.

“Merely because you’re injecting water into the ground with some chemical component means in no way you will automatically have induced seismicity,” he said.

Induced seismicity in cases of injection wells depends on a special set of circumstances, he explained. And even then, increased seismic activity near fracking sites is only a correlation, Joeckel said.

“We’re presuming extra earthquakes due to human activity,” he said.

Mike Nickolaus, special projects director at the Groundwater Protection Council – a nonprofit whose members consist of state ground water regulatory agencies – testified the oil and gas commissions’ underground injection control program meets or exceeds federal regulations.


“Public concern is not something that should be taken lightly,” he said, “However, investing authority in a body like the [Nebraska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission], that understands oil fields and has staff to regulate it, is the best way to ensure the public is well served.”

The oil and gas commission’s director, Bill Sydow, attended the hearing to answer senators’ questions.

Stinner began by asking about the wastewater well that was approved in April.

“Our permitting process is rigorous,” Sydow responded.

Multiple samples of the fluids to be injected into the well were chemically analyzed he said, and a baseline of the quality of drinking water near the well was established.

“Is the baseline public knowledge?” Stinner asked.

Sydow said yes, as a public agency, its records are free to be inspected.

Haar characterized an oil and gas commission public hearing in March regarding the Sioux County well as “kind of a nightmare,” and asked Sydow if any changes had been subsequently implemented.

The director said he disagreed.

“It was very well organized,” Sydow said, adding that anyone who wished to make a comment was accommodated.

Following the expert testimony at the legislative hearing, the public was invited to address the committee. While comments were supposed to be kept to three minutes, many exceeded the limit.

Numerous landowners, industry engineers and residents challenged the resolutions and asked the lawmakers to keep the oil and gas commission as it is.

As a metaphor, Phil Kriz, a petroleum engineer, asked if a new landfill was constructed and complaints raised, would the senators attempt to eliminate the Department of Environmental Quality.

“This system works,” he said of the oil and gas commission. “It doesn’t need to be scrapped.”

Others, however, asked for reform.

Jane Kleeb, of Bold Nebraska, an environmental advocacy group, called for a hearing where experts on both sides of the issue were invited to offer testimony.

She also said it’s a contradiction that the oil and gas commission promotes the industry with one hand and regulates it with the other.

At the conclusion of the public comments, Sen. Ken Schilz, chairman of the natural resources committee, said there will be one more hearing, to be held late in the year, on the issues.

 

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