As company fracks, questions swirl around water usage

PRESIDIO COUNTY — Local water officials want to know more about an Australian company that says it’s fracking in Presidio County — and in particular, whether the company is following county rules on water usage.

In a September 4 news release, Helios Energy announced it had injected 64,000 barrels of “completion fluid” — which often includes water — into a fracked well in northwest Presidio County, The Big Bend Sentinel previously reported. And a “capital raising presentation” from December 2018 states the company has “access to ample supplies of fresh water provided by local water wells drilled into shallow water aquifers” as part of what it calls the “Presidio Oil Project.”

Details like these have raised concerns for the (mostly) volunteer officials at the Presidio County Underground Water Conservation District (PCUWCD), who say Helios should make monthly reports with the district if they are using local water for fracking.

These concerns have prompted the officials to send the company a list of questions and discuss Helios in at least two public meetings. By press time, they haven’t received answers.

What happens next — especially if Helios drags its feet on responding to officials — is unclear. The PCUWCD is effectively an “arm of the county,” in that the “county appoints them and funds them,” Presidio County Attorney Rod Ponton said in an interview Wednesday. But details on Helios’ water usage are still to be determined, at least for now.

Some background on water rules as they relate to fracking: The Texas Railroad Commission, which gives permits for oil and gas wells in Texas, has “no statutory authority” to regulate water “withdrawal or use” for oil and gas projects, the agency states on its website. And the Texas Water Code does not require oil and gas companies to get permits for water wells used “solely to supply water for a rig that is actively engaged in drilling or exploration operations for an oil or gas.”

The Presidio County Underground Water Conservation District offers this exemption but requires that these exempt water users to make monthly reports about the “total amount of water being withdrawn” and other details, district rules state.

Like many county residents, these officials have been left wondering about the local fracking operation. Trey Gerfers, chairman of the PCUWCD and board president of the Big Bend Conservation Alliance, said he first learned about the operation when someone asked him about it at the Water Symposium of the Big Bend Conservation Alliance in July.

Gerfers told The Big Bend Sentinel that he and other regulators just want to know more about the company that is reportedly operating in Presidio County — and especially its water usage.

“Whether or not you agree with fracking or ranching or hydroponic agriculture — that’s really immaterial,” he said. “Our task involves tracking and monitoring the amounts of water that are being used. Also, is there any disposal happening that could endanger our groundwater?”

Over the past several weeks, Helios has not responded to multiple requests for comment from The Big Bend Sentinel. For a time, company executives were in Australia and unavailable for comment, a Helios representative said.

The Big Bend Sentinel is still working to determine more details about water sources Helios may be using for its fracking operation — including sources outside of Presidio County which might not be covered by Presidio County disclosure rules. Summer Webb, mayor of nearby Valentine, said the town was not supplying Helios with water. And Janet Adams, general manager of the Jeff Davis County Underground Water Conservation District, said Helios was not using Jeff Davis County water in general — though she also said water reporting requirements for oil and gas companies in Jeff Davis County are more of a courtesy than a rule.

In an email from September 17 — sent to a representative for Helios and reviewed by The Big Bend Sentinel — PCUWCD asked Helios for more details, including how many water wells the company is using and where they are.

“This information will help to ensure that Helios is in compliance with the Texas Water Code,” the email states. “Thank you very much for your assistance in helping us to meet our obligations under the law.”