Water regulators greenlight water for fracking operation

PRESIDIO COUNTY — County water officials last week gave Helios, an Australian company that’s been fracking in northwest Presidio County, an operating permit to use local water in its fracking work.

Helios paid a $100 permit fee and will pay $10 per acre/foot for water it uses. While the Railroad Commission of Texas regulates oil and gas operations in Texas, fracked wells (including Helios’) typically use water to “hydraulically fracture” the wells. That gives local water officials like those at the Presidio County Underground Water Conservation District authority to gather data on the water usage of such operations, just as with other large and water-dependent commercial activities like farming.

PCUWCD’s approval of Helios’ permit shouldn’t be taken as carte blanche support for fracking in the region. In order to deny industrial permits, regulators would need scientific data showing that Helios is negatively affecting county water supplies.

Neighbors are also entitled to contest fracking company water permits if they can show that fracking (or any other water-using activity) is affecting their own water well levels. But no concerned neighbors turned up at the water district’s meeting last Thursday, where water officials unanimously approved the Helios permit after a brief discussion.

In a statement to The Big Bend Sentinel this week, Trey Gerfers, chairman of PCUWCD, said he was very pleased with the hearing, which he said showed that both Helios and his district were working in good faith to comply with county water rules.

“This is how groundwater districts are supposed to interact with the major water users,” Gerfers said. “You get a process in place, and then applicants can come.”

Helios started fracking operations in Presidio County in April 2017, the company states in its application. From then through last August, the company estimates it used around 3.26 million gallons of water. Going forward, it also estimates it will withdraw around 50 gallons per minute for a roughly three-month period.

The company asked for a three-year permit, noting in its application that “ongoing drilling/development operations are planned.” But at last week’s hearing, Helios agreed to instead apply for just one year at the request of PCUWCD, which approves or renews water-use permits on a yearly basis. PCUWCD said it would be happy to renew the company’s permits in 2021 if there are no new negative impacts.

The company is fracking on land owned by Rebecca Berthold, who lives in Atlanta, Georgia, according to the permit. Reached for comment on Monday, Berthold declined to comment.

Julian Ayala, a landman for the company, was present for the meeting last Thursday. Water officials explained that — since this was the company’s first permit in the county, rather than a renewal — the company would need to attend an in-person hearing, just like any other new user.

During discussion on the permit, Trey Gerfers, the district chairman, had a few questions for Ayala — including what Helios planned to do with the “produced” water that’s left over after fracking operations. “Is it just going to sit in ponds, or are y’all going to truck it out?” he asked.

“It depends,” Ayala responded. The company typically put produced water into lined pits, he said. From his experience, the water usually evaporated within one year — the deadline set by the Railroad Commission of Texas on wastewater disposal pits. But if not, he said the company would likely have vacuum trucks “come and suck it out and properly dispose of it.”

Gerfers also asked about Helios’ plans for expansion, which are referenced in the application and in other public statements from the company. “When do you think you’ll be scaling up?” he asked.

“Within the year of this permit, we’ll probably drill two more [oil] wells,” Ayala replied. But he said it was hard to say, noting that the operation is “still in its infancy stage” and that Helios would need to “re-circle the wagons” after proving to investors that its local frack could be feasible and profitable.

“If our engineering team figures out the right formula to unlock the geology, then that’s the scale up,” he said. “It’s hard to answer your question. It’s a wait-and-see.”

But if Helios’ operations do pan out, the water district could see an “explosion of permits,” Ayala added. Gerfers asked the company to keep a “channel open” with the water district, and Ayala said he would.

The meeting was amicable, with multiple water officials thanking the oil company for being “forthcoming” in response to requests for information. Gerfers likewise said he was “very impressed” with the cleanliness of Helios’ Presidio County operations and its disposal ponds, which water officials visited last year.

Helios and PCUWCD got off to a rocky start. While the company applied for permits to operate its oil wells, it was not apparently aware of the reporting requirements on local water usage. Water officials started reaching out to the company last September, after The Big Bend Sentinel first reported on these fracking activities. The company said that month in a news release that it had injected around 64,000 barrels of “completion fluid,” which often includes water, into a well it calls “Presidio 141#2” in far northwest Presidio County.

Water officials tried for months to get the company in compliance, with little progress. Then, at a meeting in November, the district voted unanimously to have its lawyer, Mike Gershon, send the company a violation notice — a step PCUWCD had never before taken. But those efforts were called off at the last minute after Helios contacted both water regulators and The Big Bend Sentinel to say it was working on complying.

The problem, the company said, was that it needed the landowners’ consent before filing any public documents. “We want to be in compliance, but we don’t want to sign off on things that the landowners don’t want to sign off on,” Ayala told The Big Bend Sentinel at the time.

Despite the friendly nature of last week’s meeting, it was nonetheless a reminder of the drama that often plays out in Far West Texas between oil companies and locals. There to observe the meeting was Greg Perrin, general manager of the Reeves County Groundwater Conservation District in Pecos.

Perrin explained to The Big Bend Sentinel that he was there to learn about the process of approving or denying water well operating permits for fracking companies. His newly formed district had never before conducted such a hearing, he said. This week, they’re evaluating four.