Life in the Oilfields – Regulations and the RRC

Sarah Stogner

What we need is enforcement of the existing rules – Sarah Stogner

The following is an excerpt of an interview by Michael Lewis of Environment Texas with Sarah Stogner, an oil and gas attorney and former candidate for Railroad Commissioner. The questions and responses have been edited for brevity and clarity. The full interview can be found HERE

This is part of our “Stories from the Oilfields” series of collected interviews from residents of the oil producing areas of Texas and experts on the impacts of the fossil fuel industry. See our full series HERE.

Environment Texas: Could you tell us, what do you do in the area? 

Sarah Stogner: I’m a lawyer. I’ve lived in the Permian Basin since 2017. As a lawyer, we’re hired to help our clients navigate the nuances of regulations and contracts and all that good stuff. And so I still represent operators, I still represent oil and gas companies. And fundamentally now what I’m doing is representing landowners in disputes at the Railroad Commission where they’re having problems with oil and gas operations on their property and trying to get the regulators to do their jobs and enforce the rules. 

Environment Texas: Okay. And obviously, I’m not going to ask you about any specific cases, but generally, what kind of issues are you seeing? 

Sarah Stogner: So I think, unfortunately, what we have now is we’ve got 70 to 80 years of historic oil and gas operations in the Permian. Specifically, we’re kind of out in the middle of nowhere, and everyone has treated the land as disposable. Christy Craddock at a meeting a few months ago, said, oh, I’m from there. And when showed a picture of Beamer Lake, she says, It’s just dead. That’s what it looks like out there, which is infuriating, because it’s not. And it used to be beautiful grasslands and overuse of the land and not having good stewardship of the land. Now, we do have a lot of invasive species and things like that, but fundamentally, the Permian Basin is beautiful, and everyone should be entitled to have clean drinking water. And so even though the oil and gas is the dominant estate, under Texas law, they are only allowed to use what’s reasonable and necessary of the surface, and they’re not allowed to contaminate the groundwater ever. So if people adhere to those rules and we enforce those rules, we have an okay balance. We can have responsible oil and gas production. I firmly believe I’ve represented operators over the years. When something bad happens, they step up, they do the right thing. It costs a lot of money to fix these issues, but we have to do it because it’s the right thing to do. 

We had a Geyser in Crane County in January that Texas Monthly covered. So if people go Google Texas Monthly, crane Blowout, it’ll show, and it looked like Old Faithful shooting up into the air 100 and 5250ft. But unfortunately, then you look around it and it looks like it’s covered in ice. Well, that wasn’t ice. That was salt. And there’s a reason in the Bible they referred to salting your enemy’s lands, because, unfortunately, salt is even worse than hydrocarbons. And with that salt comes radionuclides. And then even when you don’t have the oil, you still get, as my toxic tort professor in law school would say, methyl ethyl, bad stuff. 

And so, unfortunately, over the past 50 years, federal law, state law, right? We’ve exempted a lot of these wastes under federal regulations, and there’s always been an understanding that we keep the water and production in a closed loop system, and it’s never supposed to go into the environment untreated. And unfortunately, Texas doesn’t have a final rule. The railroad commission has never finalized a rule for what’s? A reportable spill of produced water. And so we’ve got literally thousands of barrels that will get spread onto the ground, and it kills the land for generations. You cannot grow anything there. And it leaches into your groundwater eventually because unlike hydrocarbons, that will dissipate and break down, the salt doesn’t. It rains and it goes deeper. So it kills the land. It contaminates the water. 

Environment Texas: So going back to the permits and the exceptions, you had mentioned something earlier about toxins being basically unregulated. If it’s accepted that these are toxics, that these do harm to the public and the state of Texas, what’s the justification here? 

Sarah Stogner: When done properly, we don’t release hydrocarbons and methyle ethyl bad stuff into the environment. In the oil and gas industry, when done responsibly, everything’s kept within pipelines and it’s scrubbed. And you can have a truly a closed loop system. And so there was an understanding, I think back when all of this legislation was happening, that again, we’re talking about the price of oil back then, and this was right after we had the Iranian crisis and all of this. We need this industry at a time in the 80s when they were just coming back from really horrific shortages that we wanted to incentivize on a national security basis the exploration and production of natural gas and oil. And so they exempted it. And so if you go and you look at current permits for injection wells, for example, and wherever the waste comes from, even if it’s got benzene toluene in it, if it’s from oil and gas operations and those things naturally occur subsurface, then they’re exempted when they’re kept in the stream of that closed loop system. 

Environment Texas: Is it time to update and what would that take? 

Sarah Stogner: I’ve always said, I think the regulations on the books work when they’re enforced. What we need is enforcement of the existing rules, unfortunately. And I don’t think we need a ton of new rules. I think we need enforcement. And I think we need real penalties so that there’s not a financial incentive to lie, cheat, and steal. Right. If it becomes cheaper to lie, cheat, and steal than do the right thing, then you get people lying, cheating, and stealing. 

The Railroad Commission is the one that needs to step in and enforce these rules, and they just don’t. And I think there’s lots of evidence and there’s been lots of articles and discussion about how essentially they are bought and paid for by the oil and gas industry. They play favorites. They accept bribes. I mean, it’s pretty bad. At least Russia admits that it’s a dictatorship, and you get what you get. You are picking winners and losers under the guise of a free market, which is really deceptive. 

Environment Texas: We’ve been talking about the railroad commission you recently ran for commissioner. What drove you to decide, “it’s time to make a change, and I’m going to run to try to make some changes?” 

Sarah Stogner: I have never wanted to be a politician. This is not like a lifelong dream. So I moved out onto a cattle ranch in the summer of 2021. And after living there ten days, an old well that Chevron had plugged in the 90s came unplugged, and it took them twelve weeks to replug it. There were flows coming from places where flow shouldn’t be coming from, questioning why Chevron didn’t seem concerned, why the Railroad Commission didn’t seem concerned. And I realized that it was never going to change unless we got somebody with real leadership into the commission that was willing to step up and say, look, this is hard. There’s no easy answers here, but we have to do the right thing and we’ve got to start taking meaningful steps. And so I ran, not with the intention originally of winning. I knew that I was up against a political machine, especially in a state the size of Texas. 

Environment Texas: You used a term earlier that I really like to talk about “reasonable.” When talking about extraction, what is reasonable? Do you believe that those need to be more specific or are you okay with that kind of case by case basis? 

Sarah Stogner: Almost. I actually don’t think we need to be more specific because what’s reasonable and necessary changes over time. Right? It used to be reasonable to use pits because we didn’t have tanks when we were completing a well. Now it’s no longer reasonable nor necessary to use a hand dug pit. I think again, if we update and keep with technology and just make sure that pollution is not going where it shouldn’t be and when it does, learning from those mistakes and when they still don’t care, penalizing them. And taking away all of the financial incentive that they had for not doing the right thing, then things like reasonable and necessary take care of themselves. 

We need to actually start doing what the law says and we need to be sure that we’re keeping the byproducts the pollution, the toxins, et cetera, et cetera, keeping them under control and either disposing or using them properly. 

Environment Texas: Oil is the number one industry in the state or fossil fuels in general, but the population doesn’t live where it’s produced. As someone who lives in the area, what do you wish people understood about the permian that they just don’t? 

Sarah Stogner: It’s beautiful. Our desert is beautiful. Our people are beautiful, and the men and women who make our modern day life a reality. We are out here and it’s been generations of cattle ranchers and oil and gas people and for years it’s been a symbiotic relationship and it’s worked well. But we now have, unfortunately, many people in places like Wall Street and Silicon Valley making decisions based on bottom lines and not understanding the operational realities of exploring for and producing minerals, just like they don’t understand lithium extraction for batteries, just like they don’t understand the use of labor in China making solar panels. No industry, no type of industry for energy is really green that there are costs to the modern day conveniences. And I’ll tell you, since I moved onto the ranch, I have dramatically changed the way that I live trying to reduce my consumption, and that if we really want to have a change. No one wants to talk about it, but we’re going to have to look at supply and demand. We’re going to have to be more frugal on our energy consumption. And it’s going to take really big sacrifices from people in the cities. And if they don’t want their lives to dramatically change, they need to get involved and stand up for those of us that do live out here, because like I said, it’s our food supply. It’s everything. And if we lose sight of rural Texas for the 90% that live in the cities, they’re not going to have their city life.