The Austin Chronicle

Can a Veteran Oil Man Clean Up the Railroad Commission’s Mess?

Bill Burch is running to raise awareness of groundwater contamination

By Lina Fisher, February 23, 2024, News

Running for statewide office as a Democrat is never an easy task in Texas, where a Dem hasn’t won since the Nineties. It’s even more difficult for an office with a misleading name, against incumbents who accept campaign donations from the industry they’re meant to regulate. The Railroad Commission is in charge of wrangling the oil and gas industry in the largest-producing state in the country, at a time when gas plants are failing to prop up the grid, increasingly severe fracking-related earthquakes are plaguing West Texas, and abandoned “zombie” wells are poisoning Texans’ groundwater. Could a veteran driller and oil well firefighter with broad support – even from some Republicans – be the one to clean up the mess?

Bill Burch’s interest in oil and gas was somewhat inevitable: His father and grandfather were both drillers, and after graduating University of Pittsburgh with a degree in chemical engineering, Burch was immediately hired by oilfied services company Schlumberger to service wells in Saudi Arabia and Oman. He eventually went to work for an oil field equipment supplier in Dubai, Halliburton Sperry-Sun, which took him to Norway, Argentina, Australia, Azerbaijan – “I really got to see the planet. It was just a natural fit,” says Burch. “Even as a kid, I remember watching Hellfighters, the John Wayne movie, on PBS,” where Wayne plays an oil well firefighter.

In 2007, six months into a petroleum engineering master’s at LSU, Burch was hired by an oil well firefighting company, where he spent the next six years. In 2010, he was called to the Deepwater Horizon spill, where he was struck by the industry’s negligence: “They waited for the incident to occur before they ever did any prevention.”

A decade later, in 2021, Burch was called out to Antina Ranch in West Texas to study why a Chevron well abandoned in 1995 was now spewing toxic wastewater. “I thought, 'Oh, shit, our worst-case scenario in the oil and gas industry is really happening.’” Burch implored the Railroad Commission to do something: “I told them, 'You guys have got to get ahead of this narrative. This scenario that’s occurring in West Texas is going to be not only the bane of the existence of the industry, but you guys are gonna lose your ass in reputational hit if you don’t get ahead of the narrative.” Burch says they told him there was no problem. “I gotta tell you that pissed me off. These idiots couldn’t realize the impact of what was happening.”

Groundwater contamination from abandoned oil wells is a daily reality for people across the state and has become the cornerstone of Burch’s campaign. “People are concerned about the future of water in the state of Texas.” Last legislative session, the Legislature funneled more than $2 billion toward new water supply strategies. The commission will play an integral role in securing the future of groundwater, in a state that is projected to grow to 96 million by 2100: “The Railroad Commission needs to be the agency that underpins the ability of the state of Texas to be successful by the turn of the century.”

In order to ensure that success, the commission must change, says Burch. Now, it “doesn’t enforce a damn thing,” says Burch. “Operators will often start projects before they even get their permits. They don’t do their due diligence, because they know they don’t need to.”

In order for that enforcement to happen, the commission needs to hire more inspectors, says Burch. There are currently less than 200 inspectors for a state with 500,000 miles of pipelines. Both Burch and Hawk Dunlap, another candidate in the race and a fellow international oil well firefighter, applied and were rejected for a lack of qualifications. “That’s intentional,” says Burch. “They don’t want to hire people with experience. And we pay them $42,000 a year. What person with 20+ years’ experience in oil and gas wants to go work for the Railroad Commission when you can hire on as a brand-new roughneck and make $130,000 a year?”

The industry is dangerous, to boot: In 2021, the CDC published a study that found Texas led the nation in work-related fatalities from 2014-19. “The number of accidents that are not publicly disclosed is enormous,” says Burch. When Inside Climate News published the first-ever public analysis of produced water spills in Texas last fall, Burch says several engineers called him saying their spill was never reported. “We have to be able to provide for people to have a livable income working in energy, under safe, protective environments.”

Even with major newspaper, labor union, and Democratic club endorsements, victory for Burch is a long shot. When Luke Warford was running in 2022, Jason Modglin, the president of the Texas Alliance of Energy Producers, told The Texas Tribune his party affiliation could not be overlooked, as Democrats are “so anti-oil and gas.” But Burch says “energy is a nonpartisan issue. We’re not talking about killing the oil and gas industry. We’re talking about holding the industry accountable for following the rules.” He says his campaign has “already had success – I’ve got people talking about issues and realizing the scope of the Railroad Commission. Let’s say I lose come November, no big deal. I’m still an engineer. The problem doesn’t go away. Back into finding ways to deal with the produced water problem – that has to be fixed first and foremost. If we can’t get the earthquakes and the saltwater disposal issues under control, we’re on our way to a Superfund site.”

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