Texas homeowner vents methane from water well, sets it on fire

Updated

Last week on the show, we reported on a decision by the Texas state government about suspected methane pollution in a county west of Fort Worth.

The Texas Railroad Commission, which regulates the oil and gas industry in that state, issued the results of a new study of homeowners’ complaints about methane in their well water in Parker County. The commission staff say they have determined there is not enough evidence to conclude that drilling in the area “has caused or contributed to methane contamination in the aquifer beneath the neighborhood.”

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This is the second time the Texas Railroad Commission has closed the case. It first studied the issue in 2011, then took more samples in 2013 after continued complaints from homeowners. Among those homeowners was Steve Lipsky, from the town of Weatherford. We showed video of Lipsky venting methane gas from his water well, from the headspace at the top of the well, and setting it aflame.

As you can see in another video from Lipsky below, he describes drawing methane from the wellhead through the garden hose, while water runs out a different pipe. Lipsky says that when he began complaining about methane in his water, he was advised by the Texas Railroad Commission to vent the well. “They said, ‘You’re not from around here,” he tells us. “They were claiming that if you vent it, your water will be fine.”

Lipsky says he found that venting the gas made no difference in the concentration of methane in the water itself, which he and other people in the county have sometimes lit on fire. In 2012, the Dallas Observer reported on the time Lipsky showed his flammable water to a local fire marshal:

“Mr. Lipsky turned on the valve at the top of the wellhead and said, ‘Watch this,’” [Parker County Fire Marshal Shawn] Scott recalls. Water gushed from the wellhead. A few flicks of a lighter, and water and flame poured forth together.

Scott, a good-natured but level-headed hulk, ordered him to snuff it out immediately. Lipsky turned, and the growing flame swept the wellhead, accidentally igniting a second fire. “That got us both a little stirred up there because now we got an uncontrolled flame coming from the top of the water well,” Scott says. “That was the first time I’d ever seen that.”

Scott radioed his assistant fire marshal and told him to bring his tools from downtown Weatherford, a 30-minute drive down two-lane roads. He needed to see just how much gas was coming from Lipsky’s well.

“We got within 20 feet of that well and the hydrocarbon detector was going bonkers, full indication,” Scott says. “I couldn’t get any closer because you risk burning up the sensors. This is in open air. It’s not like we were in a house.”

Instead, Scott used a less sensitive monitor to gauge gas concentrations. “Anything above 5 percent, we start getting nervous. It went to 12 or 14 percent in nothing flat, which is definitely within the explosive range.”

In its new report closing the case again, the Texas Railroad Commission says it does not plan on studying the issue further. The commission does offer some advice for the homeowners:

“Based on the evidence of increasing methane concentrations in some water wells in the Silverado neighborhood, RRC staff recommends that neighborhood residents properly ventilate and aerate their water systems.”

Whether they should burn off the vented gas, as Lipsky describes in his videos, appears to be left to them.

Fracking and Texas

Texas homeowner vents methane from water well, sets it on fire

Updated