Court procedures are expected to put off for months the fate of a controversial plan for a commercial wastewater disposal well in northwest Nebraska.
Opponents have asked Cheyenne County District Court in Sidney to review the Nebraska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission’s approval of the proposed Terex Energy Corp. well.
It probably will be late summer at least before a judge hears courtroom arguments, said Thomas Sonntag of Sidney, attorney for neighboring landowners fighting the proposal. In the meantime, the well sits idle.
The opponents’ appeal says the commission overstepped its legal authority. The landowners say there is no state law that allows the commission to authorize the disposal in Nebraska of oilfield wastewater that’s produced in other states.
“Our argument would be that the commission has authority to do only what the Legislature says it can do,” Sonntag said.
Sonntag represents Jane Grove of Morrill, Nebraska, and Hughson Flying A Ranch, owned by Lee and Jenny Hughson of Mitchell, Nebraska. The Hughsons and Grove both own rangeland adjoining the well site north of Mitchell.
At issue is a proposal by Terex Energy of Broomfield, Colorado, to convert the inactive oil well into a disposal well for water that is brought to the surface during the production of oil and natural gas. As originally proposed, much of this brine would come from wells developed through hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.
Terex’s application projected an around-the-clock operation serving oil and gas producers from booming Colorado and Wyoming fields, where demand for disposal wells exceeded the supply. Later, company officials said the application reflected an exaggerated goal that is unlikely to be achieved anytime soon, if ever.
Terex’s original plan alarmed some landowners and residents of the region, who organized spirited opposition.
The oil and gas commission approved the application in April. Commission officials say Nebraska, Colorado, Wyoming and Kansas have long cooperated in allowing wastewater to cross state lines for access to the nearest disposal well. The Denver-Julesburg Basin oil patch lies under the four-state region.
The Hughson-Grove petition said the commission did not consider letters from eight government entities and other organizations expressing opposition or concern about the proposal. It alleges the commission did not review reports from four oil wells in the area for insight into the amount of wastewater produced.
And it said the failure to consider these things prevented Jenny Hughson from fully expressing her testimony at a quasi-judicial hearing on the issue in March.
The Nebraska Attorney General’s Office, which represents the commission, is reviewing the appeal and declined to comment.
The controversy attracted the attention of the Nebraska Legislature. Its Natural Resources Committee will hold meetings this summer to review the state’s regulation of underground storage of oilfield wastewater. One state senator also plans to explore disbanding the commission and transferring its responsibilities to the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality.
The Hughson-Grove petition asks the court to reverse the commission’s approval of the Terex plan or to limit it so the well may accept only wastewater from Nebraska operations.
“We’ve asked the judge to take a second look at it,” Sonntag said. “We might as well get it on the table and find out what the answer is.”
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