‘A Realistic Conversation’: Burch for Railroad Commissioner

Bill Burch
Bill Burch | Image by Bill Burch for Texas Railroad Commissioner

Bill Burch is running for Texas railroad commissioner, aiming to be the first elected executive-level Democratic official on the commission in over 50 years.

Burch spoke with The Dallas Express about the Texas Railroad Commission’s responsibilities, the agency’s importance, and why he thinks he is the most qualified candidate for the post.

“The Texas Railroad Commission is the agency that basically manages all our natural energy resources and how we produce them safely to market,” he explained.

The commission serves as the governing body of the oil and natural gas industry. It oversees energy production, ensures safety, and acts as an arbitrator for mineral rights and surface agreements. Additionally, it is tasked with regulating the safe transportation of fuels through pipelines as well as decommissioning and sunsetting all energy infrastructure, including coal and uranium mines.

While geothermal energy is mostly regulated by the commission, Burch explained that wind and solar currently lack a governing body for surface owners’ protections under contracts and bonding in the case of abandonments or walk-away facilities during decommissioning.

Claiming that he was the most experienced candidate regardless of party affiliation, Burch said his expertise and comprehension of sustainable energy practices, combined with his commitment to safety, integrity, conservation, and transparency, has enabled him to recognize the significance of regulations in protecting the environment.

Burch’s professional experience extends internationally, as he worked in 65 countries as a third-generation driller in the oil and gas industry for over 23 years.

With his drilling engineer background, Burch transitioned to a full-time position at the headquarters of Wild Well Control in Houston in 2007, where he became a global oil well firefighting specialist. Wild Well Control is “the world’s leading provider of onshore and offshore well control emergency response, pressure control, relief well planning, engineering, and training services,” per the company’s webpage.

Burch was one of the emergency responders for the 2010 oil drilling rig Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Deepwater Horizon exploded and sank, resulting in 11 worker deaths and 4 million barrels of oil released from the damaged well over 87 days, making it the worst and largest oil spill in the history of marine oil drilling operations, per the Environmental Protection Agency.

In addition to responding to the Deepwater Horizon spill, Burch has played a role in managing and mitigating the ecological impact of oil spills in general, using his crisis management and environmental restoration skills. He is also a U.S. patent holder of carbon-free hydrogen production.

“As an oil well firefighter, I recognized the fire triangle: you must have oxygen, ignition, and a fuel source. When these three come together, you get a fire. I recognized the problem was the oxygen side, so I created a custom method and apparatus to prevent the oxygen from hitting the hydrogen to cause the ignition. And I was awarded a patent,” said Burch.

Another notable event in Burch’s career was being the emergency responder for the first two “Zombie Wells” in West Texas. These wells are classified as orphaned wells that are often left without proper plugging or with faulty plugs, which can release gases and toxic waters into the surrounding environment. As a result, groundwater aquifers get contaminated, and plants in the vicinity die.

“These are wells plugged back in the 70s and 90s that have come back to life in West Texas and are called ‘Zombie Wells’ because they were once dead, and now they are alive,” Burch explained.

He advocates for safety and is committed to prevention, learning from catastrophes such as the Deepwater Horizon spill. He claimed that the state cannot continue to do things the way they have always been done. Yet, “the industry currently has the same people, the same rigs, the same technology, and the same training,” said Burch, arguing that things must change.

Burch said he has seen first-hand how not prioritizing safety has affected the industry and the environment, attributing this to a lack of learning. “This is an industry of risk and, unfortunately, an unacceptable level of risk in many places. Safety needs to be a higher priority,” said Burch. “We have a regulatory body in the state of Texas that doesn’t pass along any lessons learned, doesn’t have the culture of trying to let people understand what failed and why it failed.”

“99 times out of 100, all the failures that occur in the oil and gas industry are human-factor related,” explained Burch. “The problem we have is we have a culture that doesn’t want to embrace change.”

“The oil and gas industry is not going to disappear in Texas,” said Burch. “We have to have a realistic conversation about how we are going to utilize our resources, manage our geothermal, solar, and wind resources, and grow our energy economy.” Some of those discussions include looking at mass transit, heavy rail, and the building of schools and hospitals, to name a few of the major energy consumers.

Burch contends that the energy sector and groundwater are two topics that must be addressed.

“We are going to have to desalinate the water to be able to have useful water to maintain the society,” said Burch. “Guess what? That doesn’t come energy-free either.”

“There are some projections that by the year 2100, there will be 66 million more people living in Texas,” he said. “If that is the case, we will need to triple our grid size. We will have to have 270 gigawatts of power supply by the year 2100.”

When asked how Texas will be able to support the growing demand put upon the grid, Burch replied, “This is not something we are going to accomplish by getting rid of our energy industry. We are going to have to have a very strategic plan and execution on how we are going to grow it, scale it, and develop our future to keep our society successful.”

Burch contends that these issues should concern everyone and that voters should prioritize selecting the most qualified candidate.

“The issue we have with the industry is it has not been regulated by anyone who actually works in the industry,” explained Burch. “You would never elect a district attorney who was not at least an attorney. But yet, the Texas Railroad Commission, which is legitimately probably the single biggest powerful agency in the state of Texas, has no background requirements for anyone to have operational experience and knowledge to regulate the industry we are entrusted to manage.”

“It is the lack of accountability with transparency and integrity that the agency has failed,” claimed Burch.

For example, Burch noted that Texas is “the toxic dumping site for New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Louisiana, who all have water production problems. Because the Texas Railroad Commission doesn’t care about our environmental stewardship, they allow these three other states to dump their toxic water into Texas. There is not even a single permit filed for moving water across the state border, which should be a federal requirement — there are no requirements.”

“We have to solve the problem by recycling,” said Burch. “Waste product is causing a massive issue in the state of Texas. At this point, the industry needs to be regulated so that they are managed and mandated to recycle this water and create fresh water from the toxic water.”

Burch is trying to get ahead of the negative narrative of contamination by addressing these problems using his experience and knowledge.

“I am qualified, have the proven experience and expertise, and want to actively change the narrative to fix industry problems for all of us. The scenario in which we are headed has to be fixed,” he said.

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