Steven Fleming brings a new perspective to Texas’ Board of Geoscientists.
by Al Picket, special contributor
The old adage that “the squeaky wheel gets the grease” certainly played a role with Governor Greg Abbott’s recent appointment of Steven Fleming to the Texas Board of Professional Geoscientists.
Fleming, an environmental supervisor with Apache Corporation in Midland, explained that he was reading some proposed regulations from the Environmental Protection Agency that called for only professional licensees to do inspections.
“It mentioned petroleum engineers and other professionals, but it didn’t mention petroleum geoscientists,” he said. “And part of what we do as petroleum geoscientists is protect the environment.”
So Fleming contacted the Texas Board of Professional Geoscientists. They acknowledged the oversight and asked if he would help write comments to the proposed regulations. And then he was asked if he would serve on the board, which, surprisingly, not only didn’t have anyone from the oil and gas industry serving on it but also had no representative from West Texas, the heart of the nation’s oil and gas industry.
Gov. Abbott appointed Fleming to serve a term that will expire on Feb. 1, 2021. Appointed simultaneously were Lindsey Bradford, the owner of The Car Lot and L2 Cattle Company in Edna, and Bereket Derie, a licensed professional geoscientist and CEO with Round Rock Geophysics.
The Texas Board of Professional Geoscientists is responsible for setting fees for application, examination, licensure, and renewal of licenses. Besides handling the licensing of geoscientists, the board also, according to Fleming, offers advisory opinions and investigates complaints against licensed geoscientists as well as complaints against those operating without a license.
Those involved with the Permian Basin Petroleum Association (PBPA) know all about Fleming’s expertise. Stephen Robertson, PBPA Executive Vice President, said that Fleming provides critical expertise to the PBPA’s Regulatory Practices Committee. “Likewise, he is a lead contributor as we continue to navigate the complicated regulatory landscapes pertaining to environmental, and specifically air quality, issues,” Robertson said.
Brianne Adkins, vice president for membership and community relations for PBPA, called Fleming “a specialist for PBPA on all things related to air quality, air pollution, emission regulations, etc.”
“I assist with air issues,” Fleming acknowledged. “I try to support the membership with how current regulations are being interpreted. I enjoy getting involved in gathering comments for rule changes from the EPA, for example, and trying to help people know why we need to be concerned. The PBPA does a great job of getting information to the membership, making them aware of regulations and putting a strategy together.”
He oversees air permitting, remediation, and environmental compliance in his job as an environmental specialist for Apache.
“Prior to the Barnett Shale, which was developed mostly in an urban area [in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex], the air permitting process was simple,” he points out. “Environmental groups got involved, and the Texas Commission of Environmental Quality [TCEQ] and the EPA were forced to take a more proactive stance. Air permitting started to evolve, and the EPA standards became more stringent in 2011. Another round is coming down, too, that will impact operators.”
Air quality standards apply to tanks, flares, compressors, and compressor engines, according to Fleming. He said new regulations would include flow back and completion of wells, as well as requirements to identify and fix leaks.
“Air rules have gotten so ridiculous that it is hard to keep up with all the changes,” he continued. “But as the rules change, I guess my personal stock goes up.”
Fleming said that the oil and gas industry is the nation’s most regulated. For example, the oil and gas industry that lies within the Permian Basin is regulated by the Railroad Commission in Texas, and the Oil Conservation Commission in New Mexico. But when it comes to air quality issues, the TCEQ and the New Mexico Air Quality Bureau are the regulatory agencies in those two states. He said TCEQ hasn’t taken on greenhouse gasses, so that falls under the federal EPA. And, depending on where the oil and gas wells or infrastructure are located, the federal Bureau of Land Management or the Texas Land Office can be involved, too.
“That is six or seven different agencies regulating the oil and gas industry, and all may interpret the same rules differently,” said Fleming, noting how confusing the myriad of regulatory interpretations can be for operators.
He brings an interesting and diverse background to his job. Growing up in Central Texas, Fleming headed west to Sul Ross State University, in Alpine, where he received a Bachelor of Science in biology while minoring in chemistry and geology. He then went to Baylor University, where he earned a Masters of Science in limnology, which Fleming described as the fresh water version of oceanography.
“It involves water chemistry, ecology, and biology,” he relates. “I got to work under Dr. Owen Lind, who is an expert in limnology. He was good at getting funding, and he put me in charge of the lab at Baylor.”
When Fleming, who said he also took a lot of geology classes during his graduate work, finished his Masters degree in 1997, Lind asked him to run his research lab at Lake Chapala in south central Mexico, which is the oldest lake in North America.
“In addition to getting to live in Mexico, it was a fantastic learning experience,” he stated. “They were having a problem with heavy metal in the lake. Its drainage stretched all the way to Mexico City, and they were trying to see how the metal was making its way into the fish in the lake. We found out the fish were eating the clay that had the metal in it. We would catch the fish, freeze them, and then send them to a lab at Texas A&M. When that project faded out in 1998, many of my graduate school classmates were doing consulting work in the Dallas-Fort Worth area and they encouraged me to move there.”
So began Fleming’s 12-year consulting career, working almost exclusively on oil and gas projects. Then, in 2010, a recruiter for Apache sought him out.
“I came out here to Midland, and it looked like there was a lot of exciting things happening in the Permian Basin,” he said.
July marked six years that Fleming has been working for Apache, lending his expertise to not only his company but also to the PBPA. And now, thanks to his appointment to the Texas Board of Professional Geoscientists, his ability to influence the industry and help interpret conflicting regulations will allow West Texas to have a voice on statewide policy.
Al Pickett is a freelance writer in Abilene and author of four books. He also owns the West Central Texas Oil Activity Index, a daily and weekly oil and gas reporting service. For more information, email email@example.com.