WHAT LIES BENEATH: Long-Forgotten Wells, Brine Water, and the Health of West Texas Aquifers

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Published: Jan. 20, 2022 at 8:27 PM CST
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CRANE COUNTY, Texas (KOSA) - There’s not much to see driving through West Texas.

There’s even less to see driving through rural areas like Crane County.

But since the new year, there’s been a lot to see, especially along Highway 329 north of Imperial.

The landscape is changing because of well blowouts. The latest blowout produced enough pressure to shoot brine water over 100 feet into the air.

“First off, it shouldn’t be happening,” said oil and gas attorney Sarah Stogner.

It’s not clear where the water is coming from, or why there’s so much pressure. What is becoming more apparent is that something dangerous is happening beneath the surface of West Texas.

“At this time, after roughly 75 years, the well has come back to life due to the changing of the subsurface conditions,” said well-control expert Bill Burch.

The well likely belongs to Chevron, but that information was difficult to find and remains debated.

It took a group of concerned citizens, ranchers, and well-control experts going through decades-old microfiche Railroad Commission of Texas records.

Soon after it started, residents believed it to be well CT 112, an old Gulf Oil well from 1948 that now falls under the purview of Chevron.

Chevron says that’s incorrect and that it’s a separate, unknown well.

“We have not been able to find a well that matches the one we’re addressing right now,” said Catie Matthews, Chevron’s Public and Government Affairs Advisor. “We’ve asked the Texas Railroad Commission to continue looking at their records.”

Having difficulty finding well records isn’t uncommon. Wells drilled nearly a century ago can be challenging to find in Railroad Commission records. But not knowing is part of a systemic problem industry-wide.

“We don’t even know what level or how deep the source of this event was,” Matthews said. “So that stuff has still yet to be determined.”

As the blowouts increase, ranchers have started asking questions.

One of those ranchers is Ashley Williams Watt, who owns Antina Ranch, a sprawling mass encompassing multiple West Texas counties. She says her ranch has recently suffered at least four subsurface blowouts that have broached the surface.

Watt addressed her experience dealing with the blowouts at a Railroad Commission open meeting last September.

“Chevron hid the first two blowouts from me and refused to plug the Estes 24 until I complained loudly enough on Twitter,” Watt told the three RRC commissioners. “The Railroad Commission’s immediate response was to lawyer up against me, the landowner, through counsel.”

Watt says no one claims responsibility for a blowout when it happens. She says in most instances, operators effectively ignore fixing or investigating well blowouts until someone else proves it’s a problem.

So, that’s what she’s done.

“I’m pissed that this is my full-time job, figuring out their screwups,” Watt said.

Antina Ranch has three aquifers beneath it: the Pecos Valley Alluvium, the Santa Rosa, and the Rustler.

Recently, Watt, at her own expense, had samples taken from those aquifers. She’s also brought in well-control experts like Bill Burch to learn what’s happening.

Burch has more than two decades of experience working on well control around the world, including with Chevron.

“Unfortunately, on this particular ranch, in wells that we’ve discovered, the corrosion is completely through to all three reservoirs,” Burch said. “And we’ve had crossflow occur from deeper oilfield-related water-supply sources crossflowing into each one of the intervals.”

“I’ve informed the Railroad Commission of all of this,” What said. “I’ve sent them all my files. I’ve done their job for them when they would not research this.”

Well corrosion isn’t new, but now those old wells are failing exponentially.

Watt and her team believe it’s due to saltwater disposal.

“The conundrum of it is with this water production with the oil rates, and as we’ve ramped up the fracking and drilling activity, we have to find a place to dispose of the water,” Burch said.

When oil comes out of the ground, it’s not just oil. It’s mostly water. The question then becomes what to do with all that water. In many cases, it can be injected back where it came from. That’s not the case in much of West Texas.

With unconventional drilling in the Permian Basin, it isn’t easy returning water to its source. The solution was water disposal wells with set rules for daily injection; however, that solution is short-term and only works if operators follow the rules.

“For decades, they’ve disregarded those rules and over-injected these aquifers and these reservoirs to such a degree that they’ve just broken through everything,” Watt said.

There’s also more to brine than salt and water.

“Unfortunately, oilfield water contains everything in the periodic table,” Burch said. “So, it contains tin, arsenic, lead, cadmium, mercury, nuclear isotopes.”

Many of these elements were found in the samples taken at Antina Ranch.

“In the case of the EPA thresholds, the nuclear isotopes on the ranch, we were 20 times higher than the safe, clean drinking limits for radium-226 and 228 combined,” Burch said.

That’s just in the drinking water.

Radium-226 has a half-life of 1,600 years. If it gets into an aquifer in large quantities, it’s game over.

High levels of radium, benzene, and sulfates are now in West Texas aquifers in some form, but we don’t know the magnitude of the problem.

The Railroad Commission has taken some action. Deep saltwater injection around Midland was suspended as of the new year. That change wasn’t made due to the deteriorating water quality but because of the increasing number of earthquakes.

And yet, operators are being allowed to amend their injection permits to shallower formations. This might help with earthquakes but could pose even more danger to aquifers.

“As you inject deep, you end up having more earthquakes,” Burch said. “If you have water going into shallow areas, you end up with contaminated groundwater.”

The Railroad Commission has a convenient reason not to listen to ranchers and local government. Their job is to regulate oil and gas, not water. And with old, poorly-recorded wells blowing out, the burden of proof has fallen on people like Watt.

Critics argue the blowouts are happening because of oil and gas operations.

“This isn’t a water well, rancher’s problem,” said Stogner. “We’re not going to let this turn into the next Lake Boehmer.”

Lake Boehmer is a 60-acre artificial lake about 10 miles south of the Crane County blowout off Highway 1053. Created by a blowout, the lake has thrown up water and hydrogen sulfide for decades.

With clear water and gentle waves, it’s a magnificent sight to behold, both for its beauty and the danger it represents.

The Railroad Commission won’t touch it because it’s considered a water well. Who owns the land nowadays isn’t clear either. So, nobody does anything.

The lake is still growing and spreading into nearby Highway 1053. It’s one of at least 30 abandoned water-well blowouts in the area. These blowouts range from small to problematic enough to sink the highway.

But Austin is nearly 350 miles away. Locals feel the state is ignoring the problem because they can.

“We’re in West Texas, and they don’t care,” said Ty Edwards, the General Manager of the Middle Pecos Groundwater Conservation District. “If was anywhere near Austin—really anywhere near Austin—if something like this was happening in Austin, they would’ve fixed this a long time ago.”

Watt is blunter.

“They don’t care about the people who live here,” she said. “They just care about the people who give them money.”

The cost to fix the problem could rise into the billions; however, contamination and earthquakes could cause the federal government to step in if nothing is done.

“The worst-case scenario is that in the next 25 to 50 years, the Permian Basin is completely uninhabitable because all of our freshwater aquifers are contaminated with toxic brine,” Stogner said.

“They know this is a disaster,” Watt said. “But it’s such a giant disaster that if they try to solve this problem, it will cost them tens of billions of dollars. So, they have to ignore it. And they’re happy for ranchers to die out here if it saves them money.”

Saving money is key. If the problem becomes large enough, leaving might make more sense.

“The problem is the asset value of the liability would begin to increase significantly and would exceed the asset value,” Burch said. “And from most the oil companies, from an accounting perspective, when your liability is greater than your asset, the asset is no longer worth keeping.”

In short, addressing this problem now will save the Permian Basin billions of dollars in the future.

“I firmly believe that we start having intellectually honest conversations with the right experts, we can figure this out,” Stogner said.

NOTE: For this story, CBS7 reached out to the Railroad Commission of Texas and its three commissioners, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, state Representative Tom Craddick’s Office, and Chevron. Only Chevron agreed to an on-camera interview. Also of note, in the days following the blowout, the rancher where the Crane County blowout occurred invited CBS7 to the ranch to see the damage. When we arrived, workers present told us the Railroad Commission would not allow us onto the property.

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