Apache partners with scientists on first-ever environmental studies of drilling near West Texas oasis
By Jennifer Hiller
Updated 6:46 pm, Wednesday, October 12, 2016
about their drinking water and natural springs, which serve as a popular tourism destination helping drive the town's economy.
The University of Texas at Arlington and Apache Corp. will partner on a water study around Balmorhea, an environmentally sensitive West Texas oasis where the Houston company announced a massive oil and gas discovery last month.
The study is significant as it is the first time a corporation is inviting scientists to study the entire drilling process as well as the chemicals used to extract oil and gas from the ground. University researchers will have the chance to do baseline tests of groundwater and surface water before the drilling starts.
Scientists will also be able to conduct the first independent research on the muds used during drilling as well as the chemistry of hydraulic fracturing, the process of pumping millions of gallons of water and chemicals at high pressure to crack the rock before sand is added to prop open those fissures, allowing oil and gas to flow up the well.
“It’s very new and an unprecedented relationship,” said Kevin Schug, a UT Arlington chemistry professor and the director of the Collaborative Laboratories for Environmental Analysis and Remediation, known as the CLEAR lab. “It’s the absolute best way we can have testing alongside the oil and gas process to ensure environmental integrity.”
Apache in September announced the discovery of “Alpine High” in southwestern Reeves County, a part of a the massive Permian Basin where there’s been little oil and gas activity. If its successful, it could be the biggest U.S. unconventional oil and gas find in a decade.
The company’s acreage is centered around the desert oasis of Balmorhea State Park, built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s. Water flows into the park from San Solomon Springs, the largest in a series of interconnected springs in the area, and home to endangered desert fishes, the Pecos gambusia and the Comanche Springs pupfish.
Many residents are concerned about that the oil field activity could damage the artesian spring system. Nearby Comanche Springs in Fort Stockton was pumped dry in the 1960s for agricultural use.
Schug said researchers will test a mix of private water wells, municipal water wells and surface water to look at water quality, timing other sampling with drilling, fracking and production. If there is a problem, researchers can work alongside Apache for remediation.
“I hope we prove we’re providing quality information,” Schug said. “I think it will set an important precedent for the industry and alleviate fears of the unknown.”
UT Arlington plans to write peer-reviewed papers from the water study, though it would have to keep some of the information that’s considered a trade secret private — namely the exact chemistry of frac fluid, which the industry has refused to publicly disclose. The initial plan is for the study to take about a year, though Schug said the hope is that the partnership would expand beyond that.
UT Arlington’s CLEAR lab has been looking for an industry partner for such research, but Apache approached it about the water study, which it will help fund.
Apache said it has created exclusion zones and won’t drill under Balmorhea State Park, although it owns the mineral rights there. It has also promised not to drill inside or under the city limits of Balmorhea. The company’s additionally doing background soil sampling and its own baseline groundwater and surface water testing.
“We are in the early stages of this project and want to take proactive steps to protect the sensitive ecology and water resources in the area,” said Cal Cooper, director of special projects and emerging technology for Apache, in a news release.
Apache is active in other parts of the Permian Basin, the state’s largest oil field, where it has tapped brackish aquifers and uses recycled produced water — the water that comes up a well alongside oil and gas — to meet its water needs for fracking. Apache has said it may start a similar program in its Alpine High development.
The Alpine High is in southwestern Reeves County. It holds an estimated 3 billion barrels of oil and 75 trillion cubic feet of rich gas, the company said, in just two of five geologic zones that are stacked on top of each other like a layer cake. Apache leased 182,000 acres in Reeves County in the second half of 2015, roughly 20 percent of the county.
Apache estimates it has 2,000 to 3,000 future drilling locations in Alpine High’s Woodford and Barnett rock formations. The company is working to the west of other companies in Reeves County and in formations where few companies have struck oil. The Barnett Shale is better known in North Texas for the prolific and eponymous gas field around Fort Worth.
The Permian Basin, which has produced 29 billion barrels of oil and is estimated to have more in recoverable reserves, has been pumping oil since the first commercial well in 1921. Last week it had 203 working drilling rigs, 41 percent of those active in the U.S. The Alpine High is in an area where companies have found little oil in the past, though. If the field proves a success, it would expand the footprint of the Permian.
State parks officials initially said the drilling was not a concern, but later told the Houston Chronicle they have not conducted any research to assess the impact of oil drilling on the park or springs. The parks department just recently gathered other scientific studies on the region’s aquifers.
It’s not just the artesian spring that present a challenge for Apache.
The region around Alpine High also is considered environmentally sensitive because it’s not far from the University of Texas’ McDonald Observatory in the Davis Mountains in neighboring Jeff Davis County, where astronomers have worried about the encroaching nighttime lights and sky glow of the 24-hour oil field.
Reeves County is part of a 28,000-square-mile, dark-sky reserve that requires companies to regulate outdoor lighting to protect the McDonald Observatory, whose Hobby-Eberly Telescope atop Mount Fowlkes is the largest in North America. The reserve was created by the Legislature in 2011, though enforcement and awareness have been spotty.
Apache has been complying with dark skies rules and has met with the observatory. A parallel concern for astronomers is round-the-clock gas flaring, which is common early in the development of a field before things such as pipelines and gas plants are built.
For UT Arlington, the partnership with Apache represents a chance to expand its oil field research.
A recent study from researchers at UT Arlington, Inform Environmental, Tarleton State, Ohio State and the University of North Texas found that water wells in the Eagle Ford Shale oil field in South Texas showed signs of contamination from industrial or agricultural work.
The study, published in the journal Science of the Total Environment, found instances of bubbly water that indicated dissolved gas was present. It also found abnormal chloride/bromide ratios — an indication of contamination — and volatile organic compounds, known as VOCs.
Shale oil production is the biggest industry in South Texas, but it isn’t the only one, the study noted. There’s also poultry, cattle and grass production.
Researchers couldn’t definitely link the contamination with oil and gas activity because they did not have access to the oil wells or the chemicals that were used in the process of drilling wells and bringing them into production.