Reseeding and Restoration Along Pipeline Easement

Energy Transfer Partners (ETP) has repeatedly stated to stakeholders that they will make the land “as good or better” than it was before pipeline construction, but it is hard to imagine, even with intensive restoration work, how that can be accomplished.

Desert soils are very sensitive to disturbance. Desert vegetation is fragile and extremely slow to recover. Experts who have studied desert ecology know that even with intensive restoration attempts, it may take 30-50 years or longer for the land to recover – long past the useful lifespan of the pipeline.

Ecologist David Bainbridge, who has studied desert ecosystems says, “Trenching associated with underground… pipelines destabilize soil crusts and rock surfaces, concentrating water runoff and erosion.” In a paper published in Environmental Management, David Bainbridge and Jeffrey E. Lovich wrote: “Recovery to predisturbance plant cover and biomass may take 50-300 years, while complete ecosystem recovery may require over 3000 years. Restorative intervention can be used to enhance the success and rate of recovery, but the costs are high and the probability for long-term success is low to moderate. Given the sensitivity of desert habitats to disturbance and the slow rate of natural recovery, the best management option is to limit the extent and intensity of impacts as much as possible.” [1]

At the last ETP townhall meeting in Alpine, Larry Gremminger stated there were no plans to irrigate after reseeding. According to Gremminger, the pipeline easement will be reseeded in conjunction with monsoon season. In the intervening time (from completion of construction to the onset of monsoon season), the implication was that the land would lay fallow. The monsoon season in the Chihuahuan Desert is highly variable in onset and intensity.

Note that the regional seasonal monsoon season is generally late June through late September. Note in the photograph that this section of the easement has been reseeded in early March – there will be little, and insufficient rainfall between March and the onset of the seasonal monsoon for any germination of native grass seed to occur – instead it will be lost to wind erosion.

Reseeding and other restoration efforts could take years. In the meantime, the land would be subject to erosion, invasive species, desertification, and other undesirable effects. “The important lesson from the many studies of desert recovery and restoration is to avoid damage rather than fix it. Natural recovery may take hundreds or thousands of years and even with intensive restoration work, recovery can take many years.” -David Bainbridge [2]

“Anthropogenic Degradation of the Southern California Desert Ecosystem and Prospects for Natural Recovery and
Restoration,” Environmental Management Vol.24, No.3, pp.309-326. “While our focus is specifically directed to
the problems of desert lands in California (most of our experience is in the Colorad Desert), we believe our review
will prove useful for desert management in other parts of the Southwest, northern Mexico, and in other drylands
around the world.”

[2] “New Study Underscored Fragility of Southern
California Deserts,” USGS News Release, October 22, 1999.

Photograph Courtesy of Chris Sweeny, Sunny Glen

balmorhea state park image

Action Item- Protest Letter: Injection Wells in Fracking Play, Northern Big Bend Region

While we may be feeling somewhat powerless about recent developments in Balmorhea, there is something we can do.

THIS LINK will take you to four protest letter templates, one for each well.

Kindly visit the link, download all four letters, fill each one out (feel free to add any personal touches, but please remain factual), and SNAIL MAIL all four letters to the Railroad Commission.

These letters ensure that the company will be required to request a hearing. This slows the process considerably and may potentially result in a denial of the permits.


The company has applied for 4 injection wells. These wells are used to disappear the highly contaminated water that is used in hydraulic fracturing deep into the ground. This is water that leaves the hydrologic cycle forever and is known to cause earthquakes (they’ve already had 2 in Reeves County this year).

There will be many more such protest letters. Stay tuned and many thanks for your continued support.

Hydrostatic discharge update

The Railroad Commission of Texas (RCT) responded today to the Big Bend Conservation Alliance’s Texas Public Information Act, Open Records request (TPIA/OR), the third such request related to evidence of Trans-Pecos Pipeline’s applications, and any associated permits for discharge of hydrostatic testing water.

In 2015, the BBCA’s research team estimated that as much as 54,000,000 gallons of water would be required for hydrostatic testing purposes. Trans-Pecos Pipeline made no specific disclosures about the testing methodology or process to be used, but did indicate that water would be re-used when, and where possible.

Following is the summary of the permit applications – no discharge permits have been issued by RCT as of January 23, 2017, although hydrostatic testing began in Brewster County, on or about January 10:

Total discharge: 44,853,646 gallons
25 Permit Applications
3 discharge locations in Pecos County, five in Brewster County, 17 in Presidio County
8,889,418 gallons discharged in Pecos County
12,045,319 gallons discharged in Brewster County
23,918,909 gallons discharged in Presidio County

The applications, and associated permits, when issued, require the discharge to occur in a specific location on the pipeline route, in this case 25 locations spanning Pecos, Brewster, and Presidio counties. The permit applications disclose that the hydrostatic testing water will not be chemically treated prior to testing, and will be discharged through hay-bale filters at each location.

The BBCA will follow this activity at a later date with a detailed release to the media.

Who Enforces Pipeline Safety Procedures in Texas? No one.

Pipeline systems like the Trans-Pecos Pipeline fall under a number of regulatory requirements at the state, and federal level. The primary federal agency, a sub-agency of the United States Department of Transportation (USDOT) charged with regulating pipelines is the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. The primary state agency charged with pipeline operation and safety regulation is the Railroad Commission of Texas (RCT).

PHMSA only spends about 10% of its resources on new construction inspection. RCT does not routinely inspect any new construction, and no permit to construct a pipeline is required in the State of Texas.

There is a lot of confusion on the matter, but PHMSA provides minimal oversight, almost none at all, on new pipeline construction at a nationwide level, and almost none at all in Texas.

Pipeline construction at a Federal level is regulated under 49 CFR Parts 191-199. At a state level, in Texas, the activity is regulated under TAC 16 Chapter 8, which is in part derived from, and references 49 CFR Parts 191-199. In turn, both codes incorporate ASME Standard B31.8, the engineering and construction practices for gas transmission systems.

Federal, and state statutes require that pipeline operating companies, their contractors, and related entities follow the aforementioned codes and statutes, during construction, including testing, and after construction, during operation. PHMSA develops “Operator Qualification,” or “OQ” guidelines, which apply to both construction, and operation of a pipeline.

Unfortunately, pipeline companies and their contractors are largely self-regulating, and self-reporting. While there can be some spot-checking and inspection, for example, during construction, there is no Federal, or State inspector present that monitors welding, radiography, hydrostatic testing, or any other activity that takes place on the construction easement. Pipeline construction is complex, and requires attention to many critical details; ensuring coating integrity, cathodic protection installation and integrity, welding, weld inspection, pad layer and pipeline support in the trench, backfill quality, hydrostatic testing, and so on. Problems with any one, or combination of these details can result in catastrophic pipeline failure during operation.

The construction contractor is responsible for following applicable elements of the required PHMSA OQ guidelines, including certification of its staff, which range from field supervisors and inspectors to individual trades people and even general labor. The contractor must make sure inspectors are certified, and that inspectors and supervisors are monitoring construction activity, collecting the required test and inspection data, preserving that data for the record, and identifying defects, improper work and installation practices, etc.

All of that falls on the contractor. Neither PHMSA, or the RCT routinely monitor any of this activity.

Contrary to recently spread misinformation, the pipeline operating company hires the inspectors, and conducts the tests, including radiography and hydrostatic testing. The pipeline operating company retains the inspection records, including X-rays of welds, and hydrostatic testing results. Those records are not submitted to, or retained by either State or Federal agencies.

In the event of an operational incident that must be reported to either RCT, and/or PHMSA, a pipeline company will normally turn over the related test records to the investigating agency – barring voluntary compliance, those records may be obtained by subpoena. Note that this is “post-facto,” i.e. an incident, like a leak, rupture, explosion, or fire must occur before any investigation is performed, or enforcement action is effected – it is not pro-active.

Included here is the PHMSA data, from 2002 – 2016 related to enforcement for Energy Transfer Company, Operator ID 32099, Sunoco Pipeline L.P, Operator ID 18718, and Sunoco Pipeline LP, Operator ID 31623. These are three of Energy Transfer Partners pipeline operating entities. Note that there are only 18 enforcement events across all three operating entities, over a period of 14-years. This rough statistic shows just how thin inspection, and enforcement is at the federal level.

Interested persons can contact the regional PHMSA office, located in Houston, here: 713-272-2859

You can visit PHMSA on the web here:

You can visit RCT on the web here:

Safety regulations promulgated by the RCT for Texas pipelines are here:

Concern Over Lack of Testing on the Trans-Pecos Pipeline

As concerned citizens, we are troubled that the Trans-Pecos Pipeline system has not been thoroughly tested for leaks, or other failures, before burial in the ground. Energy Transfer Partners repeatedly promised at public meetings, and in writing, that 100% of the system welds would be inspected, and that the system would be thoroughly pressure tested at 1.1 to 1.5 times its maximum allowable operating pressure of 1,440psi.

Hydrostatic testing, which Energy Transfer Partners, and its contractor committed to perform, involves filling the pipeline system with pressurized water, potentially laced with chemicals, and testing for leaks or related failures. We have not seen any evidence of hydrostatic testing being performed before the pipe was buried and, after significant research, found permits for disposing waste water were just filed last week. This means they were either filed late, or that ETP may run much less effective tests after most of the pipe is buried. Either way, as this is a high-pressure gas pipeline with a 1/4 mile blast radius, we are very concerned.

Filling the entire 42”-diameter, 148-mile long pipeline system, just one time, requires 54 million gallons of water (54,000,000 gallons). In most cases, the water is treated with an oxygen-reducing chemical, and chemical corrosion inhibitors. Sometimes dyes are added, to make identification of leaks easier. In addition to the chemical additives, the hydrostatic testing water picks up more contaminants as it runs through the pipeline, including residual oils, lubricants, surface treatments, and metallic debris from welding and grinding operations. The water used in hydrostatic testing is thus contaminated, and considered hazardous waste, requiring permits for disposal. In this case, surface disposal is being used, which simply means dumping the contaminated water onto the surface of the soil, and relying on the ground itself to filter contaminants out of the water, before it reaches the groundwater sources, like our aquifer.

Hydrostatic testing involves filling the pipeline with water, under 1,440psi to 2,160psi of pressure, and detecting failures or leaks in the system, before it goes into service. This can be done in “sections,” while the pipeline is still exposed in welded “strings,” alongside the trench, and it can also be done after the pipeline is buried, although that makes identification of leaks and failures much more time-consuming and difficult, and requires excavating the pipeline to repair a failure. The activity is highly “visible,” requiring tanker trucks of water, high-pressure pumps, hoses, and significant activity on the right-of-way during testing.

Observers along the route have been monitoring construction. Among many anomalies, they were never able to observe hydrostatic testing activities, expected to be conducted along the construction spreads as the welded pipeline segments were completed. Now, much of the system is in the ground, buried. While hydrostatic testing is certainly still possible, any leaks in the system become difficult to locate, and repair after the pipeline is buried in the trench.

Additional investigation led to querying the Railroad Commission of Texas (RCT), as disposal of hydrostatic testing water, which is contaminated, requires a permit from the agency. Initially, no evidence of any permits, either in application form, pending, or issued showed up in the RCT’s publicly accessible database.

Beginning December 6, 2016, after being unable to locate any evidence of application, pending, or issued permits, BBCA’s research team contacted the Midland, District 8 RCT office, to inquire about the required disposal permits. RCT staffers were polite, and courteous, but were unable to locate any evidence of disposal permits at the local office level. After several referrals, a Midland office staffer provided a contact to one of RCT’s staff in Austin, in the division responsible for issuance of “Minor Permits,” under which the hydrostatic test water disposal permit falls. The Austin office staffer provided interesting insights:

He had recently issued two permits for Pumpco, the construction contractor for Trans-Pecos Pipeline, LLC; one permit authorizing surface disposal of 27,000 gallons of hydrostatic test water, and a second permit authorizing surface disposal of 1.6 million gallons of hydrostatic test water. Both permits were issued within the last working week. The RCT staffer indicated that often, “permit applications are the last thing on the contractor’s mind,” and often fall into last-minute, sometimes after-the-fact requests – he was unable to comment as to whether Pumpco had performed any, or all of the hydrostatic testing, or whether the surface disposal for either of the permits had taken place. Due to backlog, and inefficiencies in RCT’s systems, it may be several months before the permits appear in RCT’s electronic, on-line database, available to the public.

All we as citizens know for certain, is that there were two permits allowing surface disposal of 27,000 gallons, and 1.6 million gallons of contaminated water, issued by RCT for this project.

These HT Discharge permits are site-specific, and allow HT discharge only in the place specified by the permit, as issued, i.e. we would likely notice the discharge of 1.6 million gallons along the route, especially in an arid region like the Big Bend. When copies of the permits become available, we would know for certain where these surface discharges occurred.

Recall that filling the entire Trans-Pecos Pipeline system from end-to-end requires at least 54-million gallons of water, which the HT permits account for only about 1.6-million gallons. While it is possible to use a technique sometimes called “jumping,” or “shuttling” – testing the line segment-by-segment, and moving the water from one construction spread to an adjacent downstream spread, the difference between 54-million gallons (just for a complete, one-time end-to-end test) and 1.6-million gallons is significant (1.6-million gallons is about 2% of the water required to completely fill the pipeline).

For those who’ve been following the Trans-Pecos Pipeline project, recall that the company’s lead representative, Energy Transfer Partners, LP, and the construction contractor, Pumpco, indicated that 100% inspection of all welds, and complete hydrostatic testing of the system would be performed. These commitments were made in multiple public meetings, and on the company’s informational web site for the project (…). All we have as citizens is the word of the company and contractor representatives.

In this environment, it is highly likely that observers along the route would have noticed hydrostatic testing activity, and consequent discharge of large volumes of hydrostatic test water if it had already occurred. As the system nears completion, and if you are an observer, be on the look out for evidence of testing, and re-excavation of portions of the system, which will require discharge of significant volumes of water, and activity to repair any leak or failure that is detected. If you are able to observe this activity, without trespassing, feel free to notify by email.

Related to this research, in conducting the search for the HT Discharge permits, it appears that Trans-Pecos Pipeline, LLC’s T4 Operating Permit, T09352 is no longer available in the RCT’s database, nor does it appear in the RCT’s GIS Viewer (mapping system). Texas Public Information Act / Open Records requests were filed on December 8, 2016, for copies of the HT Discharge permits, and a copy of the valid T4 operating permit. At this late stage, it is curious that the T4 Operating Permit, which is required for the operation of the pipeline, as well as the legal aspects of eminent domain condemnation, used in 39 cases to obtain easement for the project by force of the court, is absent from the RCT’s public records.

Texas Flares Enough Gas Every Month to Supply 5.6 Million U.S. Homes

The State of Texas, via the regulating authority, the Railroad Commission of Texas (RCT), makes it difficult, deliberately, to determine how much natural gas is being flared.

Technically, flaring of natural gas is allowed on a well intermittently, during drilling, and for only 10-days after a well is completed, for flow testing. Unfortunately, a variety of loopholes and exceptions in the laws allow flaring to occur indefinitely.

The following graph, produced by RCT, to deliberately obfuscate and diminish the flaring activity shows that in recent years, about 1% of all of the produced gas (which includes casing-head gas, and well gas). On a monthly based, in recent years, the wells state-wide produced about 650-billion (650,000,000,000) cubic feet of natural gas. Flaring 1% of that gas amounts to 6.5-billion (6,500,000,000) feet – flared, burned off, which creates carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide, and various volatile organic compounds, all of which pollute the air, contaminate the ground, and surface water, and increase the atmospheric CO2 load.

Converted to electrical power, that 6.5-billion cubic feet of natural gas, wasted through flaring, would generate 1905 gigawatt hours (Gwh) of electricity monthly. For comparative purposes, factoring in peak and trough demand, 1Gwh is enough energy to supply approximately 300,000 average U.S. homes. Just in Texas, every month, more than 19-times this amount of energy is wasted through flaring.

You can see for yourself what the RCT’s flaring policies are here:…/oil-ga…/faq-flaring-regulation/

Impacts to Balmorhea Related to the Development of the “Alpine High”

This overview summarizes impacts to the community of Balmorhea, related to Apache Corporation’s development of a recently announced oil & gas find, the so-called “Alpine High” field.

Apache Corporation is currently drilling exploratory and test wells in the Balmorhea area, its drilling contractor, Pioneer Energy Services is operating five rigs on behalf of Apache Corporation.

The company announced that they plan to invest $2.1Bn in the region, completing wells at the rate of approximately 80 annually, with as many as 4,000 wells in total as the field is fully developed over the coming years.

Apache Corporation is one of at least eight producers with mineral rights leases in the southern Delaware Basin, in, and surrounding Balmorhea and the south of Reeves County Texas.

Impacts to Balmorhea and south Reeves County include:

– Risks of surface, and groundwater contamination from drilling and production activities.
– Potential impacts on spring flow from San Solomon Springs, which feeds Balmorhea Lake, a critical freshwater reservoir, and the pool at Balmorhea State Park, one of Texas’ priceless recreational sites.
– Potential impacts on groundwater resources in the Rustler, and Igneous Aquifers, minor aquifers that provide all of the fresh water resources for drinking and agriculture in the region.
– Potential impacts on air quality, related to emissions, including fugitive methane leaks, venting,  flaring, combustion engine exhaust, and production activities.
– Impacts to dark skies, associated with rig lighting, plant and facility lighting, flaring, vehicle traffic, and growth of commercial infrastructure (hotels/motels, restaurants, bars, retail stores, etc.)
– Decreased public safety, related to the risk of rupture, explosion and fire in the producing field.
– Increases in area traffic, with downside impacts including vehicle accidents, vehicle fatalities, road wear and damage, speeding, DUI, and related problems.
– Socioeconomic impact, including disparate impact on ethnic community members, those in poverty, increases in rental prices, increases in cost of living, displacement of existing members of the community who cannot afford these increases, a rise in criminal activity, including drug-related crime, assault, violence against persons, including rape, human trafficking, and theft.
– Increased demand on law enforcement and first responders, including fire and EMS personnel.
– Impacts on area culture, and business as tourism and agricultural activity gives way to industrial and commercial infrastructure to support a predominantly transient workforce.

This list of impacts and risks is by no means complete, or comprehensive. Enumerated here are the major issues, at a high-level that southern Reeves County, and the citizens of Balmorhea are facing.

This small, rural West Texas community lacks sufficient resources to cope with all the impacts they are facing, and the communities in surrounding counties, in this sparsely populated, remote region as similarly ill-equipped. Large scale extraction and production activities have significant history, and documented negative impact on small rural communities, spanning nearly 80 years. You can find out more by keeping an eye on the Big Bend Conservation Alliance’s resource pages and blog.

Conflicts of Interest in the University of Texas System

With the help of our friends at Sierra Club and Environmental Texas, we would like to draw attention to the increasing conflicts of interest within the University of Texas system, and encourage everyone to sign the petition asking Chancellor McRaven to cut methane release on University of Texas properties:

Click here to read and sign the PETITION

The University of Texas, system-wide, is culpable, and complicit in several failures, conflicts of interest, and many more bad acts, and at multiple levels.

Keep in mind the likes of Kelcy Warren, Christi Craddick, and many similar individuals are part of Chancellor McRaven’s executive council, they are members of the 1818 Club, and sponsor endowed chairs in various departments.  UTLands and UTIMCO represent millions of acres, and billions of dollars, all derived from harmful oil & gas activity.

The conflicts of interest run deep, and wide.

UT, through inaction, and silence allows great harm to come to this state, and through direct action, silences those who bring to light the conflict of interest and harm.

A message from our friends at the Lower Rio Grande Sierra Club:

Here on the south most tip of Texas we’re seeing a tangle of bad stuff closing in around us including:

We’re seeing the University of Texas System as having some role in at least the West Texas fracking part of this and possibly in the promotion of LNG exports.

The whole University of Texas System is coming under increasing criticism for its failure to demand that the companies fracking its Permanent University Fund lands clean up their excessively polluting operations.

Since Environment Texas launched a campaign calling on UT to cut methane pollution from the fracking operations on its land, more than 3000 people have signed the petition.  Three dozen UT faculty have endorsed the cleanup recommendations.  And the UT Austin student government voted 21-3 to support the recommendations.

Join them in asking UT Chancellor McRaven to cut methane pollution from UT fracking operations by signing the petition HERE (same petition as above)

For additional information:

– Watch the new infrared video confirming that dangerous methane is leaking from the UT lands HERE

– Also watch the video HERE

– See “Climate Campaign Puts UT on Notice: Reduce Methane Emissions at Your West Texas Oil Fields,” 09-21-2016, Environment Texas HERE

– See “UT’s Dirty Little Secret” HERE

Visit saveRGVfromLNG on Facebook to find out about the 10-11-2016 rally against LNG in Brownsville immediately preceding the TCEQ Public Meeting in Texas LNG’s request for a TCEQ greenhouse gas emission permit.

Also related to UT’s fracking connection, UT Austin professor David Allen was recently been accused of wrongdoing in the underreporting of fracking related methane emission levels in two pivotal, high-profile studies cited by the natural gas industry to discount the problem.

– See “Whistleblower: EPA Official Covered up Methane Leakage Problems across US Natural Gas Industry – News Release from NC WARN,” NC [North Carolina] WARN, 06-08-2016 HERE.  Also see “Investigation Of EPA Urged In Methane Scandal,” NC WARN, 08-05-2016, Popular Resistance HERE.

UT also seems involved in our LNG problems.  The UT Rio Grande Valley (UTRGV) president recently signed a Memorandum of Understanding with NextDecade / Rio Grande LNG — the largest of the three LNG companies seeking FERC approval to build at our Port.  The UTRGV Faculty Senate address this issue today but I haven’t heard the outcome of that meeting yet.  The UTRGV Student Government Association is also concerned and there has been a small student protest against the MOU on both the Edinburg and Brownsville campuses.

And  “LNG SAFETY AND SECURITY” was published by the UT Austin’s Center for Energy Economics in June 2012.  It has been cited by our Port and by the LNG companies targeting our Port to discount and dismiss our safety concerns as unrealistic.  See the report HERE and read footnote 1 that reads, in part, “This publication was supported by a research consortium, Commercial Frameworks for LNG in North America.  Sponsors of the consortium were BP Energy Company-Global LNG, BG LNG Services, ChevronTexaco Global LNG, Shell Gas & Power, ConocoPhillips Worldwide LNG, El Paso Global LNG, ExxonMobil Gas Marketing Company, Tractebel LNG North America/Distrigas of Massachusetts.”

Note: This LNG SAFETY AND SECURITY report was published the same year and month that the Panama Canal Stakeholders Working Group was formed within the Texas Department of Transportation to help make our Texas ports LNG export ready for the widening of the Panama Canal to accommodate LNG tanker ships.

Beyond the Trans-Pecos Pipeline –Looming Issues Threaten The Big Bend Region


As of mid-September, 2016, many Big Bend area residents are aware of the on-the-ground construction activities associated with the Trans-Pecos Pipeline, a project of Energy Transfer Partners, Mas-Tech, Inc., and Carso Energy.

Construction is now active from the northern origin of the pipeline system near Coyanosa, Texas, to the southern United States terminus of the project, and the so-called “jurisdictional facilities”, along the International border, the Rio Grande, 12milesnorth-northwest of Presidio, Texas.

Right-of-way clearing has occurred on approximately one-half of the total 143-mile route, pipe segments have been strung along the construction easement, welding is in progress on some spreads, horizontal directional drilling (HDD) bore operations are in progress at some road, and highway crossings. Residents of Brewster and Presidio counties, especially in the Alpine, Marfa, and Presidio environs will likely see most clearly the direct impact of these activities.

On the legal front, after FERC’s grant of the permit package, and completion of the United States Army Corps of Engineers Nation-Wide Permit 12 blanket authorization, construction activity began in earnest. Some 39 land owners in Brewster, Pecos, and Presidio counties underwent administrative phase eminent domain condemnation hearings, in which Special Commissioners awarded damages, in some cases in excess of 30X the offers made to the landowners by Trans-Pecos Pipeline LLC. The company is appealing in the second, judicial phase of these proceedings these awards, which will tie landowners up for as long as two years.

In one case, in Presidio County, a ranch owner filed for emergency relief in Federal court, challenging the company’s right to condemn –that injunctive relief was denied in the courts, and the rancher’s counsel have appealed in Federal appellate courts in the Fifth Circuit.

In all likelihood, despite actions in the courts and pending litigation, construction activity will continue unabated and the pipeline will be operational during the first quarter of 2017.

Citizens of the region, supported by concerned individuals and organizations across Texas and the nation, exercised all avenues of due-process afforded them under the law. They raised awareness in the national and international media. These dedicated and concerned individuals spoke out, acted, and provided an unprecedented response in opposing the Trans-Pecos Pipeline. Concerns regarding environmental, cultural, socioeconomic impacts, public safety, and a host of other issues were researched, and these concerns were placed on the record at the state, and federal level. Despite this, powerful, monied interests, an un-level legal, and regulatory playing field, the deaf ears of regulatory agencies, and our government representatives, save for a very few, we were ignored.

The Big Bend Conservation Alliance (BBCA), partner organizations including Defend Big Bend, local, and state chapters of the Sierra Club, and citizens near, far, and wide participated in the opposition. Along the way, based on experience, research, and nationwide outreach, we learned of additional, and in some cases larger, more significant threats to the region:

– follow-on pipeline projects, including expansion of the Trans-Pecos Pipeline system, related to cross-border energy exports, attempting to exploit the market

– expansion of transportation and utility corridor infrastructure, including rail, highway, and electrical transmission grid, in the continued regional threat represented by the La Entrada al Pacifico project

– expansion of low-level, radioactive waste storage and disposal facilities, in West Texas, and addition of high-level radioactive waste storage facilities in the region

– the threat of increased industrialization, related to oil and gas extraction activity in the southern Delaware basin, potentially impacting the whole of the Big Bend with thousands of oil & gas wells, unconstrained use of, and potential contamination of scarce water resources, oilfield traffic, crime, environmental impact, and cultural/socioeconomic impact

– threats of water mining on scarce resources, from El Paso to the west, and the Midland-Odessa region to the north, exports of water outside the region for oil and gas use, etc.

– fracking wells drilled and mineral rights controlled at Balmorhea putting the water security of a town and the habitat for endangered species at risk

The numerous threats–complex, impactful, seemingly endless–loom to change the Big Bend region, transforming it permanently. Those who threaten the region remain largely unchecked, unconstrained in their revenue and profit-driven activities. Some of these threats refuse to die, for example La Entrada al Pacifico, defeated at least once, but rearing its ugly head once again, under the cover of political darkness at the state level.

Profiteers see the region as a “wasteland,” they see its people as sparse, poor, powerless, uneducated, and thus ripe to exploit.

The BBCA, other local and regional organizations, and the individuals of the Big Bend–as well as those who may reside elsewhere, but love this place–must face the reality now before us, the reality of these broader threats. These looming issues have now transcended a single pipeline, our opposing one project, focusing on just one consortium of profiteers –we now face the challenge of regional threats on many fronts, led by multiple billionaires, and multi-billion dollar corporations.

If these projects are allowed to continue unopposed, they will transform the Big Bend into a true wasteland, undifferentiated from the all-too-common industrialized areas we have seen elsewhere–devoid of the wild, natural beauty of what we know now as the last true frontier.

The BBCA intends to stay in the game for the long haul, working to preserve the last frontier. In preparing for this next chapter, we have identified four program areas that will be of utmost importance in strengthening the region against future threats. They are:

1) Water

2) Dark Skies

3) Land Use and Conservation

4) Cultural Resources

We have already begun education, outreach and preservation in each of these categories by:

Each of us can make a difference. Our individual contribution of time, our connections to other people, our ability to support organizations who stand to help the region, our ability to vote on the basis of important issues, to effect regulatory, legislative, and political reform are key –these are the tools we have at our disposal. Our time, intellect, emotion, and financial support are the things we have at hand to defend ourselves, our homes, and the region we love: the Big Bend.

Threats Related to Industrialization of the Big Bend Region – A Focus on The Southern Delaware Basin Energy Development Activity

This article examines the potential impacts of oil and gas activity in the Delaware Basin, a sub-region of the greater Permian Basin region in far west Texas.

Recent announcements from Apache Corporation, notably, the so-called “Alpine High” find in the southern Delaware Basin demonstrate the continued southerly movement of oil and gas exploration, and production activity, extending toward the virtually pristine, and largely intact Big Bend region.

The negative potential of this development activity may outweigh any positive economic gain, particularly for the impacted region itself. The Big Bend is the last frontier, thus far spared from major urban, commercial, or industrial development, particularly related to energy industry infrastructure.

The Big Bend region, in far southwest Texas is comprised of of Jeff Davis, Brewster, and Presidio counties. The northern counties bordering the region include Reeves, and Pecos counties, and further to the north, the region known as the greater Permian Basin, one of Texas’ most productive oil and gas producing regions.

This graphic provides insight into the location of the Delaware Basin, overlapping Reeves, Pecos, and portions of Jeff Davis, Brewster, and Presidio counties:

map of Delaware basin

The following graphic shows acreage leased by just three of eight oil & gas producers in the basin, predominantly covering Reeves, and portions of Pecos, Jeff Davis, and Brewster counties – some 700,000 acres.
Map of Delaware basin 2

The recent “find,” known as the “Alpine High,” announced by Apache Corp is included here, along the Reeves-Jeff Davis northeastern county line.

The regional geology is complex, and consists of volcanic, and sedimentary rock layers, including basins, ancient reef structures, uplifts, faults, and mountainous terrain. The hydrocarbon resources in the region are so-called “tight” plays; crude oil, natural gas, condensates (natural gas liquids), trapped in semi-porous sedimentary rock layers within the strata – some sand, limestone (carbonates), and shale. These layers were formed over differing geological time scales, and they have intervening layers of non-porous (impermeable) rock, and non-bearing strata that trap the hydrocarbons in the carbonate, sand, and shale layers. In some cases these layers are one-hundred to two-hundred feet thick, in other cases, they are many thousands of feet thick. These layers vary in porosity, or “permeability,” with sand and carbonate layers having higher permeability than shale. Since shale is semi-porous, or “low porosity” rock, the ability of hydrocarbon resources to migrate, or flow through the rock is poor. To recover crude oil, natural gas, and condensates from these “tight shale” plays, advanced recovery techniques are used – known collectively as hydraulic fracturing and well stimulation, typically using a vertical well bore to reach the shale layers, with the well bore “steered” by directional drilling techniques to produce a horizontal bore section, or “lateral.” The lateral part of the bore is then “fractured,” or “fraced” to produce cracks, or fractures in the shale layer, to allow the hydrocarbons to flow from the fractured shale, into the well bore, where is can be extracted. This is the only way to economically recover sufficient hydrocarbons from these “tight” plays.

Hydraulic fracturing, or “fracing” is controversial for a number of reasons, including intensity of water usage, use of toxic chemicals, its impact on the underground geology, both direct, and indirect, the potential for groundwater contamination, and numerous other reasons. Fracturing of the sub-surface shale layers requires a mixture of water, chemicals, including surfactants, lubricants, anti-bacterial and anti-fungal agents, anti-corrosives, acids, and mechanical components, known as “proppants” (sand, or ceramic materials) used to keep the fractures open, allowing hydrocarbon flow. These components are mixed together, and injected down the well bore under very high hydraulic pressure, which in turn flows through perforations in the horizontal (“lateral”) sections of the well bore to fracture the shale.

The usual development of this kind of play involves multi-well pads, using bores with multiple, stacked laterals. A typical four-well pad completion will use 1,000,000 bbl. of water (42,000,000 gallons) over about a two week period.

This graphic shows the arrangement of a typical multi-well, stacked lateral production field:

Map of strata in Delaware Basin

The flow-back operation, following fracturing, will generate contaminated water, some of which is recovered, and potentially recycled. The remainder has to be either treated for disposal, or disposed of through deep-well injection (this is what is causing earthquake activity in North Texas and Oklahoma).

Once the well stimulation (fracking) activity is completed, and the well has been brought in, it is ready to enter its production phase, to begin delivering hydrocarbons. Those hydrocarbon products must be delivered upstream, to processing facilities – gas processing plants, and refineries. The general notion of moving hydrocarbons from the field producing to processing is known as take-away.

Someone has to put in take-away capacity for tens of thousands of barrels of crude oil, and NGL’s – pipelines, as well as the gathering lines from the well heads.

“Take-away” is the means by which hydrocarbon products, including crude oil, natural gas, and natural gas liquids (NGL’s) are transported away from the well and related production sites. Take-way is also necessary for transport of waste by-products, including contaminated water.

Supply, and take-away capacity during early development of a field is usually by truck – supply components in the process, including fresh water, diesel fuel (for rig and generator power), fracing chemicals, proppants, etc. are made by tanker.   Product and waste by-product take-away is also made by tanker. Small tank batteries are constructed near well pads, and other areas like gas-oil separator pads, gas processing plants, etc., to temporarily accumulate the produced hydrocarbons, and waste byproducts, which are in turn pumped into tankers for transport to upstream facilities.

Over time, to address inefficiency, and improve the economics of producing the field, pipelines, and in some cases rail facilities are installed. Gathering lines move the raw hydrocarbon stream from the well-head to processing facilities. These include gas, and liquid hydrocarbon streams. Additional pipelines from the gas processing plant(s), and from crude oil and NGL storage facilities (tank batteries) move product from the field to refinery operations, in this case to the northeast in the Midland-Odessa area, and to the west-northwest to El Paso. Pipeline construction requires acquiring right-of-way, sometimes through use of eminent domain condemnation, right-of-way clearing, trenching, and other aspects of pipeline construction, and ultimately pipeline operation, which has associated public safety and environmental impact. These pipelines can range in size from 2” (a small connector in the gathering network) to larger 30-inch diameter systems (bulk crude or NGL).

Other components of the take-away system may include pipelines for waste water gathering and transport, and in the supply side, they may also include fresh water, and lean natural gas (used for rig power as an alternative to diesel fuel). Similar impacts to take-away pipelines also apply in this case.

Since this is primarily a rich, wet gas play, the production will include natural gas, condensates (NGL), some oil. The balance of hydrocarbons over this range of production will vary based on the underlying geology and reservoir contents. In the Bone Spring, Wolfcamp, and “Wolfbone” shales, the percentages range from a balanced stream of 1/3 natural gas, 1/3 NGL’s, and 1/3 crude to as much as ½, or 50% natural gas, combined with 40% NGL/condensate, and 10% crude.

Some water is also inevitably produced – depending on a variety of factors, tens to hundreds of thousands of barrels in an operating month – a good average for these formations is about 100,000bbl/month, or about 4,200,000 gallons of produced water, that comes back up with the hydrocarbon stream. That contaminated water has to be hauled out, and either treated for disposal, reused in maintaining the field (which is expensive), or disposed of through deep-well injection.

There will be flaring activity during drilling and completion, possibly less once the field is in production, as technically flaring gas wells is illegal under RCT and TCEQ/EPA rules. Unfortunately, RCT is known for issuing exemptions, and authorizing extensions for allowable flaring, even on production natural gas wells. Flaring is a component of all hydrocarbon energy development, from exploration, and production at the well head, through processing for use and delivery of hydrocarbon-based products:

That is not to say there will be no flaring once the field is in production. Emergency shut-in of a well, compressor station, etc. typically results in flaring, as do maintenance activities. Flaring produces toxic emissions, as well as other products of combustion including carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, and nitrous oxide. All of these emissions contaminate air, and water, and increase atmospheric CO2 levels. There is generally continuous flare operation at gas processing plants, and in some compressor station operations – this is an emergency readiness requirement, necessary to ignite the flare stack on a blow-down line in an emergency venting operation, as well as to burn off hazardous materials from vent lines on processing equipment and intermediate storage vessels. This activity is technically regulated by TCEQ, and emissions are supposed to be monitored and controlled. This kind of continuous flaring activity is a source of unwanted artificial light.

Since this is classified as a sour gas play (rich, wet gas often has a high H2S content), there will have to be one, or more gas plants capable of removing the sulfur from the stream, and drying the gas – gas plants of this type produce molecular sulfur, which is usually transported out in molten form by tanker, either truck or rail. Depending on the market conditions, the sulfur can be sold for industrial purposes (used in fertilizer, rubber, etc.) When the market is down, the producer either has to store the sulfur, or pay to have it hauled out – neither is a good thing. In a down market, the sulfur is typically transformed from molten to solid form, and stored in open bins, which allow rain to contact the solid sulfur, some of which is transformed into sulfuric, acidic storm-water run-off. In dry, windy conditions, some is eroded from the bin and turned into sulfur-laden dust. Depending on the nature of the reservoir, and H2S content of the gas stream, the processing plant(s) may need to remove between 600 and 1000 long tons of sulfur daily.

In addition, sour gas, containing H2S (hydrogen sulfide), is a deadly toxin. The entrained H2S kills humans, and animals in the parts-per-billion level. Leaks in the production system, from the well-head, gathering network, compressor stations, and gas processing plants can be catastrophic, and significant threats to nearby populations.

Danger H2 gas

Today’s 3D seismology, and petro-geology techniques are pretty good, but they are not perfect.

What is happening underground, given the idiosyncratic nature of the geology and formations, can be unpredictable. A bore excursion, a frack-out, a hidden fault that connects to other structures, like the water table, fluid migration, and other factors can, and does cause groundwater contamination. Problems with well bore casings, problems with well bore linings (cement) all result in the escape of hydrocarbons and other chemical contaminants into surrounding strata, with the potential for groundwater contamination.

One of the Apache Corporation’s existing 19 wells is adjacent to Balmorhea Lake… imagine the eventual web of horizontal bores permeating southern Reeves County, and the potential risks.

The greater concern is the level of industrialization related to developing an oil & gas play of this magnitude. While all eight producers holding lease interests in the region are likely over-stating the reserves, in some cases probably substantially, to try and prop up their shaky business by inflating stock prices, the impact on the region will be tremendous, even if only a fraction of this is developed and brought into production.

Notice the significant lease block in southeastern Brewster County, and its proximity to Big Bend National Park.

Map of Delaware basin 2

The southern Delaware Basin region borders the Jeff Davis, Presidio, and Brewster county region, “home of the Big Bend,” which includes Davis Mountains State Park, Big Bend Ranch State Park, the Chinati Mountains Preserve, Big Bend National Park itself, and the University of Texas McDonald Observatory, one of North America’s premier research astronomy facilities. These parks, and the research facility are part of an area tourism draw that brings in more than 100,000 visitors to the region annually – dark-sky tourism is a critical component of the regional economy. Artificial sky-brightness, and light sources, including flaring activity, industrial lighting, and commercial lighting all threaten to dramatically increase artificial sky-glow, and negatively impact this region, which has one of the darkest skies in North America. As potential development of the southern Delaware Basin pushes further south, these light sources move closer to the parks and observatory – light transmission and brightness is based on what is known as the “inverse square law” – in other words, a light source that moves twice is close to the viewer’s eye is four times brighter. A source that moves three times closer is nine times brighter, and so on. Currently, the artificial sky-glow, and associated light dome from the greater Permian Basin region is visible on the horizon from approximately 300-miles to the north-northeast. The Delaware Basin activity will push these sources of light to within 25-miles of these parks and research facility. While it is true that the surrounding seven counties are afforded legislative protection for night sky, and outdoor lighting, enforcement is problematic, and certain activities, like flaring are exempt from the associated legislation and ordinances.

This is the sky-glow, and associated light dome generated by oil and gas activity in the Permian Basin:

Sky glow pic
In addition to increased sky-glow, threatening the region’s dark skies, reduced air quality, due to combustion by-products from rig and site power, fugitive emissions, and flaring, water demands, and potential contamination of groundwater resources, increased dust from traffic on unpaved lease roads, wear & tear on county and state roads from oilfield traffic, increases in vehicle accidents, including fatalities, increased crime, and corresponding increased demands on area public safety, EMS and fire resources.   We’ll examine some of these impacts in-depth next.

Water Use & Water Quality

As mentioned, developing the resources in an oil & gas basin is a water-intensive activity. The Delaware Basin exists within a larger bioregion known as the Chihuahaun Desert, an arid region that receives less than 19-inches of rainfall on an average annual basis.

With the exception of Balmorhea Lake, an open water resource fed by the San Solomon Springs, in Reeves County, there is no open water in the region. The majority of the water in the region is sourced from underground, minor aquifers, which exist within fractured igneous rock, fed by rainfall in the recharge zones in the mountains surrounding the Delaware Basin. Water is a scarce, and precious resource within the region, and the majority of the water used for human survival, wild-life, and agricultural purposes is derived from these minor aquifers.

The Texas Water Development Board (TWDB), and the associated area underground water districts plan for, and quantify water use. Oil & Gas activity, oddly, does not exist as a category for water use, and instead falls under a broader category as a mining activity. In the region, TWDB and county underground water conservation districts show near zero use of area water resources in support of oil & gas activity or mining. The requirements for supporting development of the southern Delaware basin are not accounted for in any of the current, or forward-looking plans – known as Desired Future Conditions (DFC’s). Given than development of a single 4-bore well pad consumes on average 42,000,000 gallons of water (about 129 acre-feet), and a single producer, in this example, Apache Corporation’s “Alpine High” field may contain 2000 – 4000 wells, using the conservative averages, from 64,500 acre-feet, to as much as 129,000 acre-feet of water (billions of gallons) would be required to complete these wells. This is a fraction of the total water required for the full development of the entire southern Delaware Basin.

In turn, the water used during fracturing is “flowed back,” after the fracturing process is complete. That water is chemically contaminated with the materials used during well stimulation, including acids, surfactants, anti-bacterial and anti-fungals, corrosion inhibitors, and many other harmful chemicals. The flow-back water must be collected, and either treated to remove the chemical contaminants, for surface disposal or municipal disposal, or it must be injected into deep-well disposal, in which case that water is essentially lost from the hydrologic cycle forever.

In some production operations, there are operators who recycle this water, and re-use it during subsequent fracturing operations. While this is possible, and a rising trend, it is not ubiquitous in the industry. This also requires local storage of the water, typically in so-called “frac ponds,” which are excavated pits, with synthetic liners to prevent loss of the contaminated water into the groundwater table. Leaks in the liners are common, and leakage of contaminated water is common.

Groundwater contamination also occurs due to faulty well casings, faulty well cementing operations, spills, and related well-head operations. Despite best efforts, there are thousands of documented cases of groundwater contamination related to oil and gas operations, including hydraulic fracturing activities.

Statistically, over eight or more producers, and thousands of wells in the Delaware Basin, groundwater contamination from these activities is not just a remote possibility, it is a certainty.

A specific concern lies in operations within Reeves County – Balmorhea State Park, Balmorhea Lake, San Solomon Springs, and interconnectivity to an underground cave and spring system, Phantom Springs, are at risk of loss from oil and gas development in the southern Delaware Basin.

These resources are unique, in the isolated arid Chihuahuan Desert – literal oases in this landscape, serving wildlife, including migratory birds, recreational needs for Texans, and they provide drinking and agricultural water sources for the community of Balmorhea and surrounding area.

The risk of contamination is an existential threat, chemicals, or contaminated industrial water from the fracing process that migrates into the springs, catastrophic damage to the geology that damages or impairs spring flow, etc., are all valid concerns.

One company, Apache Corporation, owns the leases on mineral rights underneath Balmorhea Lake, and Balmorhea Lake State Park – although they claim that they will restrict their drilling operations to exclude the park, lake, and town of Balmorhea, that restriction fails to completely protect these resources.

One Apache leased rig operates within 1500-feet of Balmorhea Lake:

Drilling rig in Balmorhea

Air Quality

Oil and gas exploration, extraction, and production activities are known to cause a variety of air quality emissions, ranging from fugitive emissions (leaks), byproducts of combustion, dust and aerosol contaminants, and toxic chemicals.

These emissions originate from diverse sources, including valve and casing leaks, from flaring activities, venting from tank batteries, vessels in processing systems, and the majority of activities associated with developing the hydrocarbon resources in the field.

They include dust, generated by traffic on unpaved lease roads, exhaust emissions from rig power, vehicles, electrical generation systems, and other traffic associated with the development and production of the field.

Carcinogens, including aerosolized benzene, toluene, and various other known cancer-producing agents are emitted from compressor stations, gas processing plants, and associated systems.

Many of these emissions, including dust and aerosols can have additive negative impact when combined with artificial light sources, exacerbating sky-glow, and increasing the apparent, and effective size of light-domes – the aerosolized material provides additional means to scatter, and distribute wasted light from artificial sources, creating additional negative impact on the region.

For individuals suffering from respiratory disorders, including COPD, asthma/ARDS, or related chronic health problems, as well as the elderly, and infants, these emissions create additional health risk and hazards.

While TCEQ, and in some cases, RCT, have monitoring and enforcement responsibility, these agencies are notoriously lax in both aspects, and air quality issues related to emissions from oil & gas activities go largely unchecked, until significant health issues in surrounding, impacted communities become overwhelming.

Traffic and Transportation Infrastructure

Truck traffic, including transportation of heavy equipment, water, hydrocarbons, and oilfield logistics will take a heavy toll on the few county and state roads in the region. Wear and tear, and the kind of damage created by oilfield traffic can easily be seen first hand, by traveling U.S. 285 through Reeves and Culberson counties. Damage to roadways, including main-lane, and shoulders, from heavy truck traffic are costly to repair, and damage private vehicles, indirectly costing area residents significant sums for tire, wheel, and other damage.

Increased traffic, resulting including car-truck, truck-truck, and single vehicle accidents are common.

In turn, deaths related to motor vehicle accidents increase.

Area TX-DOT resources are not currently equipped to deal with the additional maintenance required to sustain safe Texas highways, potentially impacted by oilfield development activity in the region. To an even greater extent, county road and highway departments are even more greatly impacted by this activity.

It is unlikely, and there is no evidence, that tax or other revenue generated to the impacted counties is sufficient to keep up with, and repair use-based damage to area roadways. Instead, citizens of the region suffer from additional costs, vehicle damage, and impaired travel on area roadways at the expense of the oil and gas development activity.

Public Safety

Oil & gas development activity has associated numerous public safety concerns. Ruptures, explosions, and fires associated with pipelines, processing facilities, storage facilities are frequent problems in producing fields. Lighting strike induced fires on tank batteries are common.

Leaks at well sites, which may produce H2S are common problems. Occasional wild-well situations occur.

The surrounding landscape is in part short-grass prairie, including the Alpine grasslands, along with scrub, and tinder-dry fuels.

The entire fire-related first responders in the region consist of several small, volunteer fire departments, with inter-department/inter-agency mutual aid agreements.

There is little to no surface water. The terrain is rugged, and difficult in which to operate. Area prevailing winds can create dangerous, extreme fire behaviors. In 2011, the Rock House Fire, ignited by a single spark, burned over 314,000 acres in the region, and ran out of control for nearly thirty days.

Imagine the risk created by concentrated oilfield development activity, and operation in the southern Delaware Basin, unlimited by the nature of the region, and local fire-fighting capability.

Similarly, there is a single 24-bed regional hospital serving Jeff Davis, Brewster, and Presidio counties.

There is a single 25-bed regional hospital in Reeves County (Pecos) to the north of the area. EMS first responders are also volunteers, and there are fewer than a half-dozen licensed paramedic/EMT staff in the region.

Increased demand on these resources from potential oilfield related impacts is impossible to predict, but the resources are thinly stretched now. Fire, injury-accidents, etc. that impact EMS and hospital resources will be heavily hit by this activity.

Quality of Life

Statistically, as population density increases, so does the crime rate. With certain kinds of industrial development, and related urbanization/commercialization, the crime rates tend to increase at a higher than average rate, and certain crimes, for example drug trafficking, human trafficking and prostitution, assaults, driving while intoxicated, etc. increase at higher rates.

Historically, the oil field activity in Texas, and recently, in examples in the Bakken field in North Dakota, along with numerous studies on crime rate, and quality of life support this claim, and concern.

The seven-county area impacted by Delaware Basin development encompasses a vast land area, and relatively small, very low density population – about 25,000 people, spread over about 28,000 square miles – less than one person per square mile.

The small communities that exist in the region are rural, mostly agrarian, with thin law enforcement resources, covering a huge land area.

The region is ill-equipped to cope with potential increases in criminal activity. In addition, many of the impacted counties are border communities, and are already dealing with, and over-taxed by the drug and related trade between the U.S. – Mexico border.

The oil and gas industry is heavily cyclical, and the “boom – bust” economic activity associated with it generates a highly transient, mostly temporary workforce. During the peak of a producing field’s development, there may be several thousand temporary, transient workers supporting that activity. While the majority of them are simply hard-working people doing a job, there inevitably are some with less positive intentions.

As an example, recent pipeline construction in the Culberson, Brewster, and Presidio county areas have directly correlated increases in crimes, including driving while intoxicated, driving without a valid license (including commercial trucks), theft, drug possession (personal use) and drug possession (manufacture and intent to distribute), evading arrest, felony assault, solicitation (of prostitution), and a host of related misdemeanor crimes.

The already stressed system, in dealing with border-related incarcerations is out of jail capacity. Law enforcement is stretched thin to begin with, so response times to criminal activity, combined with the distances that must be traveled for response combined with an increase in criminal activity rate to stretch the system to the point of breaking.

The level of criminal activity directly impacts the quality of life for area residents, who have not had to deal with these problems in the region, at least directly, before the impending threat that this particular industrial development brings.


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