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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