Activists eye West Texas drilling plans
Scrutiny of drilling near West Texas springs intensifies
Environmental groups are scrutinizing plans by Apache Corp. to drill for oil and gas near West Texas springs.
A growing number of environmental organizations are scrutinizing plans by Houston-based Apache Corp. to drill for oil and gas around West Texas’ popular Balmorhea State Park and its famous spring-fed pool.
The latest is Earthworks, a nonprofit advocacy group in that is mobilizing locals to protect the region’s natural resources. Representatives from Earthworks, which is headquartered in Washington, have met at least three times with area residents over concerns that oil and gas drilling could pollute the air and water.
Earthworks officials plan to speak at a community meeting on Nov. 5. The group also commissioned an assessment of the potential risks from Apache’s project to the local waters, which it plans to release at the meeting.
“We need some help,” said Neta Rhyne, 65, who lives in Toyahvale and owns a scuba and swim shop across the street from the park. “People don’t really pay attention to what’s going on around here, unfortunately.”
Apache announced last month the discovery of 15
billion barrels of oil and gas along a narrow strip of southern Reeves County, in the Permian Basin. The company said it could dig 3,000 wells over the next 20-plus years.
But as it drilled test wells and leased land, residents began to worry the work would contaminate the San Solomon Springs, which provides more than 22 million gallons of water a day to area farmers and to the state park’s crystalblue pool. Tourism is a major employer in the region; about 160,000 visitors came to the park last year.
Water concerns have drawn interest from university scientists and environmental organizations alike. Some, like the national advocacy groups Environmental Defense Fund and the Sierra Club, are just monitoring the situation, for now. Others have become directly engaged.
Sister Elizabeth Riebschlaeger, a Roman Catholic nun from San Antonio who is well-known for her work monitoring hydraulic fracturing operations for environmental violations, visited Balmorhea months ago and talked to worried residents at a town hall meeting. She said Friday that she hopes to return in the next few weeks.
The Washington-based Nature Conservancy said Friday that staff are reviewing available data and the potential impact of drilling. The conservation group will soon begin testing water quality on several sites it owns in the area, including Sandia Springs, Diamond Y Springs and the Davis Mountains preserves.
“Ultimately, we hope to gain assurances that regional springs and aquifers will continue to be protected,” spokeswoman Vanessa Martin said.
Apache, keenly aware of the concerns, said earlier this month that it will work with scientists at the University of Texas at Arlington to study water quality in the area, the first time an oil company has agreed to share with university researchers the proprietary chemical cocktail it uses to drill for oil and gas.
Apache agreed to fund the study with a $136,000 grant to the university. The researchers said they retain the rights to publish results in academic journals regardless of their findings.
But Earthworks said on Friday that Apache operations, in their infancy, are already polluting the air.
Sharon Wilson, Earthworks’ Gulf region organizer, said she took a video with an infrared camera that captures emissions coming from one of Apache’s well sites.
Wilson has met with residents at least three times now.
“They’re very concerned,” she said.
Apache declined to comment on Wilson’s claims but said in a statement that the company takes its environmental responsibility very seriously. Oil and gas is a highly regulated industry, a spokeswoman noted, and the company complies with “all applicable laws and regulations” regarding air emissions.
Residents who oppose Apache’s drilling will likely end up with few options to stop it, as long as Apache has leased the land and met state conditions for drilling permits, legal specialists have said.
Residents could appeal to a newly formed groundwater conservation district in Reeves County to monitor or slow Apache’s groundwater use, or claim the drilling would affect endangered species. The 2-inch-long Comanche Springs pupfish, for instance, lives only in the San Solomon waters.