Ac­tivists eye West Texas drilling plans

Scru­tiny of drilling near West Texas springs in­ten­si­fies

Houston Chronicle - - FRONT PAGE - By David Hunn

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.

Michael Cia­glo / Hous­ton Chron­i­cle

Hous­ton-based Apache Corp. says it takes its en­vi­ron­men­tal re­spon­si­bil­ity se­ri­ously.

Michael Cia­glo / Hous­ton Chron­i­cle

This drilling site is north of the Davis Moun­tains in the Bal­morhea area. Apache Corp., which an­nounced a ma­jor oil find near Bal­morhea State Park, says it com­plies with “all ap­pli­ca­ble laws and reg­u­la­tions” re­gard­ing air emis­sions.

Hous­ton Chron­i­cle

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