In the flatness of the southern half of Crane County, where a cluster of mesquite trees may count as a landmark, you can see a new column of salt water a hundred feet away at five, maybe ten miles. He fires into the air under extraordinary pressure, as if someone has pointed a fire hydrant straight up at the sky. Beginning on New Years Eve or the early hours of 2022, approximately 25,000 barrels of brackish water emerged from the earth with a low roar each day, making the surrounding West Texas landscape white with salt and water. other minerals.
Even so, as is often the case in the Permian Basin, what happens on the surface is far less interesting than what happens underground. “I’ve never seen anything like it in West Texas,” says Bruce K. Darling, a former exploration geologist for Pennzoil who is now a hydrogeological consultant in Austin. “It’s certainly not a natural pressure.”
There is no natural aquifer hundreds of miles away that can project water skyward like this, and the source of the eruption was initially a mystery. No wells appear at this location in the Railroad Commission of Texas mapping database, which regulates oil and gas activity. None appear in the state’s water well database either. Nonetheless, within days, the Railroad Commission contractors had arrived at the cattle ranch about 35 miles southwest of Odessa, where the geyser formed. The water had already made the land swampy. On January 9, several excavators, graders and bulldozers were building a berm to catch the water.
On Monday of this week, part of the mystery was solved. Researchers digging through state records discovered a 1390-foot-deep dry hole that was drilled at the geyser site by Gulf Oil in 1948. In 1957, the well was plugged and forgotten. Gulf was once one of the world’s dominant oil companies, but it was acquired by Chevron in 1984 in what was then the largest corporate merger ever. Chevron, which is based in San Ramon, Calif., Therefore bore responsibility for the long-forgotten well, which is why the Railroad Commission said it handed command of the eruption to Chevron on Tuesday. A Chevron spokesperson said in an emailed statement that “we are committed to taking full responsibility for on-site operations, remediation and costs.”
Fortunately, the well turned out to be an old oil well and not an abandoned water well. The Railway Commission says it has no jurisdiction over water wells. Indeed, this new geyser is located just twelve miles northeast of Lake Boehmer, sixty acres of noxious water flowing from what began as an oil well but was converted decades ago. into a water well. No one is claiming jurisdiction over this problem which appeared twenty years ago and which continues to worsen.
Stopping the flow of water from the Chevron well could be complex and costly, and can take weeks. Covering it above the ground could cause an underground eruption, in which the current of salt water makes a new path in a freshwater aquifer or other bedrock. Figuring out what caused the well to explode in the first place can be even more complex. This could be the result of the removal of salt water that is part of the normal activity of oil wells. Highly saline water comes out of active wells alongside oil and gas and is reinjected deep underground under high pressure. The amount of water injected into the Permian Basin is extraordinarily large and has caused a series of earthquakes around Midland. Potentially, some of this salt water migrated upward and created a pressure pocket which eroded the cement plugs in the well and escaped to the surface. (If so, it may be short-sighted that the state brought in vacuum trucks to suck water from the blown-up well and inject it back into a saltwater disposal well a few miles away. the.)
Another possible explanation for the geyser is that a decades-old water flooding operation is responsible. Between the 1940s and 1980s, oil companies in the region pumped water into oil formations to increase production. It could also have migrated and formed an overpressurized zone that began to blow in the dying hours of 2021.
There are so many ancient, plugged and forgotten wells in the area that the underground rock of West Texas looks a bit like Swiss cheese. Cement plugs and steel pipes in wells deteriorate over time. “You have hundreds of thousands of wells in West Texas, a lot of them are very old,” says Darling. “Over a long period of time, as the condition of the wells deteriorates, you might see something like this. Whether this becomes the norm, I would hate to speculate.
Sarah Stogner, an oil lawyer living near Monahans who is running for the Railroad Commission as a Republican, is less wary. She represents a landowner just north of the geyser site who revived a similar plugged well last summer. Plug in a good one, she said, and another will explode. She calls them zombie pits. “We have a lot of pressurized and very salty groundwater that will continue to find weak spots,” she says. “There is no way to control it. We can only manage it. It’s gonna be a whack-a-mole game.
A very expensive game of Whack-a-mole, without a doubt.