Untapped: The New West Texas

Nov 15, 2017
Originally published on November 15, 2017 4:33 pm

This piece is Part 1 of our Untapped series about the new West Texas.

The Permian Basin in West Texas leads the nation in oil and gas production. Midland and Odessa have long been the heart of this industrialized desert. But oil and gas development is expanding outward. In the past year, drilling operations have moved south and west into a region long written off as undevelopable.

That's where we begin a series of reports examining what all this means for the region and the state. Untapped: The New West Texas explores the impact of new energy exploration on the economy, the water table and the environment.

West Texas-based Reporter Sally Beauvais begins our story on the edge of Balmorhea Lake in southern Reeves County, about 100 miles from the heart of the Permian Basin oil patch. She says the lake is a popular recreation spot, just across from the foothills of the Davis Mountains.

But things are changing: just across the lake, Houston-based Apache made a major oil discoverya couple of years ago – the evidence is a bald patch where a test oil rig recently stood.

In 2016, Apache said the area could contain up to 3 billion barrels of oil. The company named the new field Alpine High.

"I'm kind of at the edge of where industry is reaching into this corner of west Texas," Beauvais says. "It's an area that producers had written off for decades."

Beauvais says producers have drilled in this corner of far west Texas before, but had never made the big strike.

"Apache just had the stars align, and they found the right geologist to study the area, and they figured out how to get the oil out from under this region," Beauvais says.

Further south, in Big Bend country, Dallas-based Energy Transfer Partners has been developing new oil and gas resources, too. Beauvais says the company has built two natural gas pipelines, the Comanche Trail and Trans-Pecos pipelines.

"The pipelines are really starting to lay the groundwork of what made it possible for companies to frack in these parts of the Permian Basin," Beauvais says "and export that natural gas to Mexico, and to the Mexican coast to be shipped overseas."

Beauvais says the new pipelines come at the best possible time for Apache, which will need a way to move the oil it produces. In addition, eight other companies are exploring the Delaware Basin, where Apache's Alpine High field is located.

Increased energy production will have an environmental impact on the region. Beauvais says increases in fracking in the Permian Basin overall have already stressed the environment.

"The main question for concerned people is," she says "how much of the country's natural resources and wild spaces are we prepared to give away for development?"

Water is a key concern in the region, Beauvais says.

"The pool at Balmorhea State Park is at the front of that picture," she says. "[It's ] the west Texas desert oasis that drives tourism in the area, and the economy. But beyond Balmorhea, there are also larger concerns about unregulated water mining in massive quantities, and frackng operations in other parts of the Permian."

Environmental concerns also extend to the quality of local water tables, safety for wildlife, air quality and light polution from gas flares.

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