In far northwest Presidio County, fracked oil flows quietly

A map showing the location of Helios’s Presidio County operations. Courtesy of Helios Energy

PRESIDIO COUNTY — With chatter in the energy community, but little-to-no communication with public officials, an Australian company has started fracking in a remote part of northwest Presidio County.

Helios Energy, an Australian oil and gas company with U.S. headquarters in Houston, has started receiving flows from a well it calls “Presidio 141#2,” the company stated in a news release last week.

As of the September 4 news release, the well had been flowing for 22 days. Helios had injected around 64,000 barrels of “completion fluid” into the well, recovered 19,509 barrels of fluid and was starting to receive an average 117 barrels of oil per day, the company stated. Helios executives were unavailable for comment by press time.

The news created a buzz in the energy community. Energy News Bulletin, an industry publication, described the flows as “above expectations.” And in a separate blog post, an Australian securities trader said it was a “great trade” and “the real oil play.”

Public officials in Presidio County, though, told The Big Bend Sentinel they’d heard little-to-nothing about the project. Helios announced the project with the Australian Securities Exchange, but the company was not required to give public notice under Texas state law. And federal law only requires public notice in certain cases, including when a pipeline crosses state lines.

Manuel “Manny” Baeza, mayor of Marfa, said in an interview Tuesday that he didn’t know about the project. Rod Ponton, county attorney for Presidio County, said he’d just “seen a blurb.” He had “no concerns” about the well because he felt it was “unlikely to evolve into anything major.”

Summer Webb, mayor of nearby Valentine, said she’d heard “just as much or less as what you’ve heard.”

“It’s something we’re interested in knowing more about,” she said.

Danny Garcia, a commissioner for Valentine, hadn’t heard anything about the frack but said he was concerned.

People moved to Valentine because of the clean environment, he said. And he worried that could change if “they started doing fracking and contaminating our air and water.”

Helios’ fracking permit, from April, lists Marfa as the nearest town, but maps released by the company suggest the operation may be closer to Valentine.

Helios Energy has six drilling permits for Presidio County dating back to 2017, public records show. But up until the April 2019 permit, all were traditional “vertical” wells.

Carrizo Oil & Gas, a Houston-based firm, in 2010 received permits for two horizontal wells in Presidio County. Carrizo did not respond to requests for comment by press time.

Zachariah Hildenbrand, a biochemist and co-founder of the Collaborative Laboratory of Environmental Analysis and Remediation at the University of Texas at Arlington, said he was “not surprised” to hear the fracking news.

“As soon as Apache kind of delineated that there was major energy to be had under the ground [near Balmorhea], a bunch of other companies started probing around in the area,” he said.

CLEAR works with oil and gas companies in an attempt to make hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” more environmentally responsible, according to Hildenbrand. For one, the lab encourages companies to treat and recycle fracking water. But he acknowledged that some more traditional fracking methods — including the use of water that later has to be permanently disposed of in underground facilities — was not ideal.

“That not only removes water from the water cycle; it’s been found to trigger earthquakes,” Hildenbrand said. “It’s problematic.”

Coyne Gibson, a member of the Big Bend Conservation Alliance, said “everybody in the region should be concerned for a number of reasons” about the new well.

Not least of Gibson’s concerns was water use. Fracking uses “significant amounts of water,” which is then “removed from the hydrological cycle forever,” he said. He described this as “an ongoing regional issue” for the high-desert communities of the Big Bend.

The Big Bend Sentinel is working to determine the source of Helios’ fracking water and whether any local water authorities supplied it.

In an emailed statement to The Big Bend Sentinel, J.D. Newsom, executive director for the Big Bend Conservation Alliance, said it was “vitally important” to “to protect water resources, dark skies, and ecology of the Big Bend.”

“Big Bend Conservation Alliance will continue to monitor oil and gas development and work with local units of government, landowners, groundwater conservation districts, and other stakeholders to provide information, tools, and support to make informed decisions to protect natural resources and create the best possible outcomes,” the statement added.