Railroad Commission claims ‘gas leak’ to hide produced water destruction

Produced water pouring out of a 300-foot crevice in Crane County just south of Highway 329 was first reported on December 7, 2023, about 400 yards away from an abandoned oil well that erupted in a 200-foot geyser in January 2022 –– the Texas Railroad Commission reported that it had stopped the flow about six months later. An aerial picture at the time showed two containment pits dug by the RRC. This picture of the same site was taken near dawn on January 9, 2024. Photo courtesy of Pecos Enterprise.

CRANE COUNTY –– The Railroad Commission of Texas (RRC) obtained a no fly-zone over the area in Crane County where the ground is once again belching produced water to the surface.

As the Pecos Enterprise reported in December 2023, the trouble started in January 2022, when a 200-foot-high geyser of contaminated water containing salts, hydrocarbons and other toxins erupted from an abandoned oil well in Crane County.

Railroad Commission records indicate the well, owned by Chevron, was eventually controlled, and the flow of an estimated 40,000 barrels of toxic water per day was stopped. Then in December, about 400 yards from the CT-112 well, the ground split open for some 200-300 feet and toxic water began flowing out of the fracture.

Produced water is a byproduct of drilling for and producing oil and gas, and along with usually being highly saline, may also include chemicals used in the drilling and hydraulic fracturing process, and is usually poison to plant and animal life.

The most recent eruption was first reported on December 7, 2023, and the RRC immediately requested a no-fly zone from the Federal Aviation Agency (FAA) after a drone pilot managed to take pictures of the site.

That original no-fly ruling expired Monday night, and before another flight restriction was put into place, a drone once again captured pictures of the site, cataloging the catastrophic nature of the leak.

Bill Burch, a drilling engineer and well control expert, on viewing the photographs, said it did not surprise him that the agency wanted to hide the “disaster” from public view. Burch is running as a Democrat for the RRC seat currently held by Christi Craddick (Republican) up for grabs in November.

In both instances, the RRC claimed to the FAA that the no-fly restriction was because of a “gas leak” but Houston Chronicle reporter Amanda Drane reports that the RRC admits there never was a gas leak; and the no-fly zone was requested specifically to prevent drone flyovers for “safety” concerns.

Drane also reported that the FAA told her that it approves temporary flight restrictions based on information provided by the government agency requesting them, citing wildfires, space operations, and natural disasters as examples. “I cannot find a single instance where the FAA has issued a no-fly restriction in a situation like this, except for this instance, and of course, the well that blew out nearby in 2022,” Burch said.

“They are liars,” Burch said of the RRC’s claim of a gas leak. “But that is nothing new.”

Initial reports in December of the water spilling out of the ground about 400 yards from the abandoned well that erupted in January 2022 location indicated that the water was not coming from a known or identifiable well bore — that the pressurized water had made its way to the surface via another path.

“You have to give the Railroad Commission credit, they have sure made a mess of the situation,” Burch said. “Originally there was just one pit, now you can see multiple pits and berms. My first question is whether all of the pits you see in the new pictures are drainage ponds or additional fractures?”

Burch also said that current RRC efforts of damming and hauling the water off to be re-injected into an injection well was “comical.”

“The only solution is to relieve the pressure that is driving this produced water to the surface,” he said, “and that means shutting in injection wells in the area, and the Railroad Commission has not done that.”

“These blowouts, and this is just the beginning, there will be more, they are just the symptom of the cancer. The cancer, the only logical explanation, is the injection of produced water.”

Burch said the worst possible scenario was that there was no wellbore and the water had made its way to the surface by another path.

“You cannot solve a surface breach that is out of the pipe — not until nature takes its course and the pressure is equalized,” he said, and referenced Boehmer Lake, a 60-acre pond of toxic water spewing from an uncontrolled well about 15 miles away from the site of the current blowout.

He also pointed to the growing sinkhole on FM 1053 in Pecos County, which prompted the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) to reroute the highway several miles around the site.

Reeves County Groundwater Conservation District (RCGCD) General Manager Greg Perrin said that his fear was that produced water could contaminate the fresh water aquifers underlying the Permian Basin –– the Pecos Valley Alluvial, the Santa Rosa and the Rustler. These aquifers are the only sources of freshwater in the Permian Basin.

“If it is a fault, a rupture, which is what it looks like (as opposed to a wellbore) then the groundwater is already compromised,” Perrin said. “All they can do is stop any and all injection and let the pressure go down, and that is not going to happen overnight.”

Perrin said the problem was potentially devastating for the area which includes parts of Ward, Crane and Pecos counties.

“In the short-term, I don’t think this particular instance endangers the groundwater of Reeves County, but in the long term, it will be wait-and-see,” he said. “Obviously the problem is not specific to just that area.”

“I certainly hope that the Water Development Board and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality will start monitoring the drinking water in the area.”

Perrin said his agency had already budgeted to step up its monitoring of Reeves County groundwater both in terms of quantity and quality.

Perrin also said that the RCGCD was an associate member of the New Mexico Produced Water Research Consortium.

“New Mexico is way ahead of Texas in searching for ways to deal with produced water — to clean it and use it. That is where I think we have to go in West Texas, cleaning this water and using it, rather than just pumping it into the ground,” he said.

As the Pecos Enterprise previously reported, Burch believed that water produced by Permian Basin operations is only part of the problem because the Railroad Commission authorized Texas saltwater disposal operations to take water from New Mexico and Louisiana as well, since neither state will allow the water to be injected into their own ground.

Burch said that in his opinion all three current Railroad Commission commissioners have been criminally negligent in how they have managed the industry.

“So far the Railroad Commission’s solution has been to ignore this problem, and to privatize the profits and socialize the liabilities. We cannot keep ignoring this. The seismic activity, the blowouts, this will eventually cause the death of the oil and gas industry if we do not fix it,” he said.

Commissioner Wayne Christian denied Burch’s accusations on party lines. “The truth is the [Railroad Commission] has a robust record of protecting groundwater and has even been applauded by the hostile EPA for our efforts,” he wrote in an email to The Big Bend Sentinel. “The only thing that could cause the ‘death of the oil and gas industry’ are leftwing Democrats set on regulating and taxing our energy sector out of business.” 

Fellow commissioners Christi Craddick –– who is running for reelection as a Republican –– and Jim Wright did not respond to a request for comment. 

Additional reporting contributed by Sam Karas.