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article imageGround under a West Texas oil patch is moving at an alarming rate

By Karen Graham     Mar 25, 2018 in Technology
Decades of oil drilling in West Texas have destabilized localities in a 4,000-square-mile area, which is populated by small towns, roadways and a vast network of oil and gas pipelines, and storage tanks.
According to a new study from Southern Methodist University (SMU) scientists, published in the journal Nature Scientific Reports last week, years of fossil fuel production has destabilized a large swath of the Texas oil patch, causing the land to heave and sink at alarming rates.
Researchers found that satellite radar images obtained by the European Space Agency (ESA) between November 2014 and April 2017 revealed significant ground movement across a 4,000-square-mile area of West Texas that covers four counties. In one particular area, the ground had moved by as much as 40 inches in just two-and-a-half years.
In an SMU statement, research scientist Jin-Woo Kim said, “This region of Texas has been punctured like a pin cushion with oil wells and injection wells since the 1940s and our findings associate that activity with ground movement.”
Active Permian Basin pumpjack east of Andrews  Texas in 2009.
Active Permian Basin pumpjack east of Andrews, Texas in 2009.
“The ground movement we’re seeing is not normal. The ground doesn’t typically do this without some cause,” said geophysicist Zhong Lu, a professor in the Roy M. Huffington Department of Earth Sciences at SMU and a global expert in satellite radar imagery analysis.
The hazards associated with the instability and movement of the ground pose significant risks to residents, roads, railroads, levees, dams, and oil and gas pipelines, as well as potential pollution of groundwater, say the researchers.
Satellite imagery helped in identifying ground destabilization
Satellite imagery and oil well production data from the Railroad Commission of Texas helped the scientists connect the ground movement to oil production activities.
Pressurized fluid injection into what SMU describes as “geologically unstable rock formations” in the area is one of those activities; the scientists discovered ground movement corresponded with “nearby sequences of wastewater injection rates and volume and CO2 injection in nearby wells.”
A fracking operation in progress.
A fracking operation in progress.
Joshua Doubek
The study focused on Winkler, Ward, Reeves, and Pecos counties, an area nearly the size of Connecticut. The satellite imagery used radar interferometry recently launched from open-source orbiting satellites. Interferometric synthetic aperture radar, or InSAR for short, allows scientists to detect changes that aren't visible to the naked eye and that might otherwise go undetected.
The satellite technology can capture ground deformation with an accuracy of sub-inches or better, at a spatial resolution of a few yards to over thousands of miles, say the researchers.
About 5.5 miles from Pecos, researchers detected over 1 inch of subsidence near new oil wells. Over the past few years, this area has also experienced six small earthquakes, indicating the ground instability accrued stress and led to existing faults slipping. Kim said, “We’re fairly certain that when we look further, and we are, that we’ll find there’s ground movement even beyond that.”
Radar detected significant ground sinking a half-mile east of the huge Wink No. 2 sinkhole  where th...
Radar detected significant ground sinking a half-mile east of the huge Wink No. 2 sinkhole, where there are two subsidence bowls, one of which has sunk more than 15.5 inches a year.
Zhong Lu / Jin-Woo Kim / SMU
Sinking and uplift detected from Wink to Fort Stockton
The biggest evidence of ground subsidence is evident near Wink, Texas. There are two massive sinkholes are about a mile apart from the other in West Texas. The first "Wink Sink" opened up in 1980 and is about as wide as a football field. The second and larger hole opened in 2002 and stretches around 900 feet at the widest point.
It is questionable if the petroleum industry will take this study seriously, especially with the White House intent on pushing for world dominance in fossil fuels.
EcoWatch quoted Todd Staples, president of the Texas Oil & Gas Association, who told Dallas News: "Subsidence and uplift are found in many areas and the variety of conditions described in the report obviously require additional research to properly reflect on the situations."
"We look forward to reading the report in depth and will continue to produce oil and natural gas responsibly and safely, and in compliance with science-based rules and regulations."
More about permian basin, West texas, geohazards, land destabilization, Satellite imagery
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