How will West Texas oasis Balmorhea fare in oil play?

4:07 p.m Thursday, Dec. 22, 2016 Local
Swimmers enjoy the huge spring-fed pool at Balmorhea State Park in West Texas. Larry Kolvoord/AUSTIN AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Imagine, for a moment, that Barton Springs Pool and the endangered salamander known to occupy it were threatened not by suburban development — pharmaceuticals flushed down toilets, litter washed into waterways, garden fertilizer chemicals swept into the aquifer — but by one of the nation’s largest oil and gas plays with a planned sprawl of fracking operations possibly a quick jog away.

That’s the situation facing the Balmorhea springs complex, a West Texas oasis in the northeastern Chihuahuan Desert, long ago made into a lovely swim spot.

Until recently, this remained one of the last relatively pristine regions of Texas, sheltered by dint of its vast, romantic remoteness from people and industry. Now, however, some fear the construction of a controversial pipeline and the development of an oil field suggest the coming transformation of the landscape.

This fall, Houston-based Apache Corp. announced its plans to mine the region for oil and gas, christening its massive discovery the Alpine High play. Alpine High holds an estimated 3 billion barrels of oil and 75 trillion cubic feet of gas, and the company has leased mineral rights beneath 320,000 acres, nearly all of them in Reeves County.

The oil and gas activity promises to bring an injection of economic development to a sparsely populated region long dependent on agriculture and tourism. But critics say the oil and gas development is part of a larger industrialization of one of the last untouched parts of the state.

Some scientists and environmentalists worry the planned water-intensive oil and gas operations will rob the springs of flow and dirty the water that remains, jeopardizing the health of a handful of endangered species, including a pair of resilient desert fish species.

The proposed oil and gas field “scares the hell out of me,” says Gary Garrett, a decorated research biologist at the University of Texas who specializes in desert fish.

“I don’t personally see how there won’t be consequences,” said Garrett, who worked for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department for three decades and said he is not affiliated with any environmental group.

Apache says its project will bring jobs and tax base to a vast swath of West Texas — and that it will be careful to protect environmental resources.

“Apache is committed to developing the resources in a safe and environmentally responsible manner,” said spokeswoman Castlen Kennedy. “While we are still in the early stages of putting together a long-term development plan, we are taking the unique natural resources of the area into account as plans are devised.”

But pointing to the drastic effect heavy agricultural pumping has had on other West Texas springs, Garrett and others say using water for oil and gas exploration here will have an impact on the springs, which emerge from the ground in a handful of spots within a few miles of each other.

The most notable is San Solomon Springs, which feeds the gem of a pool at Balmorhea State Park. (Named for the three developers — Balcum, Moore and Rhea — who built the town by the park in the early 20th century, Balmorhea rhymes with “Call-Her-Ray.”) The pool covers 1.75 acres, reaches 25 feet deep and was created in the mid-1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps, a New Deal program. The park drew more than 160,000 visitors last year.

Apache officials have said they won’t drill under Balmorhea State Park, although the company says it has rights to the mineral rights beneath it. (The state didn’t get the rights when the land was deeded, parks department officials said.) Apache officials have also said they will not drill inside or under the city limits of Balmorhea.

“We have not identified where exact wells might go, but what we were able to do very easily at the beginning is say those areas are off the table,” Kennedy said.

For fracking — in which millions of gallons of water, mixed with sand and chemicals, are injected into rock thousands of feet underground to extract natural gas — the company plans to use deeper brackish water and recycle water where possible.

“We’re not only minimizing the need to withdraw from a freshwater resource, but we’re limiting the overall withdrawal need,” Kennedy said.

Industry and species

Industrial activity is “not necessarily at odds with the recovery of species,” said Michael Warriner, in charge of listing and recovery species in the Austin office of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. He points to a nearby preserve, a part of the Balmorhea springs complex overseen by the Texas office of the Nature Conservancy, that is home to oil and gas operations.

“Those springs are still functioning, and there hasn’t been a contamination event,” Warriner said.

“The biggest threat to those species is groundwater pumping and groundwater reductions, which is something that occurs beyond oil and gas activity,” he said. “But a downward trend in terms of volume of water — anything to lower that would be a threat.”

Roughly a decade ago, a team of researchers installed pumps in Phantom Lake Spring , another part of the Balmorhea springs complex, to make sure there was enough water for endangered fish.

Apache Corp. announced in October that it is collaborating with scientists at UT-Arlington to study the water situation around Balmorhea, including baseline testing before drilling starts. Meanwhile, Apache has been meeting with state officials as it prepares to expand its drilling activities.

According to records obtained by the American-Statesman through the Texas Public Information Act, the state Parks and Wildlife Department’s executive director and other top-ranked state parks officials met with Apache executives in late September in Austin. Company and parks officials subsequently met at Balmorhea State Park.

“They wanted to know what they could do to be good stewards themselves of the critical resources they exist out there,” said Brent Leisure, who heads the parks division for Parks and Wildlife. The department has assigned a working group to study the implications of drilling activity for the park, endangered species and the springs.

Leisure added: “We’re not working for Apache.”

A regulatory fight?

The company has positioned itself ahead of an oil and gas regulatory fight:

• Apache’s political action committee in the last five years has given at least $12,500 to the campaign of Christi Craddick, now the chair of the Texas Railroad Commission, which regulates oil and gas activity.

• In October, the committee gave $2,500 to Wayne Christian, who was elected in November to a six-year term at the Railroad Commission. And in 2014 and 2015, the group gave a total of $10,000 to Ryan Sitton, the third member of the commission.

• In all, the PAC has given $152,000 to key state lawmakers or other PACs since 2012, according to a review of state contributions. In 2015, the company spent as much as $185,000 on Texas-registered lobbyists.

Some longtime residents are preparing to fight back. Among their maneuvers: They’ve started a group called Save Our Springs Too, echoing the Austin environmental fights over Barton Springs.

“If that springs becomes polluted, or is disappeared, then our business is done for,” said Neta Rhyne, who runs a souvenir and swimwear shop by the state park.

The struggle over the future of this part of Reeves County is part of a larger picture, said Trey Gerfers, board president of the Big Bend Conservation Alliance. He calls the trend the “industrialization of the Big Bend region.”

“There’s a seemingly endless expansion of industry that’s more and more heavily relying on water to harvest the fuel it needs to supply customers,” said Gerfers. “That water being pulled from a very water-stressed region.

For now, a more immediate concern is the flares that are starting to pop up around Balmorhea, easily visible at night — a couple are just north of Interstate 10, on the other side of the highway from the town. Reeves County is part of a 28,000-square-mile, dark-sky reserve, a region created by the Legislature in 2011 in which companies are required to regulate outdoor lighting to protect the University of Texas’ McDonald Observatory.

Apache officials have met with counterparts at the observatory and are working to comply with dark-skies rules.

Tensions rise

The coming oil and gas development has already fractured relations in this part of Texas.

Fort Davis’ nonprofit Chihuahuan Desert Research Institute recently hosted a daylong science program for 250 fifth-graders. Sponsorship by Apache helped reduce the program fee from $7.50 a child to $3 a child, said Rick Herman, the institute’s executive director.

“We were teaching children about groundwater degradation and the harm of the world’s dependence on fossil fuels,” Herman said.

But the underwriting by Apache angered some conservationists. A “Defend Big Bend” Facebook post drew attention to the partnership by stating: “Our local and much-loved Chihuahuan Desert Research Institute has accepted a small donation from Apache Corporation … the same company that expects to drill 3,500 fracking wells around Toyahvale and Balmorhea.”

“Dirty money, dirty hands,” commented one person.

“Sold out,” another replied.

“We were painted as the very seed of Satan, because we took blood money from Apache — that we sold out to Apache and brought those fifth-graders in here and taught them that oil is good and we should all drink a quart a day,” Herman told the Statesman.

Paul Hinojos, a county commissioner for the Balmorhea area, said his constituents are split, with some excited about the prospect of economic development and others concerned about the welfare of the water. He said the increased tax base will benefit area schools.

“You’re starting to see a lot of trucks, a lot of activity,” he said. “But they’re not opening up shop in the middle of town, not taking away beauty there.”

View full experience