In the flatness of the southern half of Crane County, where a clump of mesquite trees can count as a landmark, you can see a new hundred-foot column of salt water from five, maybe ten miles away. It shoots into the air under extraordinary pressure, as if someone had aimed a fire hydrant straight at the sky. Beginning on New Year’s Eve or in the early hours of 2022, an estimated 25,000 barrels of briny water has emerged from the earth with a dull roar each day, turning the surrounding West Texas landscape white with salt and other minerals.
Even so, as is often the case in the Permian Basin, what’s happening above ground is far less interesting than what the hell is going on underground. “I’ve never seen anything like that in West Texas,” says Bruce K. Darling, a former exploration geologist for Pennzoil who is now a hydrogeology consultant in Austin. “That’s definitely not natural pressure.”
There is no natural aquifer within hundreds of miles capable of shooting water skyward like this, and the source of the blowout was initially a mystery. No well appears at the location in the mapping database of the Railroad Commission of Texas, which regulates oil and natural gas activity. Nor does one appear in the state’s water-well database. Nonetheless, within a couple days, Railroad Commission contractors had arrived on the cattle ranch about 35 miles southwest of Odessa where the geyser formed. The water had already turned the land marshy. By January 9, there were several excavators, motor graders, and bulldozers building a berm to capture the water.
On Monday of this week, one part of the mystery was solved. Researchers digging through the state archives discovered a 1,390-foot-deep dry hole that was drilled at the geyser’s location by Gulf Oil in 1948. In 1957, the well was plugged and forgotten. Gulf had once been one of the world’s dominant oil companies, but it was acquired by Chevron in 1984 in what was then the largest corporate merger ever. Chevron, which is based in San Ramon, California, therefore bore responsibility for the long-forgotten well, which is why the Railroad Commission said it turned over command of the blowout to Chevron on Tuesday. A Chevron spokesperson said in an emailed statement that “we are committed to assuming full responsibility for onsite operations, remediation and costs.”
It is fortunate the well turned out to be an old oil well and not an abandoned water well. The Railroad Commission says it has no jurisdiction over water wells. Indeed, this new geyser is located only twelve miles northeast of Lake Boehmer, sixty acres of noxious water flowing from what began as an oil well but was converted decades ago to a water well. Nobody claims jurisdiction over that problem, which first appeared about twenty years ago and keeps growing.
Stopping the flow of water from the Chevron well could be complex and expensive, and may take weeks. Capping it above ground could cause an underground blowout, in which the stream of salt water carves a new path into a freshwater aquifer or other rock stratum. Figuring out what caused the well to blow out in the first place may prove to be even more involved. It could be a result of saltwater disposal that’s part of normal oil well activity. Highly saline water comes out of active wells alongside oil and gas and is injected back deep underground under high pressure. The amount of water injected in the Permian Basin is extraordinarily large and has caused a series of earthquakes around Midland. Potentially, some of this salt water migrated upward and created a pressurized pocket that eroded away cement plugs in the well and escaped to the surface. (If that’s the case, it may be shortsighted that the state has brought in vacuum trucks to hoover up the water from the blown-out well and is reinjecting it into a saltwater disposal well a few miles away.)
Another possible explanation for the geyser is that a decades-old water flood operation is responsible. Between the 1940s and 1980s, oil companies in the region pumped water into oil formations to boost production. This also could have migrated and formed an overpressurized zone that began to blow out in the waning hours of 2021.
There are so many old, plugged, and forgotten wells in the area that the underground rock of West Texas is bit like Swiss cheese. The cement plugs and steel pipe in wells deteriorate over time. “You have hundreds of thousands of wells in West Texas, many of them are very old,” Darling says. “Over a long period of time, as the condition of wells deteriorate, you might see something like this. Whether this becomes the norm, I’d hate to speculate.”
Sarah Stogner, a petroleum lawyer living near Monahans who is running for the Railroad Commission as a Republican, is less circumspect. She represents a landowner just to the north of the geyser site who had a similar plugged well come back to life last summer. Plug one well, she said, and another will blow out. She calls them zombie wells. “We have a lot of pressurized, very salty subsurface water that will continue finding weak points,” she says. “There is no way to control it. We can only manage it. It is going to be a game of whack-a-mole.”
A very expensive game of whack-a-mole, no doubt.