By: The Texas Tribune – Attorneys for the city of Midland, the oil capital of Texas, made an unusual request to regulators this year: Could they please be allowed to challenge drilling permits?
Midland isn’t contesting permits to drill for oil. The city is challenging applications by Pilot Water Solutions to inject oil and gas wastewater deep underground adjacent to the T-Bar Ranch, where Midland gets about 30% of its drinking water. City leaders worry that Pilot’s disposal wells could jeopardize their long-term water supply.
The Railroad Commission of Texas, which regulates oil and gas drilling and disposal wells, agreed in June to give Midland standing to challenge the permits. The case will go before a Railroad Commission administrative judge in January.
The dispute highlights two rising challenges in West Texas: where to dispose of billions of barrels of toxic oil and gas wastewater and how to get enough fresh water to keep the taps flowing.
Midland Mayor Lori Blong, herself the co-owner of the oil and gas company Octane Energy, traveled to Austin in June to appeal to the Railroad Commission in an open meeting.
“Midland has an independent and friendly relationship with the oil and gas industry,” Blong told the commissioners, adding disposal wells are “essential” to that industry.
“However, I also understand that all SWD [saltwater disposal] well construction procedures and applications are not created equal, and across Texas, they must demonstrate that groundwater is protected,” Blong said.
Zachary Neal, Pilot Water Solutions’ executive vice president, said the company has introduced multiple layers of protection in the proposed wells and will take groundwater samples to monitor the safety of the community’s water supply. Neal said these steps “exceed regulatory requirements.”
Demand for water, disposal sites at odds
Midland’s water woes are nothing new. In 1965, the city of Midland bought the 20,229-acre T-Bar Ranch in Winkler County, a rural part of the Permian Basin near the New Mexico state line, for future water supply.
That decision proved prescient after the drought of 2011 in the Permian Basin. That year reservoirs dipped lower and lower and Midland and Odessa introduced water restrictions for the first time. Midland, the quintessential oil boom town, acknowledged that development would grind to a halt if there wasn’t enough water to go around.
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After squeaking through 2011, Midland decided it was time to tap into the T-Bar Ranch water. A 67-mile pipeline was completed by May 2013 at a cost of over $200 million to connect the T-Bar Ranch to Midland. The T-Bar Ranch was also designated as Midland’s emergency water supply.
That’s why a series of permit applications to drill wastewater wells adjacent to the T-Bar Ranch caught the attention of Midland officials. According to Midland’s protest letter, the city owns the groundwater under Sections 15 and 16, Block C-23, which are adjacent to the T-Bar Ranch and where Pilot intends to drill the wells.