Jackson residents worry oil extraction may harm groundwater – victoria advocate – victoria, tx

Jackson County Rancher Johnny Dugger looks over an area where aging infrastructure of oil wells, some that were drilled more than eight decades ago, is causing oil to leak into the marshlands.

Frank Tilley

for The Victoria Advocate

VANDERBILT – It’s a plan that sounds too good to be true for some.

One of the largest coal-fired power plants in America will capture its greenhouse gas emissions, compress the gas and pipe it 82 miles to Jackson County.

Near the unincorporated community of Vanderbilt, the carbon dioxide will be pumped underground to make an aging oil field boom once again.

The $1 billion W. A. Parish Petra Nova project has been praised for its innovation and scale. Once completed, the system would capture emissions from about 6 to 7 percent of the plant’s power generation, preventing the release of 1.6 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions annually.

But Jackson County residents are raising red flags.

They say the location where the carbon dioxide will be pumped underground, known as the West Ranch oil field, is riddled with 700 well bores from decades of oil and gas exploration. Many of these wells were drilled and plugged during a time when regulations weren’t as strict, said Johnny Dugger, who owns 2,700 acres near the proposed site.

“If you look at the West Ranch on a map, it looks like someone shot it with a shotgun,” he said.

Dugger sits on the groundwater district board but voiced concerns as a private landowner.

“They could put every rancher over here out of business,” he said.

Hilcorp Energy Co., based in Houston, will convert more than 400 of the existing 700 wells into monitoring wells during the project, said Justin Furnace, the company’s spokesman.

“As it relates to our plan for groundwater monitoring and protection, Hilcorp will have one of the most robust monitoring programs of its kind at West Ranch,” Furnace wrote in an email. “Taking all monitored wells into account, at the height of our operations, we will have one monitored well for every 10 acres at West Ranch.”

But the purpose of the monitoring wells is to monitor carbon dioxide injection, not groundwater contamination. The wells are at the depth of oil, which is much deeper than groundwater, said Tim Andruss, Jackson County groundwater district general manager.

Andruss likened the monitoring system to watching the door of a building for intruders without looking inside the building.

In March, the Railroad Commission conducted a hearing for 12 injection well applications for the project. At the hearing, 31 historic wells on West Ranch were identified as having problems with their plugs or were not yet plugged.

In 18 of the wells, fluid was at or near the ground surface, indicating there’s enough pressure on the wells to push fluid up to the depth of groundwater, according to the hearing examiners’ report.

“The examiners believe that Hilcorp’s proposed monitoring system, by itself, is insufficient to determine whether injection fluids remain confined to the injection interval within the 31 problem wells,” according to the report.

The examiners also said Hilcorp should replug the 31 wells with cement right above the level at which carbon dioxide will be injected or use the wells for monitoring. The examiners recommended the commissioners approve Hilcorp’s applications with the stipulation that Hilcorp address the problem wells.

But railroad commissioners approved the 12 injection well applications without the stipulation.

“Where’s all these environmental people that jump up and holler ‘boo’ at every single thing when this could be the worst catastrophe this end of the country has seen?” Dugger asked. “It’s because they don’t know.”

West Ranch is estimated to have about 60 million barrels of oil that could be recovered by injecting carbon dioxide and water underground at high pressures. Hilcorp intends to raise the pressure of the reservoir to 2,700 psi by pumping 240,000 barrels of salt water per day into the ground for seven years.

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Hilcorp has assured Jackson County residents despite the high pressure, it is extremely unlikely the salt water or carbon dioxide will migrate into groundwater or beyond the boundaries of West Ranch.

But the Texana Groundwater Conservation District, located in Jackson County, identified three orphaned wells near the site bubbling water with salinity levels exceeding seawater at the surface. The wells have since been plugged but are evidence that the unlikely is possible, Andruss said.

“If it’s so unlikely, how have we already found three cases of it that are adjacent to the West Ranch?” he asked. “To me, to suggest the probability is very, very low – those two don’t comport.”

Hilcorp claims to have dedicated groundwater monitoring wells but hasn’t showed the groundwater district a comprehensive monitoring plan, Andruss said.

Railroad commissioners also appeared to be perplexed by how the company intends to monitor groundwater. The expert hired by Hilcorp to testify at the May hearing said if a problem occurs, Hilcorp will fix it accordingly.

“The examiners believe that this suggests Hilcorp expects problems to occur as a result of its proposed injection operations,” according to their report.

A second hearing was in May for several more injection wells. And two more hearings are planned for more injection wells in the coming months.

While the groundwater district doesn’t have enough money to continue to pursue Hilcorp’s applications, Industrial School District Superintendent Tony Williams intends to be at every hearing until he is assured the school district’s drinking water is safe.

The school board is concerned about the historic wells, the monitoring plan and what will happen if the district’s water well is compromised, Williams said.

The district’s water well provides water to 1,225 students, 176 employees and the 300 residents of Vanderbilt. The well is about a quarter mile away from West Ranch.

“Our school district doesn’t have any intentions to stop Hilcorp from the project. The school district is in favor and wants them to be successful,” he said. “But at the end of the day, we want our water resources to be preserved.”

The pipeline that will bring carbon dioxide from the W. A. Parish power plant to West Ranch is almost finished. NRG Energy, which is a partner in the project, has about a one-mile stretch left to put into the ground, said NRG Energy spokesman David Knox.

The project is expected to be online by the end of 2016, and is on schedule and within budget, Knox said.

But Jackson County residents won’t be on board until they’re assured the proper precautions are in place.

“All I know is how many people could be hurt by this,” Dugger said. “And I’m not going to be quiet.”