8 September 2010

Unversity of Texas Oil Production and Land Degradation

Posted by John Freeland

Image: Texon Oilfield west of Big Lake, TX. NAIP air photo, 2005.

There’s more to extracting oil than drilling a neat hole in the ground.

An Austin American-Statesman article by Ralph Haurwitz, makes clear the tremendous wealth the University of Texas has aquired from oil extracted from its property, as well as the substantial land cost of that business.

Since drilling began in 1921, 2.1 million acres of University of Texas land in West Texas have produced $4.4 billion in royalties and other mineral income in support of UT and Texas A&M. Along with that, about 11-square miles (7,000 acres) has been severely damaged by saltwater contamination.

Saltwater, or oifield brine, comes up with the oil and the relative amounts of brine and oil at any given time during production is called the oil to brine ratio (OBR). The OBR tends to decrease as oil wells play out, with older wells producing more brine than oil, as illustrated by this graph of southern Florida oil production data.

Graph source: USGS

The UT Texon oil field has been denuded for years but some species such as salt cedar (Tamarix spp.) have a competitive advantage over plants with less tolerance to salt toxicity. In the oil patch, more damage is usually caused by brine than oil spills. Sodium is especially troublesome to plant roots and soil structure.

Brine management has improved somewhat and usually involves underground disposal through injection wells. Brine is also spread on roads for deicing and dust control. With desalinization, the brine can become a water supply. However, the long history of careless brine management has taken a toll on the landscape and undoubtedly continues throughout oil patches worldwide.

The value of the oil is high compared to the short-term productivity of the soil. Still, the damage to soil, plants, and water needs to be accounted for in the overall cost of oil.