BY GILDA MORALES
OFFICIALS TRAVEL TO ORLA IN NORTHEAST CULBERSON COUNTY TO SEE WHAT IS REALLY HAPPENING
A group of nine diverse and curious individuals travelled to
the northern part of Culberson County on June 12, as part of a multi-purpose
Cries Webber and several other engineers from the Alpine
field office of TxDOT, Carlos Carmona, District Coordinator for the Texas
Division of Emergency Management coordinator, Lupita Kelley, administrative
assistant for Hudspeth County Judge Mike Doyal, Efrain Hinojos, Culberson
County EMS coordinator, Summer Webb, from the Culberson County Water
Conservation Board, County Judge Carlos Urias, Sheriff Oscar Carrillo and
County Commissioner, Pct. 3, Gilda Morales, made the trip that ultimately ended
at the entrance to the newest drill site for Capitan Energy at the end of the
pavement on Highway 3152.
The route we took was designed to emphasize the impossible
logistics of law enforcement or first responders getting to the scene of an
emergency in a timely manner. The first
leg of the trip from Van Horn to Pecos is 90 miles, and it took well over an
hour and for most of that time, there was no communication available between
the police and EMS vehicles because of an antiquated analog radio system. Efforts to reach Reeves County and Eddy
county communications were mostly unsuccessful because their communication
systems are the more modern digital while Culberson County still uses analog.
We turned north on Highway 285 toward Orla and stopped
several times to take pictures of an endless line of water trucks lined up at
pumping station and of countless generator-powered boosters pumping water to
remote drilling sites because the water trucks alone cannot keep up with the
demand. Road construction slowed us down
to a crawl, a reminder that the oil boom comes at a high cost to the
infrastructure, a fact not lost on Mr. Webber and the other TxDOT engineers.
We finally arrived in Orla, a ghost town except for a small
restaurant, two food trucks that appeared to be rejects from the Food Networkâ€™s
food truck contest, and more water trucks.
We turned west onto Highway 652, which was somewhat rougher than 285, a
testament to road destruction by heavy oilfield traffic. Because Hwy. 652 is a two-lane highway, we
travelled behind a tanker driver who obviously did not realize that the vehicle
behind him was a Sheriffâ€™s car and blatantly threw an empty water bottle out
his window. Sheriff Carrillo made the
stop and found that the driver had a Florida driverâ€™s license and could not
speak English, but he vowed never to “mess with Texasâ€ again.
The fact that we had been driving for two hours and had not
yet reached Carlsbad Road, the reported location of much of the oil and gas
activity, as well as a hot bed of crime, especially theft, again drove home the
vastness and remoteness of the area.
None of us could imagine responding to an emergency and being able to
actually find the location since most sites are marked only with the name of
the oil company or the number of the rig.
We finally turned south at the intersection of Carlsbad Road
and Highway 3541, which quickly ran out of pavement, when we were met by a
gentleman who politely asked what we were doing. After explaining and introducing ourselves, Craig
Blair introduced himself as a lifelong rancher and now oilman and owner of
He graciously offered a tour of his new hydraulic fracturing
(fracking) site as well as another new drill site, but not before expressing
his frustration at lack of law enforcement and emergency response to this part
of the county. He remarked that he paid
“a lot of taxesâ€ and expressed his frustration at not having a police presence
nearby, but understood the logistics of driving from Van Horn to our current
Sheriff Carrillo explained that Artesia was only 30 minutes
away, while any response from Van Horn would take at least an hour and a
half. Sheriff Carrillo added that Eddy
County had 68 deputies and was considered one of the largest oil producers in
the country, with many more resources than Culberson County. Mr. Blair commented that possibly when the “realâ€
oil revenues started coming in to the county, something could be done, before
someone was killed. When pressed, Mr. Blair stated that Culberson
County was about a year behind Reeves and Loving County in oil production but
that the money “was coming.â€
The fracking site, about five minutes away, was bustling
with employees and activity. According
to Mr. Blair, each drilling or fracking site employs about 60 people who live
and eat there. Since it was lunchtime,
our attention was diverted to a small, uninviting trailer with a picture of a
smiling lobster painted on the front. The
proprietors were from Louisiana and were quite willing to chat about their
business and why they were willing to travel to the middle of nowhere to cook
in less than desirable conditions.
Then I did the math.
They cooked for 60 employees, two meals per day at a cost that averaged
$15 per meal, seven days per week. This
adds up to $1,800 per day, $12,600 per
week, $50, 400 per month and $604, 800 per year. Of course, thatâ€™s gross earnings, but still
impressive, and representative of the impact that the oil and gas industry has
on the economy.
We brainstormed with Mr. Blair about the possibility of
establishing a satellite office at Pine Springs to house a deputy and possibly
EMS, but he warned us that it would be difficult because oil companies tend to
lure people away with their high wages. When
he says high wages, heâ€™s talking about labor that is at a premium with workers
at McDonaldâ€™s in Odessa making $15 per hour and Subway employees commanding
$22.00 per hour.
Mr. Blair was also very forthcoming about the entire process
of oil production, and one of the first questions he was asked was about how
the decision is made on where to drill.
He laughed and said that his company didnâ€™t even need geologists anymore,
and that if he drilled anywhere we pointed, he would hit oil or gas. He informed us that the Wolfcamp Shale, which
is were we were, currently had 13 wells, of which nine were producing, and that
the area was so rich in shale oil and gas, production could be expected to last
100 years or more.
According to a recent press release by Cimarex, a big player
in Culberson and Reeves County, their first test well in the Wolfcamp shale is
producing 1,251 barrels of oil per day.
A barrel is approximately 42 gallons, so daily production is 52,542
gallons per day. Multiply that times the
current price of gasoline, at $3.49, the well is producing gross revenues of
$183, 472 per day or almost $5.5 million per month. According to Mr. Blair, who partners with
Halliburton, each well costs in excess of $17 million, but that his latest
well, which started producing in September, has already paid for itself and is
making a handsome profit.
Mr. Blair then took us on a tour of a site where employees
were getting ready to begin fracking. He
explained that the process begins with drilling a large-bore hole to the
predetermined depth. Smaller bore pipes
are then sunk which carry special explosives designed to shatter the shale in
much the way a windshield cracks, leaving millions of openings where the tiny
oil droplets can ooze.
The next step involves injecting fine sand under immense
pressure using millions of gallons of water and chemicals, usually surfactants
that make it easier for the sand to fill the cracks, allowing the oil droplets
to flow. Once the oil is flowing,
pipelines are set in multiple casings of different materials to prevent
leakage, and the oil is piped to storage tanks where trucks can fill up for
One of the TxDOT engineers asked Mr. Blair about the safety
of the process and as expected from an oilman, he defended the process as
completely safe. He added that he has gone beyond what is mandated by federal
regulations, and he has spent more than $2.5 million to prevent contamination
of existing water supplies.
“Itâ€™s absolutely impossible for anything to happen
[contamination],â€ he said adamantly. Mr.
Blair also did not believe that the increased number of earthquakes occurring
in other heavily explored areas around Ft. Worth and Oklahoma were caused by
fracking or injection disposal wells.
Summer Webb, general manager for the Culberson County Water
Conservation District, grilled Mr. Blair on local concerns that local ranchers
are selling millions of gallons of water to oil companies. Mr. Blair readily admitted that fact,
stating, “Yes, I sell a lot of water and Iâ€™m gouging everyone I can so that
they will consider recycling instead of buying fresh water.â€
He also said that oil companies are already doing research
on technology to enable recycling of the millions of gallons used per
well. He added that most water on his
property is almost non-potable having large percentages of calcium and salt,
enough to give anyone brave enough to drink it, diarrhea for a week.
We also discussed with Mr. Blair the recent court case in
Ft. Stockton, which involved efforts by billionaire oilman, Clayton Williams to
try to export water to water-depleted areas in the Permian Basin, a case which
Mr. Williams lost. Mr. Blair agreed that
although a precedent was set, the issue was far from over.
This issue is close to the heart of all concerned about the
possibility of exhausting Culberson Countyâ€™s water supply, and after doing some
calculations on water used in oil exploration and production, Ms. Webb came to
the conclusion that the amount of water used by the oil companies was a
proverbial “drop in the bucketâ€ when compared to the amounts of water that local
The real threat comes from some ranchers who are considering
exporting water to the Permian Basin. At
this time, there is nothing that prohibits landowners from doing what they wish
with their water, but there is hope that the court decision in Ft. Stockton
sets a precedent that will be applicable here as well.
The Orla trip was definitely educational and an
eye-opener. Culberson County as the fifth-largest
county in Texas, with a landmass of more than 3,800 square miles, cannot
function with its current number of law enforcement personnel, nor can it
logistically provide first responders to areas that a global positioning system
(GPS) cannot locate. We are fortunate to
have probably the best water in Texas, and as such, should strive to take
measures to protect it from corporate interests.
The participants on this excursion came away with the
consensus that all the governing bodies need to take steps to prevent exploitation
of our most precious resource, and all agreed that while the revenue from oil
production is imminent, we cannot let the trade-off be increased crime, more
traffic, RV slums, and the straining of local infrastructure. It was a much-needed wake up call.