Texas Parks department admits it never studied impact of oil drilling on Balmorhea springs

A drilling rig sits north of the Davis Mountains Friday, Sept. 16, 2016 in Balmorhea. Houston-based Apache Corporation recently announced the discovery of an estimated 15 billion barrels of oil and gas in the area and plans to drill and use hydraulic fracturing on the 350,000 acres surrounding the town. Apache has leased the mineral rights under the town and nearby state park, but has promised not to drill on or under either. While some residents worry that the drilling could affect the spring at the state park and impact tourism, others are excited for the potential economic boom the oil discovery and drilling could bring. ( Michael Ciaglo / Houston Chronicle )
A drilling rig sits north of the Davis Mountains Friday, Sept. 16, 2016 in Balmorhea. Houston-based Apache Corporation recently announced the discovery of an estimated 15 billion barrels of oil and gas in the area and plans to drill and use hydraulic fracturing on the 350,000 acres surrounding the town. Apache has leased the mineral rights under the town and nearby state park, but has promised not to drill on or under either. While some residents worry that the drilling could affect the spring at the state park and impact tourism, others are excited for the potential economic boom the oil discovery and drilling could bring. ( Michael Ciaglo / Houston Chronicle )

State park officials have not conducted any research to assess the impact of oil drilling on West Texas’s Balmorhea State Park and the region’s famous artesian springs. Nor had the parks department gathered other scientific studies on the region’s aquifers until just recently.

Three weeks ago, park officials said they had “no evidence to indicate concern” about Houston-based Apache Corp.’s plans to drill oil and gas wells on 350,000 acres surrounding the pools and canals fed by the San Solomon Springs.

Stephanie Salinas, a spokeswoman for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, said staff had consulted with a national research institute that has studied the springs. Since the oil wells are lower than or equal in depth to the springs, she said, the park should not be affected by oil and gas drilling.

The department declined multiple requests for clarification, including an interview with parks director Brent Leisure.

Then, late last week, a parks spokesman said that the department has no research on the subject, and is now collecting some.

“We apologize for this process having taken so long, but we’ve looked into the matter and, unfortunately, we do not have written records with test data or similar written information related to your request,” deputy communications director Tom Harvey told the Chronicle.

Apache announced last month the discovery of a new oilfield it named Alpine High in the scrub brush desert north of the Davis Mountains. It estimated the field holds more than 15 billion barrels of oil and gas, potentially one of the largest discoveries in recent years.

Some residents of the 500-person town of Balmorhea, however, are worried about the impact of such a vast find. They’re concerned the drilling could contaminate the aquifer or use up the springs — hydraulic fracturing requires millions of gallons of water to flood the well, crack shale and release oil. If drilling spoils the state park pool, several residents said they worry the town wouldn’t make it. The park logged about 160,000 visitors last year.

Apache has met with regional officials and promised not to drill under the town or state park. The company has also explained that with modern drilling technology, it can carefully and easily avoid such aquifers.

The parks department said on Friday that it is now collecting research and considering water testing. Harvey said the department’s “posture has certainly evolved” since it’s original statement. Officials there are now mindful of the possible impact of drilling, he said. “We don’t know for sure what’s going to happen,” Harvey said. “But we are ramping up efforts to gather information.”

Park staff had previously gathered most of its information by talking to George Veni, director of a federally funded cave and springs research institute.

But Veni, when contacted by the Chronicle, said the most recent study he did on the springs was three years old. Moreover, he said he was concerned about the effect of drilling on the area aquifers.

“In my estimation, there is a chance that future drilling in the wrong place, with some sort of release, could impact one or more of the springs,” Veni said last month.

The biggest issue, he said, is that researchers just don’t have enough information.

“Right now, we have a very general big-picture understanding of the aquifer,” Veni said. “But that’s just super, super general. We don’t know the details. And details are critically important in terms of understanding how to manage and protect the aquifer.”

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