UTA partners with Apache to study water quality in Permian Basin

Tetra fish swarm a swimmer as they are fed in the spring-fed swimming pool at Balmorhea State Park in Toyhvale, Texas in 2006.
Tetra fish swarm a swimmer as they are fed in the spring-fed swimming pool at Balmorhea State Park in Toyhvale, Texas in 2006. AP archives

Researchers from the University of Texas at Arlington will partner with Apache Corp. to study water quality in its recent oil discovery in the Permian Basin.

Kevin Schug, a chemist at UTA who has been involved in other studies involving hydraulic fracturing and pollution, will conduct baseline studies of ground and surface water quality in the geologically complex Alpine High resource play the Houston energy company announced it had discovered last month.

The Alpine High field lies in the southern corner of the Delaware Basin within the coveted Permian Basin. Apache has described it as an “immense” oil and natural gas discovery that has at least 3 billion barrels of oil and 75 trillion cubic feet of gas, the company said.

Schug described the partnership as an “exciting opportunity” to work with an industry partner that is drilling in an area with what he called an “extremely sensitive ecology.” The area includes the natural springs which are a crucial source of water agriculture.

“We’re going to be able to work directly with them and do our sampling in concert with their operations,” Schug said. “We’re going to have access to their specific processes and tailor our analysis so we can see if there is a problem and work with them to correct it.”

Apache said the announcement of the UTA partnership demonstrates their interest in wanting to protect the environment and work with the local community.

“We share the community’s concerns for the protection of local water resources and want to be collaborative and transparent as we work diligently to develop the oil and gas resources of the area responsibly,” said Castlen Kennedy, a company spokeswoman.

Within the Alpine High is an area often described as an oasis in the desert. It includes Balmorhea State Park with the world’s largest spring fed swimming pool and a restored cienegas, or desert wetlands that is home to endangered fish and other wildlife.

The springs are also an important source of water for local agriculture.

“Through this partnership we will be able to conduct baseline analysis of both surface and groundwater quality in the area, which will provide important data for future monitoring efforts,” Schug said.

Schug said the university was already looking for money to conduct studies in the area when it was approached by Apache with this partnership. The university isn’t disclosing the amount of Apache’s donation, but he said it is enough money to conduct studies for a year.

Their work, which will begin in November, will eventually be published in peer-reviewed scientific journals.

“We’ve established ourselves as neutral and independent and reliable,” Schug said.

Other studies conducted by UTA scientists in West Texas have found different chemicals in the water, making it undrinkable, Schug said. Among the compounds found are arsenic, benzene, BTEX compounds, or benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylenes. But they’ve had to be careful about pinpointing their origin.

By working directly with Apache as their operations grow, the university will be able to track more precisely what is happening to water quality, and help find ways to correct problems, making it an “absolutely unparallelled opportunity,” and one that should be emulated as drilling ramps up again with higher oil prices.

“We’re not there to blow the whistle. That doesn’t accomplish anything,” Schug said. This is a “much more holistic and palatable situation.”

“If we find something and work with them to fix it and show it has been fixed,” everyone benefits, he said.

Max B. Baker: 817-390-7714, @MaxbakerBB