Life in the Oilfields – Earthquakes and ecology in the Permian

Dr. Michael Zavada
Chair of Geosciences and Professor of biology and geosciences - University of Texas - Permian Basin

You can have oil and you can enjoy your petroleum and everything, but also know that people live here and that we also have to regulate it to some degree so people don’t get sick, so children don’t get sick. – Dr. Michael Zavala

The following is an excerpt of an interview by Michael Lewis of Environment Texas with Dr. Michael Zavala, a professor at the University of Texas – Permian Basin. The questions and responses have been edited for brevity and clarity. The full interview can be found HERE

This is part of our “Stories from the Oilfields” series of collected interviews from residents of the oil producing areas of Texas and experts on the impacts of the fossil fuel industry. See our full series HERE.

Environment Texas: It sounds like you do a lot of work around the fossil fuel industry here in the Permian. 

Dr. Zavada: I do. I was trained in Paleontology and Paleoecology for the most part as an ecologist. And so a lot of my work is applicable to the oil industry and for oil exploration. I continued to go on in ecology and paleoecology and now I mostly work in environmental areas that are related to what the oil industry is doing and what impact it has on the environment. The project that I’m working on now is air quality in the basin, specifically Midland and Odessa. 

Environment Texas: Could you give me a layman’s idea of what kind of impacts you are seeing? 

Dr. Zavada: Part of what I’m doing is trying to sort that out because there’s actually two ways in which the oil industry impacts the environment. The first one is what has been advertised where the secondary effects of burning fossil fuels which then go into the atmosphere and raise the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere. And the secondary effects of that with global warming and the annual cost of damage due to more severe storms and a variety of other things. 

We’ve all felt that across the United States now. And that is in part, the things that operate here, which is one of the biggest emitters of methane into the atmosphere in the entire hemisphere. So there are some serious issues with the general emission of methane, CO2, and things like that that come out of the operations and the actual results of people buying the product from this basin. I often feel that people don’t get too concerned about it because they’re secondary effects, they’re not directly affecting them. 

The other thing we’re concerned about is the effect of operations within the basin on public health of the surrounding population. For instance, we have a detector on top of science and technology here and within a five mile radius of that station there’s about 233 oil field operations that are going on. We’re putting another one out on our Midland campus. And in that particular location, there’s about 722 operations within a five mile radius and then one at the National Weather Service at Midland International Airport. And that has about 4500 operations going on. So what we’re trying to do is get a handle on that with fixed based monitoring. 

The one thing we’re finding out with this is that although there’s a lot of space and dissipates near these facilities, that any humans near these facilities need to be very cognizant of, that their proximity to it is very important to their health. This is being found out also, like in Arlington and in the Metroplex where these facilities are close to schools and daycare centers and things. Proximity is everything. 

Environment Texas: You mentioned health effects specifically. What kind of health effects? 

Dr. Zavada: Health effects all have to do with respiratory and pulmonary disease. There’s an awful lot that’s associated with this. This is exacerbated here in another way by the oil industry. All the barren ground that they have for pump jacks and for these facilities add to the dust content of the air. And during the last two years that we had a drought here where there was no vegetation covered, dust has been extremely bad. So that’s another aspect of health that comes in from the particulate matter. 

Environment Texas: Could you tell us a little bit about why we should be concerned about methane and CO2

Dr. Zavada: Well, methane is a much worse greenhouse gas, although it has a shelf life, so to speak, in the environment. It’s exacerbating any situation we have to be in. 

Environment Texas: What are some other effects you’re seeing?

Dr. Zavada: We have frequent earthquakes here. We have a monitoring site right on campus here which shakes frequently. We are seeing an actual increase in earthquakes due to fracking. I do know that they are related to injection wells and the position of the wells in relation to certain geologic structures. 

Environment Texas: Can you explain it to me like I’m five how fracking causes earthquakes? 

Dr. Zavada: Okay. Fracking. We produce more water than we do oil, but the water is in such bad condition that it has to be taken off of the surface because it’s a health hazard and injected back into a well. As you inject it under high pressure into the ground, it migrates. And it usually migrates towards areas where there’s faulting and other things going on, which essentially takes away some of the friction that’s holding that in place and allows a slight slip to occur. And that’s the earthquake. 

Environment Texas: Is there any concern about that water hitting aquifers or affecting drinking water supply? 

Dr. Zavada: Sure, this is one of the major things in the basin here. We know aquifers are being contaminated, particularly by old wells that have been casing and cemented improperly. We have several examples in West Odessa that this has happened where it’s following the water. This is happening all over the basin, as a matter of fact, because the regulation has not been consistent. 

Environment Texas: What do you mean by inconsistent? 

Dr. Zavada: Well, there’s been no regulation for a while and then we get some regulation. So some wells that may be more modern and companies that have the resources to do it right, do it. One of the good examples is they used an injection well down by Crane, west of Crane. And actually the top, it was blown off from the pressure and everything and there’s a few hundred feet in the air of salty who knows what in the water that basically killed everything around it. Now that was cleaned up and industry responded to it fairly quickly, which was good. But these are the kinds of things that could be happening more frequently if something has been done with some of the older wells that are not that are not properly tasted and checked for. 

The interesting thing about that is we have no regulation whatsoever on reclamation of that land. We have huge tracts of land around here that are not being remediated just shut down and left just like they were. And this is a desert environment. This is northern Chihuahua and southern great high plains which takes a long time to recover. And so nothing is being done to remediate that impact on the environment at all. By my calculation using remote sensing, it’s about 3 to 5% of the area of land here that’s not being remediated at all. 

Environment Texas: As a resident of the Permian Odessa Midland area what is your number one concern with the fossil fuel industry? 

Dr. Zavada: My number one concern is the fossil fuel industry makes a lot of money. People, individual people, that are generally fairly well off like a company would be and everything contributes to the tax base here and they really make an effort to make this a pleasant place to live. The oil industry I would like to see is not only be more concerned about how they’re impacting the environment, but creating livable good and green communities. This is something that’s achievable here and I understand why we have to do this and that this is going to continue for a little while longer, several decades I would presume, as we get a more mixed portfolio and energy but I think the responsibility of industry being more responsible towards the communities that they serve. I grew up in an industrial town in the Northeast, in Bridgeport, Connecticut, which had the same issues of industry and pollution and air pollution and everything. And they cleaned that place up, and it’s the same thing. 

Environment Texas: If you could change one thing about the industry, wave a magic wand and make it happen, what would be the one change that you would make? 

Dr. Zavada: Use a little common sense on how much money you actually have to make and some that can be put back into the communities that you’re in. People come out here and executives fly out here in a private jet and that’s fine. I understand they like Houston, Dallas. I do too. I love the city. But they get to leave. And they have to remember that all the other people that work here have to stay here and that this is important to our lives and spend a little more money on the communities. And also stop complaining about the regulations. It’s for the health of the people here. They work longer if they’re healthier. 

You can have oil and you can enjoy your petroleum and everything, but also know that people live here and that we also have to regulate it to some degree so people don’t get sick, so children don’t get sick. 

For me, paying a little more for gasoline, but getting the extra benefits of a better living environment is well worth it. You’re not really looking at all the costs that are involved here. As a geologist and I teach historical geology, climate has changed continuously in the past. There’s nothing unusual about that. But all the five major extinctions that are involved in the demise of organisms always have a component of rapid climate change. Keyword being rapid that we’re putting so much into the atmosphere, it’s changing too fast.