How Close Is Too Close to Drill for Oil Near Lake Houston?

Oil, oil everywhere — but what about the water?
Oil, oil everywhere — but what about the water?
Photo from shutterstock.com

It's hard to believe there's any site near the famed Humble oil fields that hasn't been tapped yet, but a Houston-based drilling company is moving toward dropping a new directional exploratory well on the edge of the oil field, right on the shoreline of Lake Houston.

So what's the problem?

Well, Tri-C Resources LLC, a relatively lean, privately owned Houston-based company, wants to drill its exploratory well just 3,700 feet from the northeast shore of Lake Houston, a reservoir built about 15 miles northeast of Houston along the San Jacinto River. The lake serves as the primary source of drinking water for the city. The well is planned to be more than 1,000 feet from the lake, but some say that still isn't far enough away to ensure the water is protected. 

Drilling in the area isn't exactly a novel idea. About a century ago, the nearby Humble Oil Field was one of the largest oil discoveries of its day, one of the finds that helped put Houston on the map. Over the years, the oil field activity went right to the shoreline of Lake Houston, leaving scores of old plugged wells there today, according to Texas Railroad Commission records. 

However, five years ago the city of Houston passed an ordinance forbidding oil and gas wells to be drilled within 1,000 feet of the lake in order to protect the water from any spills or blowouts. 

The well Tri-C plans on drilling will be past that 1,000-feet-away city requirement, but it's the off-chance that the company could end up using hydraulic fracturing on the well that has gotten some people concerned.

Fracking, as it's known, is a process in which large amounts of chemicals, water and sand are forced into a well. Fracking and slant drilling have been used to unlock hydrocarbons trapped in dense, brittle shale plays, a development that ushered in a Texas oil renaissance from the early 2000s on with the Eagle Ford Shale in South Texas, the Wolfcamp Shale in the Permian Basin and the Barnett Shale in North Texas. 

While fracking has been something of a miracle elixir for the U.S. oil industry, environmentalists have long insisted that the drilling technique causes health problems and that the chemicals used by the company may end up in drinking water. Last year a study by the federal Environmental Protection Agency concluded there are "specific instances" when fracking has "led to impacts on drinking water resources, including contamination of drinking water wells." 

Tri-C officials insist they aren't planning on fracking the well because they believe the formation is sandy, and not shale “We have zero plans to frack out there,” Ben Balagia told the Humble Observer. “If I had to give a percent of the possibility of fracking, I’d say 0.00001 percent.”

But some people are still freaked out about it. Jere Locke, the founder of the Texas Drought Project, did agree to lease his mineral rights to Tri-C, but he told KUHF that he's been worried the company would end up fracking the well. Despite going with the flow himself, Locke says Houston residents don't show enough caution when it comes to dealing with oil wells. “Houston, Texas, has gotten very used to oil and gas. And I think they need to have a second thought about all drilling. Not just, certainly fracking, but also more conventional drilling,“ Locke said according to KUHF. 

Sharon Wilson, an environmentalist with Earthworks Oil and Gas Accountability Project best known for her dogged opposition to fracking in the Barnett Shale play, spoke against the proposed drilling permit at public meetings held at the end of August. She pointed out that the only things the organization knows for sure is that Tri-C has a permit to drill a directional well through several formations. She told the audience that most of the wells drilled in the United States today end up being fracked, according to the Humble Observer

Wilson also pointed out that House Bill 40, passed in the state legislature in 2015, was designed to prevent city ordinances from interfering with oil and gas drilling. While the bill was aimed at preventing towns like Denton from passing anti-fracking ordinances, Wilson insists the bill will also prevent Houston officials from regulating the oil and gas wells drilled.

And she's not wrong on this so far. The company has already gotten the Texas Railroad Commission's approval. The city of Houston is in the process of reviewing Tri-C's drilling permit application, but the city won't have any say over whether the company opts to frack the well or not. If the city signs off on the permit, the well should be punched in the next few months.

But that's if the city officials approve the permit. For now we'll have to see what the city thinks and, should officials decide to reject the permit application, we may get to see what the state thinks of that. 


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