Toxic Legacy: New Boom Highlights Oil’s Hundred-Year Environmental History in West Texas

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West Texas is synonymous with big hats, big boots, and staunch “don’t tread on me” conservatism. It is also a region defined by its ecology. For over 100 years, the harsh desert environment has been both the source of human suffering and of oil deposits that spelled massive wealth. Oil was first discovered in the region in 1926 and ever since locals have used the harsh environment to explain residents’ pragmatic outlook. In 1976, Marjorie Gallion of the San Angelo Standard Times opined, “Looking out across the sun-baked, mesquite-covered terrain, one can’t help but wonder what induced the first settlers to remain in Crane County. They had to be a special breed of people to have borne the hardships of this rugged, desolate area.”[1]

In late 2016, the U.S. Geological Service reported that the “largest oil deposit in North America” was discovered in West Texas.[2] Estimated to contain 20 billion barrels of oil, this new discovery is trapped in the Wolfcamp Shale, only available through controversial hydraulic fractioning technology.[3] West Texas has traditionally been a stalwart supporter of the oil industry—George H. W. Bush got his start in the 1950s working for Dresser Industries in Midland, Texas. However, since the 1990s, public critique of urban refinery air and water pollution, the announcement of several Superfund cleanup sites near oil pipelines and storage facilities, and the revelation of regional cancer clusters, has dimmed some locals’ unqualified support for the industry.[4]

Between 1926 and 1983, over one million people migrated to West Texas, looking to get rich quick and the region developed a reputation for free-for-all oil extraction. Prospectors built temporary camps, dotting the desert with wells, derricks, pipelines, and the detritus of boom-and-bust industrialization. Texas oil towns were synonymous with dangerous men and illicit dealings. According to long-time resident E. E. Brackens, “No I wouldn’t say they were hardened criminals, but they didn’t have much respect for the law… they gambled a lot. A lot of them were pretty decent fellows until they got drunk.”[5] Photographs of streets clogged with oil became common in the popular press. Stories of murder, theft, and drunken brawls were fodder for urban newspapers.

Mirroring the industry’s lawless oil towns, for much of the twentieth century, Texas’ oil industry regulation was minimal. In the 1920s and 1930s, gushers spewed oil across the desert. In West Texas, most oil was located on top of subsurface salt domes, which once tapped, spewed salt brine water across the desert. Oil storage tanks and drilling slush pits—used to collect chemicals, mud, and other debris produced during drilling—were unlined, often leaking into surrounding ranchland. Legislators critiqued such practices as gratuitous waste of a precious resource.

By contrast, the impact of flowing oil and desiccated land on human health raised few comments. Like industry lawlessness, environmental destruction was largely a source of curiosity, rather than a problem needing regulation. In one case, runoff from drilling slush pits created a toxic river that completely surrounded the town of Wink, Texas. In another, hydrogen sulfide gas leaked from wells beneath West Texas oil fields, asphyxiating 17 people in a single night in 1977.[6]

Since the earliest days of the twentieth century, a debate raged over how much control the state should have over Texas’ most famous industry. Fear that regulatory agencies would support monopoly largely thwarted efforts to create extraction quotas and the enforcement of waste-prevention regulations. In the popular press, in industry trade publications, and in the Texas legislature, oil regulation was seen as a vote for exploitative corporations. In 1933, the Texas Railroad Commission (RRC) was placed in charge of regulating extraction quotas, well spacing laws, and oil prices. However, the RRC only had limited success controlling Texas wildcatters and was often accused of collusion with oil companies.

At the federal level, better oil conservation law was considered an urgent necessity. In the 1910s, the U.S. Bureau of Mines argued that the U.S. would run out of oil within twenty years if left unregulated. In the 1930s, after a disastrous oil glut bottomed out oil prices and worsened the Depression, Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes made it a personal mission to regulate oil production. However, industry-government cooperation during World War II permanently stalled his efforts. In the 1940s and 1950s new technologies fixed many of the problems associated with inefficiency and industry waste. However, none of these technologies addressed how to protect oilfield communities from the industry’s toxic consequences.

West Texas’ perennial lack of potable water was a constant problem. Millions of gallons of water were necessary to operate drills, pipelines, and refineries. Water was also essential to human survival. Through the 1950s, wells in the region’s two largest cities—Midland and Odessa—ran dry each summer as the needs of a growing human population competed with the oil business. A municipal dam project greatly reduced urban water shortages. However, in the 1960s, as the region’s oilfields became depleted, new secondary methods of oil extraction—flooding the oilfield with water, natural gas, or other chemicals to boost well pressure—extended the life of ageing oilfields. Massive increases in oil prices after the 1973 OPEC oil embargo made these expensive—and destructive—methods highly profitable.

Despite visible contamination in West Texas, most residents understood the founding of the EPA, OSHA, and other federal regulatory agencies in the 1970s as an attack on small business and regional autonomy. Only large oil companies could afford to implement new regulatory measures and many West Texas oil companies folded. However, push and pull between regulators and small oil companies was largely rendered irrelevant in the 1980s as oil prices dropped once again and the Texas oil industry went into a long decline.

As oil prices dropped, expensive and invasive drilling methods largely halted. Throughout the 1990s, as refineries shut down and drilling rigs were abandoned, some West Texas oil communities retreated into nostalgia for a ruggedly individualistic industry that brought wealth and prestige to the isolated region. Others saw an opportunity for legal action. Most famously, in 1991, families living near Odessa’s 640-acre refinery and petrochemical plant sued for $27 million dollars. Plaintiffs received an undisclosed settlement and the operating company, Dynagen, was slapped with $1.4 million in fines and ordered to install $12 million in pollution remediation equipment.[7]

In 2017, domination by a few multinationals has made older debates about oil regulation breeding monopoly largely irrelevant. Court cases and local activists have made the industry’s impact on environmental health undisputed. Still, West Texas residents have a lot to gain from the renewed boom. By some estimates, oil trapped within the Wolfcamp shale is worth approximately $900 billion dollars. However, it is also clear that the consequences of further exploration could be catastrophic. In 2015, the U.S. Bureau of Mines publicly stated that fracking is responsible for earthquakes in Oklahoma and in the Texas Panhandle.[8] Reports of renewed water contamination have made the news in West Texas. Near the U.S.-Mexico border, a stiff battle rages between local activists concerned about water quality and oil pipeline companies.[9] While the region’s narrative of rugged independence sustained residents through decades of speculative expansion, challenges to this narrative make the industry’s, and the region’s, future uncertain.

Sarah Stanford-McIntyre is a Ph.D. Candidate in American Studies at the College of William & Mary. Her dissertation, “Refining the Desert: The Politics of Wealth, Industrialization, and Environmental Risk in the Twentieth-Century West Texas Oil Industry,” examines 100 years of regional oil industry expansion in the context of a national battle to regulate oil extraction and popular debates about appropriate workplace risk and industry monopoly.

[1] Marjorie Gallion, “Crane Emerged from Tom Green in ’87,” San Angelo Standard Times, July 4, 1976, p. 4H.

[2] “The largest oil deposit ever found in America was just discovered in Texas” http://finance.yahoo.com/news/largest-oil-deposit-ever-found-143906119.html.

[3] “USGS Estimates 20 Billion Barrels of Oil in Texas’ Wolfcamp Shale Formation” https://www.usgs.gov/news/usgs-estimates-20-billion-barrels-oil-texas-wolfcamp-shale-formation.

[4] “Brockovich: Midland, Texas Water Sullied” http://www.cbsnews.com/news/brockovich-midland-texas-water-sullied/.; Mission pays off for cancer victim

http://lubbockonline.com/stories/121502/med_121502051.shtml#.WPZwcRiZP3T.; “Superfund Site: MIDESSA GROUND WATER PLUME, MIDLAND, TX,” https://cumulis.epa.gov/supercpad/cursites/csitinfo.cfm?id=0606668.

[5] Interview E. E. Brackens, Oral History Collection, Permian Basin Petroleum Museum, p. 11.

[6] Howard Swindle, “The Deadly Smell of Success,” Texas Monthly, June 1975, http://www.texasmonthly.com/articles/the-deadly-smell-of-success/. Accessed April 16, 2017.

[7] “Rubber Plant Emissions Unhealthy, Suit Claims,” November 18, 1991, Orlando Sentinel, http://articles.orlandosentinel.com/1991-11-18/news/9111180426_1_rubber-plant-pollution-emissions.; “75th Anniversary,” Odessa American Online, http://www.oaoa.com/75th_anniversary/article_96695196-5671-11e5-82e5-5b7a0a1e020f.html.

[8] “What’s causing Texas earthquakes? Fracking ‘most likely,’ report says” http://www.cnn.com/2015/05/09/us/texas-earthquakes-fracking-studies/.

[9] “Big Bend-Area Pipeline Clears Last Hurdle,” https://www.texastribune.org/2016/05/06/big-bend-trans-pecos-pipeline-clears-last-hurdle/.

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