A Changing Relationship Between Oil and the Environment?

For being from a small university in San Angelo, assistant professor James Ward, his colleague Cody Scott and their undergraduate students are fixing to do some big work on reversing some of the surface effects of oil and gas exploration and restoring rangeland to profitability.
“There’s thousands of acres of this stuff scattered around West Texas, and that’s not even adding in the South Texas,” said Ward, who teaches geology at Angelo State University. “If we could figure out if our approach works or not, it could affect lots of country.”
Armed with a one-year, $116,500 grant from Shell, Ward and Scott have set out to restore an area contaminated by a historical salt water spill to useable rangeland for cattle grazing. In a phone interview with the Reporter-Telegram, Ward said that, in the past, some oil producers dug disposal pits and would pump salt water and slurry into them. Some would simply pour the salt or produced water straight onto the ground, possibly because they did not know it would be a contaminant.
Using geophysical techniques and technology, Ward and the ASU team have created a map of a site they are working on to chart what exactly is below the surface. Images show a large amount of salt in a half-oval shape below the surface, indicating that some sort of pit was probably located on what is a desolate piece of land.
The team then planted salt tolerant plants called halophytes to see how they cope with the environment. The hope is that these plants will leach the salt out of the surface area of the contaminated land while still being edible for livestock to graze on.
“It’s almost like putting a band aid on it, you know,” said Ward of the project. “You’re never going to get all that salt out of the ground but if you can get it to where it’s productive and got some sort of cover on it, then it’s back, usable for agricultural purposes.”
Ward, whose father was a research scientist for Texas A&M in Pecos and farmed on the side, said the project combines both his academic and agricultural backgrounds to reclaim this otherwise empty land.
“For the surface owners and operators, this could allow us to be able to go in and take sites that were non-productive and make them back productive again, where they at least have some cover on them,” he said. “Maybe if we do develop some of these grasses, figure out which ones can survive on these sites, it can allow for more forage, make some money on that side.”
Midland, which was at one time the hub of a major U.S. cattle industry, is now the dominant city in the largest oil producing region in America. The oil industry’s rise and fall over the years has left many of these spills pockmarking the landscape, and Ward sees it as a missed opportunity.
“We’re paying taxes on this country. We can at least make it productive again. That’s our primary goal is to try to get some of this stuff back to where it’s functioning,” he said.

Read Full Feature at Midland Reporter-Telegram

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