Radar images show large swath of Texas oil patch is heaving and sinking at alarming rates

March 21, 2018, Southern Methodist University
A new study by an SMU geophysical team found alarming rates of ground movement at various locations across a 4000-square-mile area of four Texas counties. (Zhong Lu and Jin-Woo Kim, SMU) Credit: Zhong Lu and Jin-Woo Kim, SMU

Two giant sinkholes near Wink, Texas, may just be the tip of the iceberg, according to a new study that found alarming rates of new ground movement extending far beyond the infamous sinkholes.

That's the finding of a geophysical team from Southern Methodist University, Dallas that previously reported the rapid rate at which the sinkholes are expanding and new ones forming.

Now the team has discovered that various locations in large portions of four Texas counties are also sinking and uplifting.

Radar satellite images show significant movement of the ground across a 4000-square-mile area—in one place as much as 40 inches over the past two-and-a-half years, say the geophysicists.

"The ground movement we're seeing is not normal. The ground doesn't typically do this without some cause," said geophysicist Zhong Lu, a professor in the Roy M. Huffington Department of Earth Sciences at SMU and a global expert in satellite radar imagery analysis.

"These hazards represent a danger to residents, roads, railroads, levees, dams, and oil and gas pipelines, as well as potential pollution of ground water," Lu said. "Proactive, continuous detailed monitoring from space is critical to secure the safety of people and property."

The scientists made the discovery with analysis of medium-resolution (15 feet to 65 feet) radar imagery taken between November 2014 and April 2017. The images cover portions of four oil-patch counties where there's heavy production of hydrocarbons from the oil-rich West Texas Permian Basin.

The imagery, coupled with oil-well production data from the Texas Railroad Commission, suggests the area's unstable ground is associated with decades of oil activity and its effect on rocks below the surface of the earth.

The SMU researchers caution that ground movement may extend beyond what radar observed in the four-county area. The entire region is highly vulnerable to human activity due to its geology—water-soluble salt and limestone formations, and shale formations.

"Our analysis looked at just this 4000-square-mile area," said study co-author and research scientist Jin-Woo Kim, a research scientist in the SMU Department of Earth Sciences.

"We're fairly certain that when we look further, and we are, that we'll find there's ground movement even beyond that," Kim said. "This region of Texas has been punctured like a pin cushion with oil wells and since the 1940s and our findings associate that activity with ground movement."

Lu, Shuler-Foscue Chair at SMU, and Kim reported their findings in the Nature publication Scientific Reports, in the article "Association between localized geohazards in West Texas and human activities, recognized by Sentinel-1A/B satellite radar imagery."

The researchers analyzed satellite radar images that were made public by the European Space Agency, and supplemented that with oil activity data from the Texas Railroad Commission.

The study is among the first of its kind to identify small-scale deformation signals over a vast region by drawing from big data sets spanning a number of years and then adding supplementary information.

The research is supported by the NASA Earth Surface and Interior Program, and the Shuler-Foscue Endowment at SMU.

Imagery captures changes that might otherwise go undetected

The SMU geophysicists focused their analysis on small, localized, rapidly developing hazardous ground movements in portions of Winkler, Ward, Reeves and Pecos counties, an area nearly the size of Connecticut. The study area includes the towns of Pecos, Monahans, Fort Stockton, Imperial, Wink and Kermit.

The images from the European Space Agency are the result of satellite radar interferometry from recently launched open-source orbiting satellites that make radar images freely available to the public.

With interferometric synthetic aperture radar, or InSAR for short, the satellites allow scientists to detect changes that aren't visible to the naked eye and that might otherwise go undetected.

The satellite technology can capture with an accuracy of sub-inches or better, at a spatial resolution of a few yards or better over thousands of miles, say the researchers.

Ground movement associated with oil activity

The SMU researchers found a significant relationship between ground movement and oil activities that include pressurized fluid injection into the region's geologically unstable rock formations.

In the vicinity of 11 carbon dioxide (CO2) injection wells nearly seven miles southwest of Monahans, Texas, the radar analysis detected surface uplift of more than 1 inch. As with wastewater injection, CO2 injection increased pore pressure in the rocks, so when stress was relieved it was followed by uplift. (Zhong Lu and Jin-Woo Kim, SMU) Credit: Zhong Lu and Jin-Woo Kim, SMU

Fluid injection includes waste saltwater injection into nearby wells, and carbon dioxide flooding of depleting reservoirs to stimulate oil recovery.

Injected fluids increase the pore pressure in the rocks, and the release of the stress is followed by ground uplift. The researchers found that ground movement coincided with nearby sequences of wastewater injection rates and volume and CO2 injection in nearby wells.

Also related to the ground's sinking and upheaval are dissolving salt formations due to freshwater leaking into abandoned underground oil facilities, as well as the extraction of oil.

Sinking and uplift detected from Wink to Fort Stockton

As might be expected, the most significant subsidence is about a half-mile east of the huge Wink No. 2 sinkhole, where there are two subsidence bowls, one of which has sunk more than 15.5 inches a year. The rapid sinking is most likely caused by water leaking through abandoned wells into the Salado formation and dissolving salt layers, threatening possible ground collapse.

At two wastewater injection wells 9.3 miles west of Wink and Kermit, the radar detected upheaval of about 2.1 inches that coincided with increases in injection volume. The injection wells extend about 4,921 feet to 5,577 feet deep into a sandstone formation.

In the vicinity of 11 CO2 injection wells nearly seven miles southwest of Monahans, the radar analysis detected surface uplift of more than 1 inch. The wells are about 2,460 feet to 2,657 feet deep. As with wastewater injection, CO2 injection increased pore pressure in the rocks, so when stress was relieved it was followed by uplift of about 1 inch at the surface.

The researchers also looked at an area 4.3 miles southwest of Imperial, where significant subsidence from fresh water flowing through cracked well casings, corroded steel pipes and unplugged abandoned wells has been widely reported.

Water there has leaked into the easily dissolved Salado formation, created voids, and caused the ground to sink and water to rise from the subsurface, including creating Boehmer Lake, which didn't exist before 2003.

Radar analysis by the SMU team detected rapid subsidence ranging from three-fourths of an inch to nearly 4 inches around active wells, abandoned wells and orphaned wells.

"Movements around the roads and oil facilities to the southwest of Imperial, Texas, should be thoroughly monitored to mitigate potential catastrophes," the researchers write in the study.

About 5.5 miles south of Pecos, their radar analysis detected more than 1 inch of subsidence near new wells drilled via hydraulic fracturing and in production since early 2015. There have also been six small earthquakes recorded there in recent years, suggesting the deformation of the ground generated accumulated stress and caused existing faults to slip.

"We have seen a surge of seismic activity around Pecos in the last five to six years. Before 2012, earthquakes had not been recorded there. At the same time, our results clearly indicate that ground deformation near Pecos is occurring," Kim said. "Although earthquakes and surface subsidence could be coincidence, we cannot exclude the possibility that these earthquakes were induced by hydrocarbon production activities."

Scientists: Boost the network of seismic stations to better detect activity

Kim stated the need for improved earthquake location and detection threshold through an expanded network of seismic stations, along with continuous surface monitoring with the demonstrated radar remote sensing methods.

"This is necessary to learn the cause of recent increased seismic activity," Kim said. "Our efforts to continuously monitor West Texas with this advanced satellite technique can help sustain safe, ongoing oil production."

Near real-time monitoring of ground deformation possible in a few years

The datasets allowed the SMU geophysicists to detect both two-dimension east-west deformation of the ground, as well as vertical deformation.

Lu, a leading scientist in InSAR applications, is a member of the Science Team for the dedicated U.S. and Indian NASA-ISRO (called NISAR) InSAR mission, set for launch in 2021 to study hazards and global environmental change.

InSAR accesses a series of images captured by a read-out radar instrument mounted on the orbiting satellite Sentinel-1A/B. The satellites orbit 435 miles above the Earth's surface. Sentinel-1A was launched in 2014 and Sentinel-1B in 2016 as part of the European Union's Copernicus program.

The Sentinel-1A/B constellation bounces a radar signal off the earth, then records the signal as it bounces back, delivering measurements. The measurements allow geophysicists to determine the distance from the satellite to the ground, revealing how features on the Earth's surface change over time.

"Near real-time monitoring of ground deformation at high spatial and temporal resolutions is possible in a few years, using multiple satellites such as Sentinel-1A/B, NISAR and others," said Lu. "This will revolutionize our capability to characterize human-induced and natural hazards, and reduce their damage to humanity, infrastructure and the energy industry."

Explore further: Geohazard: Giant sinkholes near West Texas oil patch towns are growing—as new ones lurk

More information: Jin-Woo Kim et al, Association between localized geohazards in West Texas and human activities, recognized by Sentinel-1A/B satellite radar imagery, Scientific Reports (2018). DOI: 10.1038/s41598-018-23143-6

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28 comments

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antialias_physorg
5 / 5 (5) Mar 21, 2018
"Proactive, continuous detailed monitoring from space

Gawd, how I hate the word "proactive". Someone explain the difference between:

- "Proactive, continuous detailed monitoring from space.."
- "Active, continuous detailed monitoring from space..."
and
- "Continuous detailed monitoring from space..."

That pet-peeve aside: Drilling and fracking...the gift that keeps on giving.
Shootist
1.9 / 5 (10) Mar 21, 2018
The ground sags? So fricking what? Better that than the oil prices the Ruling Establishment and Elite would have us pay.

Have you hugged a fracker today? You should.
Nik_2213
5 / 5 (4) Mar 21, 2018
The UK has similar issues in former coal-mining areas. Subsidence, heave, collapse...
JamesG
1.8 / 5 (5) Mar 21, 2018
Sinkholes and ground movement happen all the time for one reason or another. In Florida, a sinkhole happened below a guy's bedroom and sucked him and his bed down, never to be found again. Weird stuff. Sounds like a movie to me.
antialias_physorg
4.6 / 5 (10) Mar 21, 2018
Have you hugged a fracker today? You should.

Yeah. Hug'em. Pin 'em down, so that they can't move and cause any more damage.
Some people are just too stupid to let loose
Guy_Underbridge
5 / 5 (7) Mar 21, 2018
JamesG: Sinkholes and ground movement happen all the time
So do car wrecks, planes crashes and typhoid breakouts. You think we should just ignore it?

Shootist: So fricking what? Better that than the oil prices the Ruling Establishment and Elite would have us pay.
Who do you think we're paying now? The oil fairies? Take your meds, dude.
carbon_unit
5 / 5 (9) Mar 21, 2018
JamesG: Sinkholes and ground movement happen all the time for one reason or another. In Florida,...
Sinkholes in FL are natural, due to an underlying layer of limestone that gets dissolved by groundwater. The sinkholes in this article are due to mineral extraction activities.
Shootist: The ground sags? So fricking what?
Matters if you are a surface property owner getting your land trashed.
Better that than the oil prices the Ruling Establishment and Elite would have us pay.
Your mean prices that include what are now externalized costs for mineral extraction interests? Things like subsidence, earthquakes, air pollution health costs, climate change and environmental cleanups/disasters; costs that get foisted on others as these industries make their money and run??
Have you hugged a fracker today? You should.
No and No.
RichManJoe
2 / 5 (3) Mar 21, 2018
Why have the scientists not used satellite radar interferometry? This should be much more sensitive than the visual method they are currently using. There are several government agencies which have these capabilities.
Turgent
1 / 5 (4) Mar 21, 2018
So how does this compare with areas around the new madrid fault, san andreas, Bakken field, Scandinavian peninsula, etc. Sounds like a big, So What. Typically water at and above the same level as gas and oil is saline. So what!

Have you ever driven through the Permian? Don't worry be happy, no one will notice if it disappears. We referred to it as miles of miles and miles.
KorvusKorax
5 / 5 (3) Mar 22, 2018
@RichManJoe, from above:
The researchers analyzed satellite radar images that were made public by the European Space Agency, and supplemented that with oil activity data from the Texas Railroad Commission…

The images from the European Space Agency are the result of satellite radar interferometry from recently launched open-source orbiting satellites that make radar images freely available to the public.

With interferometric synthetic aperture radar, or InSAR for short, the satellites allow scientists to detect changes that aren't visible to the naked eye and that might otherwise go undetected.

The satellite technology can capture ground deformation with an accuracy of sub-inches or better, at a spatial resolution of a few yards or better over thousands of miles, say the researchers.
granville583762
3 / 5 (2) Mar 22, 2018
Those Gorgeous Sinkholes just keep growing

Just hope your oil wells your sucking dry don't come from underground caverns that cover appreciable areas of your country as they keep on growing eternally! Or after filling the air with all those noxious fumes you might not have a country to run the emitting culprits on, you're SUVs!
granville583762
1.8 / 5 (5) Mar 22, 2018
The shifting sands of Arabia

The Gobi deserts are renowned for Quick Sand! The Oil Sheiks are undermining large areas of their desert. Why isn't Saudi Arabia one gigantic sink hole?
TheGhostofOtto1923
5 / 5 (1) Mar 22, 2018
Proactive, continuous detailed monitoring from space.."
-Monitoring in anticipation of a problem.
"Active, continuous detailed monitoring from space..."
- Active, continuous monitoring of an actual problem.
Continuous detailed monitoring from space..."
-Continuous detailed monitoring of an actual problem. 'Active' could indicate a certain level of scrutiny.

Perhaps your translator is on the fritz -?
Anonym
4 / 5 (1) Mar 22, 2018
The whole state's going to hell.... some parts a little faster than others.
antialias_physorg
5 / 5 (4) Mar 22, 2018
The Gobi deserts are renowned for Quick Sand! The Oil Sheiks are undermining large areas of their desert. Why isn't Saudi Arabia one gigantic sink hole?

Maybe because the Gobi Desert is in China?
Guy_Underbridge
5 / 5 (3) Mar 22, 2018
Anonym: The whole state's going to hell..
Hell outsources to Texas
carbon_unit
5 / 5 (2) Mar 22, 2018
Turgent: So how does this compare with areas around the new madrid fault, san andreas, Bakken field, Scandinavian peninsula, etc.
Those are all natural fault zones (except for the Bakken Formation which appears to be an active oil/gas production area.) Quakes have been found to be caused by extraction operations, especially the injection of fracking waste water into wells. One can't do much about naturally occurring quakes, but human caused trigger factors are certainly valid subjects for policy and regulation.
Sounds like a big, So What.
Matters if valuable infrastructure is above a sinkhole, as noted in the article.
Have you ever driven through the Permian?
In what, a time machine?
Don't worry be happy, no one will notice if it disappears. We referred to it as miles of miles and miles.
Ohhh, the Permian Basin in TX! There still are likely things which can be damaged/polluted.
dudester
5 / 5 (3) Mar 22, 2018
@Turgid "Typically water at and above the same level as gas and oil is saline. So what!"

So Ogallala aquifer!

"If spread across the U.S. the aquifer would cover all 50 states with 1.5 feet of water
If drained, it would take more than 6,000 years to refill naturally
More than 90 percent of the water pumped is used to irrigate crops
$20 billion a year in food and fiber depend on the aquifer."
https://www.scien...aquifer/

"The water-saturated thickness of the Ogallala Formation ranges from a few feet to more than 1,000 feet (300 m) and is generally greater in the Northern Plains.[11] The depth of the water below the surface of the land ranges from almost 400 feet (120 m) in parts of the north to between 100 and 200 feet (30 and 61 m) throughout much of the south."
https://en.wikipe..._Aquifer

Fracking wells are being drilled through it every day.
Turgent
1 / 5 (1) Mar 22, 2018
My point is only that other locations move up and down at comparable rates. Kern county, CA, areas where massive and non-replenishing groundwater is pumped out of like the Nebraska's Ogallalla aquifer, etc.

Such limited movement over these time frames doesn't appear to create problems. If you if have to give 70 acres of range in the Permian per head of cattle then the area isn't to exciting. It isn't even good for fossil hunting. Oh the Texas Railroads Commission, oil and gas regulator, is as good as it gets. About 1,000,000 wells have been drilled in Texas and there ain't no pollution from 100 years of drilling. Huge numbers of vertical wells have been fracked long ago there. Texas is a good steward of its land.
Turgent
not rated yet Mar 22, 2018
Dude, go to google earth. See the huge crop circles. They are hugely concentrated. The Og drops ft per year. There are places in the world where salt has invaded the fresh due to over pumping.

The fracking wells in the Marcellus go through thick salt layers. No problem yet. In Watkins Glen NY salt has been mined by forced hot water under lake Seneca for over 70 years, no problem.

Different places different circumstances different geology.

This isn't to poo poo all that their saying. There should have been evidence of problems long ago.
Turgent
not rated yet Mar 22, 2018
Just an after thought. I have seen an aquifer which did get some pollution. They pumped as much water as they could for a year. This case the problem was solved'
dudester
not rated yet Mar 23, 2018
Dude, go to google earth. See the huge crop circles. They are hugely concentrated. The Og drops ft per year. There are places in the world where salt has invaded the fresh due to over pumping.

The fracking wells in the Marcellus go through thick salt layers. No problem yet. In Watkins Glen NY salt has been mined by forced hot water under lake Seneca for over 70 years, no problem.

Different places different circumstances different geology.

This isn't to poo poo all that their saying. There should have been evidence of problems long ago.


I don't need to go to Google Earth. I live there. My family still farms.
granville583762
3 / 5 (2) Mar 23, 2018
Or it could be the the shieks oil comes from wells in the gobi desert that are the cause of the quick sands

The Gobi deserts are renowned for Quick Sand! The Oil Sheiks are undermining large areas of their desert. Why isn't Saudi Arabia one gigantic sink hole?

antialias_physorg:- Maybe because the Gobi Desert is in China?


antialias_physorg
5 / 5 (2) Mar 23, 2018
Or it could be the the shieks oil comes from wells in the gobi desert that are the cause of the quick sands

Erm..whut? I know you're from the US (no one else in the world could be that ignorant of geography)...but...seriously, dude?

Sheiks are in the middle east. The Gobi desert is in China. Yeah, they're on the same continent, but that's about as far as it goes. There's more than 5000km between them.

(Note also that quicksand requires water - something noticeably absent in most deserts)
Turgent
not rated yet Mar 23, 2018
Dude,

Some time ago we used to go to Enders Lake near Imperial, NE.

https://www.googl...!3m1!1e3 talks about land subsidence due to water depletion and concerns about salt water intrusion.

It would appear the huge threat to aquifers is extraction far more than anything else.

cont
Turgent
not rated yet Mar 23, 2018
"Fluid injection includes waste saltwater injection into nearby wells, and carbon dioxide flooding of depleting reservoirs to stimulate oil recovery." The waste salt water is what is brought to the surface by fracking and the CO2 basically makes it a fizzy.
granville583762
3 / 5 (2) Mar 23, 2018
It appears geography's everyone's strong point, only 3000 miles across the pond old bean, It's probably why the sink holes are appearing on land because of the water and not the desert; it takes wet agitated sand to create quicksand so as long as the sheiks don't pour water on their desert there probably safe But don't just take my word for it, put your threepence worth in the pot!

Or it could be the the shieks oil comes from wells in the gobi desert that are the cause of the quick sands

antialias_physorg:- Erm..whut? I know you're from the US (no one else in the world could be that ignorant of geography)...but...seriously, dude?

Sheiks are in the middle east. The Gobi desert is in China. Yeah, they're on the same continent, but that's about as far as it goes. There's more than 5000km between them.

(Note also that quicksand requires water - something noticeably absent in most deserts)

granville583762
5 / 5 (1) Mar 23, 2018
if these sinkholes are due to oil well subraction subsidence holes in texas causing visible land movement, the same movement has to observed over the desert. Unless the oil wells are under the sea where they can fill with seawater.

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