Analysis Links West Texas Ground Movement to Oil Drilling

Alarming movement is linked to prolonged oil production and is a danger to residents, roads, railroads, levees, dams, pipelines, and groundwater, the authors concluded.

Analysis of satellite radar images of four counties in West Texas shows that land there is becoming more and more destabilized because of oil production activities over a long period of time. The land area analyzed by a geophysical team from Southern Methodist University is sinking and uplifting at an alarming rate, they reported.

Movement of the ground across an area of 4,000 square miles was, in one location, as much as 40 inches over the past two and a half years, 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, and colleagues.

"The ground movement we're seeing is not normal. The ground doesn't typically do this without some cause," said Lu. "These hazards represent a danger to residents, roads, railroads, levees, dams, and oil and gas pipelines, as well as potential pollution of groundwater. Proactive, continuous detailed monitoring from space is critical to secure the safety of people and property."

The study's co-author, research scientist Jin-Woo Kim, a research scientist in the SMU Department of Earth Sciences, said they believe ground movement also is occurring outside the area they studied, using radar images from the European Space Agency and oil activity data from the Railroad Commission of Texas. Kim said, "This region of Texas has been punctured like a pin cushion with oil wells and injection wells since the 1940s, and our findings associate that activity with ground movement."

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

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