How does the oil production activity in Texas affect its land?

According to a new study, decades of such activities are leading to continuous and alarming rates of ground movement.

Ground Movement

The two infamous sinkholes may just be the beginning of the ground movement in Texas. The analysis of radar satellite images shows that there may be more ground movement on the way, and it's happening at an alarming rate.

With the help of satellite images from the European Space Agency and oil activity data from the Railroad Commission of Texas, a research pair from the Southern Methodist University found significant ground movement that goes far beyond the sinkhole. It adds to the team's previous report, showing that the two sinkholes are growing and that new ones are already beginning to form.

As a matter of fact, the researcher's analysis of the images revealed significant ground movement in a 4,000-square-mile area that has roadways, small towns, storage tanks, as well as oil and gas pipelines.

Specifically, the researchers observed signs of major sinking and uplifting in four counties in the region. However, researchers believe that if they look beyond the region, they will likely find more of such movements.

Why Is This A problem?

This kind of movement is not a particularly natural one and is likely caused by the oil production activity in the region for the last few decades.

"The ground movement we're seeing is not normal. The ground doesn't typically do this without some cause," said Zhong Lu, a professor at Southern Methodist University and co-author of the study.

The find is especially important due to its potential impacts on the region and its residents. According to researchers, such a hazard could endanger residents and infrastructure, and may even pollute groundwater.

Generally speaking, the middle and southern regions of the United States are considered relatively stable with no major threats of large-scale seismic activities, tectonic movements, or volcanism. Still, the mid-continent including Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi, is not immune to such geohazards, both natural and man-made.

What's worrying about the findings of the study is the speed at which the movements occur. While natural shifts tend to happen continuously and slowly at a larger scale, man-induced geohazards occur in smaller pockets but at a much faster rate.

Texas's grounds, in particular, have been punctured with wells since the 1940s, so the changes observed using the data between November 2014 and April 2017 shows just how such activities can affect the ground structure in a short period of time.

"Proactive, continuous detailed monitoring from space is critical to secure the safety of people and property," said Professor Zhong Lu, co-author of the study.

The paper was published in Scientific Reports.

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