Texas, California cities threatened by worsening fires amid oil wells

More frequent and destructive fires are combining with booming oil production to put towns across the American West at risk, a new study has found.

These trends are made more dangerous by both rising temperatures and the sprawl of Western towns — driven by rising populations — into the increasingly fire-prone wildlands that surround them, the study in the journal One Earth found.

As more than 350,000 houses have been built each year in this wildland-urban interface (WUI), these outlying areas have also become the sites of tens of thousands of new oil and gas wells — sites that both contribute to, and are put at risk by, a new age of destructive fire.

The study found that about 3 million people currently live within about a half mile (1 km) of highly wildfire-threatened wells, and more than 10 million people live near wells that face moderate risk — a disproportionate number of whom are lower-income and people of color.

Oil and gas pollution already causes significant health risks to nearby communities — and particularly children. But the One Earth researchers warned that fires risks are making these situations worse and that it adds to the potential for explosions and wildfire-fueling leaks.

One principal center of this collision is Texas, a site of record oil production that was hit in February by the largest wildfire in state history.

Another is California, where 1,200 people just evacuated from fires in Los Angeles, a city still dotted by thousands of wells, including new ones.

Despite that new drilling, California’s oil industry is in a period of lengthy decline, which helps counter the rising risk from sprawling towns and the worsening wildfires.

About 100,000 wells in the state were at high risk from wildfire in 2017, a number that researchers projected would hold steady throughout the rest of the century.

But in other parts of the country, the picture is marked by increasing risk: Researchers found that the number of wells at risk of destructive fire would nearly double by the end of the century, from just under 120,000 today to about 205,000 by the end of the 2080s.

That rise is driven by Utah and Texas.

The Lone Star State, the nation’s biggest oil and gas producer, had about 10,000 wells at high risk for fire in 2017 — a number that is expected to boom to 76,000 by the end of the century.

In Utah, while fewer than 2,000 wells are currently at risk from fire, that number is expected to rise to 12,000 by the mid part of this century and to 18,000 by the end of it.

The fact that a fire happens around oil and gas development doesn’t necessarily mean the wells will catch fire. After the record February fire in Texas, several oil companies told industry news site Rigzone that their operations had suffered no disruptions.

That is something the Railroad Commission of Texas, the state’s oil and gas regulator, credited to careful preparation on the front end. After the fires, the agency sent out a picture depicting a blackened prairie surrounding an untouched Carson County well pad — an argument for “mowing grass and treating weeds to keep fuels for fires” away from drilling sites.

But the February fires had been big enough to cut off access for worker or fire crews to many wells, said Ed Longanecker, the head of the Texas Independent Producers and Royalty Owners Association, a state trade association.

“Given the sheer magnitude of the wildfires, some disruptions will likely occur,” Longanecker told Rigzone.

In the case of those fires, the oil industry was a cause as well as a potential victim: A Texas legislative committee found that the Panhandle fires had been caused in part by faulty electric equipment installed by an oil company.

Witnesses told the committee that “irresponsible oil and natural gas operators … were among the most common culprits contributing to wildfires.” Because pumpjacks run on electricity, they require a network of transmission lines that, if improperly maintained, can spark fires.

And as wells decline — and fracked wells decline fast — and are ultimately abandoned, witnesses said that operators often lost economic incentives to maintain that infrastructure or to remove and shut off that wiring.

One Texas Railroad Commission inspector told the Legislature that 32,000 such orphaned wells existed in the Panhandle alone, in what the report described as “a minefield of potential fire ignition sources.”

These abandoned wells can also be persistent sources of plumes of flammable — and planet-heating — methane, the One Earth researchers found.

The researchers urged regulators to get ahead of these risks, whatever their feelings on the future of the oil economy.

Policymakers, they wrote, had a chance to treat the compounding risks of fire and oil by proactively retiring low-producing wells in wildfire country. They should also monitor those wells for leaks and limit drilling in high-wildfire areas — and above all, make sure the communities with the least resources weren’t saddled with the most risk.

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