2017 Trip Two: Tour of Texas April 24-25

Odessa TX. Tuesday April 25

Sunrise on our last morning in Fort Davis, TX.

When we mentioned to someone from West Texas that we were spending two nights in Odessa, they asked: “Why?” Well it is not the most touristy place in Texas but there is the Permian Basin Petroleum Museum in the area. The museum is in Midland which is 20 miles from Odessa. An Evergreener earlier on this trip said that the oil field workers live in Odessa, the oil field owners live in Midland. From a quick look, that seems to be the case. Midland was ranked #1 in Texas in 2013 in the concentration of high-income households.

In the Balmorhea area, irrigated crops, well pumping, well production equipment

Monday morning we left Fort Davis. The first 45 minutes were spent continuing to drive through the mountains and desert. As we approached Balmorhea, the terrain flattened. The impact of oil fields just started to intrude on one’s senses; flares from burning gas, the smell of petroleum, the swirl of dust in the air, the sight of oil well pumps began and increased dramatically the closer we got to Odessa.

Part of the swimming pool at Balmorhea State Park

In Balmorhea is a state park located around a large artesian spring. The San Solomon spring system still pumps out water for residential and commercial use, with agricultural use primary. One can observe the irrigation canals and the green crops as contrast to the desert brown miles away from the springs. At Balmorhea state park, the largest spring fed swimming pool in the world was constructed by the CCC. At the deepest end by the springs, it is 20 feet. Other recreational portions are five feet deep. The spring water flows out of the pool into the irrigation system. We arrived around 9 AM. While it was too cool for us to take a dip, there were a handful of people in the pool.

Apache Corporation is located in Houston but was founded by three men from Minneapolis. They recently discovered in the Balmorhea area one of the largest oil discoveries in recent years. Previously oil drilling in the Balmorhea area was relatively light. Apache plans to drill 300 wells in the area. Thus, again will there be the fight between trade-offs. Oil production and jobs versus water use and potential degradation. The regional water board has already approved a water sale to Apache. The McDonald Observatory has already weighed in with its concerns for an increase in night sky light pollution. In its behalf, Apache Corporation seems to have one of the more responsible environmental records.

As mentioned earlier, the oil field impacts increase dramatically as we drove towards Odessa, 115 miles away. Two-thirds of the way to Odessa, we stopped at Monahans. The Monahans Sandhills State Park is known for its sand dunes. Smooth sand dunes as well as dunes with vegetation exist here with the smooth sand dunes beckoning to one. The park rents sand discs (originally designed for snow) but makes no promises as to slideability. As the day heats up, the sand becomes more resistant to sliding. We had arrived around noon, after having breakfast in Pecos and the stop in Balmorhea.

Monahans Sandhills State Park

Chris and I popped for the rental fee and took a chance. One drives out to the smooth dunes area, hikes up the hill, and tries to slide down. No luck. Too hot, sand too sticky. It was still fun and an unusual way to break up the day.

The sand here originated in New Mexico and was transported during the last post-glacial period. The dunes were probably formed 5-7,000 years ago and since they are located in the Permian Basin, the winds swirl around the basin but don’t blow the sand out of the basin. The dunes are here to stay under current conditions.

One of the sand piles

As we continued our drive to the northeast and Odessa, the well heads, collection systems, and utility poles providing electricity seemed to sprout everywhere. Most surprising to me were the numerous, large sand mining areas. I had been hearing about the use of Wisconsin and Minnesota sand for fracking but sand is used in regular well drilling also. One exhibit indicated 600 truckloads of sand can be used to drill one well. Sand here in the desert is mined also and used. Another exhibit listed the factoid that one gallon of oil needs 2,000 tons of tar sands to produce.

Given the wind, dryness, and lack of vegetation, blowing sand occurs frequently and must be adding to air pollution. We could visibly see the low-level pollution increase as we entered the Balmorhea area and then moved on to Odessa. BUT, as I checked national records, the air quality index for Odessa is similar to that in St. Paul, MN. Sometimes maybe you see things with a new eye when traveling. I will have to look around home with a critical and impartial eye when I return.

The drinking water quality here in West Texas seems to be universally criticized. TV news and newspapers have commented on it. But unemployment is low, population growth is occurring and construction seems to be occurring everywhere. Those are situations people like. Midland is even home to the first primary commercial service airport to be granted a spaceport license. The city is home to a space flight research facility and a space pressure suit manufacturing company.

For the rest of our trip we are lodging in national chains. Our TownePlace Suites here is nice, with an outdoor pool. Restaurant options are abundant with most of the usual food chains present. We ate at a regional steakhouse Monday night and regional deli today.

Today (Tuesday the 25th) we planned to see one museum, the Permian Basin Petroleum Museum in Midland. This was another AAA GEM and for us, it was a chance to learn more about the petroleum business. And it is big business, over 1,500,000 oil wells have been drilled in Texas over the last 100 years. We spent three hours here. The museum is excellent, covering geology and drilling techniques. They have a “Disney-like” ride discussing future oil exploration; through it we learned that laser drilling is under active research.

The Permian Basin is named for a geologic period of time ranging from 250 to 300 million years ago. The mass extinction of most living creatures on earth occurred at the end of this period. Today’s extraction of oil is due to the living organisms in the sea covering this area and the transformation of those organic creatures into oil under heat and pressure from layers of rock. The Basin is considered to cover an area 250 miles by 300 miles and has been one of the largest oil producing fields in the world.

In the early days, nitroglycerin was carried to well sites in vehicles like this

The museum showcases the discovery in oil in the Midland-Odessa region, dating back to 1923. The entrepreneurs who lived through boom and bust are highlighted, along with a clear description of the oil drilling process. We finally learned that those cylindrical tanks that we observed next to wells are devices to separate water, oil, and gas that are pumped up from the well.

One of the Chaparral racers

An additional gallery details the history of the Chaparral racing cars. Jim Hall, the founder of the Chaparral was from Midland. The chaparral racing cars were a major innovation in race cars in the 1960s and 1970s. Several of the original race cars are here along with a model of the garage where research and repairs were undertaken.

The Oil Patch outside the Permian Basin Petroleum Museum

Outside, the museum has a collection of antique oil field equipment. The items range from the early 1900s to the 1990s.

We cooled off in the pool at the hotel before heading out to dinner. Tomorrow our end goal is Amarillo with a stop in Lubbock, Texas.

Ed and Chris. April 25

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