Water and Oil: The Limits of Oil Technology

Oil exploration in Texas has been historically concentrated mostly along the Gulf and in the Permian Basin. The earliest strikes took place in the eastern half of the state and moved west later in the twentieth century. As the below map illustrates, a wave of new West Texas oil deposits were discovered between 1935 and 1960.

Surface water is at a premium in the arid western half of the state. In the Permian Basin, only the Pecos River provides significant water for drinking or irrigation. Almost all of the water used for human consumption comes from deep aquifers. Using data from the US Department of Energy and the Texas General Land Office, it becomes clear that the mid-century wave of oil discoveries took place on top of significant groundwater deposits.

Oil production required an expansive industrial infrastructure which had a cumulative impact on the environment. Combining map data tracking oil pipelines, railroads, and drilled wells brings home this impact. The below map uses historic map data from the late 1930s to track oil infrastructure in Ector County, near Odessa, Texas.


An image from the1970s and a contemporary Google Maps aerial view of Ector county give a sense of what this landscape looked like. The impact of brush clearing and road building to access the region’s oil wells is clearly visible.


Oil production in West Texas did not cause drought. However, oil production did often increase in drought years. While twentieth century oil production depended upon global oil prices and regulated by state and federal extraction quotas. During drought years regional landowners — mostly ranchers — worked to find alternative means of revenue and drilling was one lucrative option.

Below is a map tracking annual Texas oil production (in millions of barrels) starting in 1935 and ending in 2015. Data is from the Texas Railroad Commission. A comparison between the Texas Railroad Commission Data and a NOAA map tracking Texas drought conditions reveals the strong correlation between drought and drilling.



During the 1950s, the Texas oil industry underwent massive expansion, coinciding with extended drought in the Permian Basin.

As oil production increased during the drought-plagued 1950s, the industry put increased strain on the region’s limited potable groundwater. The late 1940s and early 1950s were marked by a regional water crisis only solved through the daming of the Colorado River and the creation of the Colorado River Municipal Water District to provide drinking water for regional settlements.

Below is a series of maps rendered in JMP that document county-level oil drilling and processing efforts in Texas in 1965. Data for these maps comes from the Texas Mid Continent Oil and Gas Association Records.




As the first map demonstrates, West Texas was one of the few locations for exploratory drilling in the 1960s. However, these wells were deeper than ever before. With the total number of feet drilled per-county that year topping 1.5 million in several counties.



Together, these maps gives a good sense of the environmental impact of oil exploration.

As these maps indicate, in the mid 1960s, the Permian Basin remained a prolific source oil and natural gas. However, the region held many of the deepest on-shore wells in the state, making drilling very expensive. Regional importance correlated with the industry’s increased environmental impact. More holes, deeper holes, and the increased use of well injection and well flooding technologies all left their mark.


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