The West Texas Rancher Exposing Big Oil’s Buried Secrets
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The West Texas Rancher Exposing Big Oil’s Buried Secrets

Jun 07, 2024

Wet weather had sprouted unusually green vegetation throughout Antina Ranch that spring. Wedged between the sky above and the sandy-brown soil below, the verdant plant life gave the landscape the look of a three-layer cake. An unseen fourth layer sat underground—home to the aquifers containing the ranch’s water, as well as the deposits of oil being pumped by the wells Ash Stoker had been hired by a small Midland company to inspect that June day in 2021.

As he drove along the caliche road, the 38-year-old oil-lease operator unexpectedly encountered a glare of bright West Texas sun reflecting up from a newly formed pool of water amid a clump of sickly mesquites. He parked his truck, got out to take a closer look, and began recording with his cellphone.

“You can see it just happened,” he narrated. “These mesquite trees ain’t even lost their leaves.” He walked farther off the road, his boots crunching on a white crust left behind by evaporated salt water. The dead plants and bleached earth covered at least a hundred square feet, with a puddle about six inches across at its center, and more water bubbling up from below. “There it is, flowing up out of the ground,” he said, before picking up a dented piece of metal and turning it for his phone’s camera to record. The sign read:

Chevron USA Inc. W. A. Estes LeaseWell No. 24 P&A

The well had been drilled in 1955, near the town of Monahans, about 35 miles southwest of Odessa. It pumped its last barrel of oil in 1964, then was used for a few decades to reinject water underground to help spur the production of other wells. It was plugged and abandoned (“P&A”) in 1995. Stoker had seen similar leaks every year or so since he’d started working Permian Basin wells in 2005. This Estes No. 24 well should have been safely entombed in cement, but something had gone wrong. Stoker reported it to the Railroad Commission of Texas—the agency charged with regulating the oil and gas industry—and sent his fifty-second video to a lawyer, Sarah Stogner, who was working for the owner of the ranch, Ashley Watt.

A tough-as-nails fourth-generation West Texan, Watt has the résumé of someone you’d expect to run for Congress: educated at one of Houston’s most exclusive private schools, then the U.S. Naval Academy. She served in Afghanistan before leaving the military for Harvard Business School. Many landowners in the area seem to accept oil-field trash and small leaks as a part of life in the Permian, but such conditions bothered the 35-year-old Watt.

The day after Stoker’s discovery, a state energy inspector named Sara Borrett visited the Estes 24. She scooped water from the puddle and took it to her truck, where she placed it on a scale. Weighing ten pounds per gallon, it was 20 percent heavier than fresh water. Later that evening, a consultant hired by Watt took his own sample. The water was so salty, he told me later, that anyone attempting to drink it would have gagged, unable to gulp it down. That explained the weight.

Abandoned wells are typically plugged by pockets of cement injected at multiple depths. These wells are supposed to remain inert, but the Estes 24 had mysteriously sprung back to life. The Permian Basin is not a land of Hollywood gushers—its wells don’t typically send oil surging upward out of the earth. Permian oil isn’t under extraordinary pressure. So what was pushing heavy, salty water up hundreds of feet onto the sandy soil?

Watt wanted an answer, but she soon came to believe that neither Chevron, the oil giant legally responsible for the well, nor the Railroad Commission shared her interest. She assembled her own team to unravel the mystery, and what they found led to more questions, with implications extending far beyond the boundaries of her land—across thousands of square miles of West Texas.

A white Rolls-Royce, its tires kicking up clouds of dust, figures prominently in Ashley Watt’s earliest memories of the ranch. The car belonged to the owner of a local oil-field services company, from whom Watt’s parents bought the property in 1995, when she was nine years old. Though she grew up in Houston, whenever school was out the family headed west to their 29,000 acres, a few miles southeast of Monahans. (The Watts later sold 7,000 acres, in 2017.) Hidden in a low spot near the middle of the land was the Hacienda, a Spanish-style ranch house beside a small pond and a two-story gazebo, all of it surrounded by an eight-foot wall. “I always joke that if Pablo Escobar hung out in the Permian Basin, he would live in this house,” Watt told me.

The ranch was the dream of her mother, Mary Williams, who grew up the horse-riding daughter and granddaughter of cattle ranchers. Ashley’s great-grandfather Glenn Allen had worked in the Fort Worth Stockyards as a buyer for one of the nation’s largest meatpacking companies. He noticed that the best cattle seemed to come from the sandy soils west of Odessa and headed that way. A portion of his Lazy R Ranch, as it was called, is now under a long-term lease to the state and forms part of Monahans Sandhills State Park, thirty miles southwest of Odessa.

Mary attended school in El Paso, then Austin, and finally moved to Houston, where she met Dick Watt. He had played defensive back for Darrell Royal at the University of Texas at Austin. His senior year, 1968, saw the beginning of a thirty-game winning streak for the Longhorns that included claiming the college football national championship in 1969 and 1970. Dick and Mary married in 1982. He became a prominent oil and gas attorney, founded two energy litigation firms, and served as chair of the State Bar of Texas’s oil and gas section. In 2014 the UT-affiliated Texas Journal of Oil, Gas, and Energy Law gave him the Ernest E. Smith Lifetime Achievement Award, an annual honor conferred on a Texan who has made substantial contributions to energy law.

Dick and Mary had two daughters. Ashley came first, in 1986, followed five years later by Christina. Ashley recalls Mary as a vivacious and involved mother. In photographs, Mary possesses the wide smile, coiffed hair, and impeccable dress of a Houston matron. The family split their time between the Hacienda, on Antina Ranch, and a house that backed up to the Houston Country Club.

In West Texas, Ashley’s mother rode horses and ran the ranch. Her father fired off letters anytime an oil company left a mess at one of the numerous pump jacks, oil storage tanks, wellheads, and pipelines on the property. A broker who once showed Dick Watt some ranchland for sale told me that he remembers him looking at the aging oil-field infrastructure and commenting that if he bought the land, “someday I will be able to sue the shit out of Chevron.”

Most of the wells on Antina Ranch were part of the W. A. Estes lease. Gulf Oil drilled the first couple there during World War II and continued drilling more in the late forties through the mid-fifties. Gulf operated the lease until the mid-eighties, when Chevron acquired the company. Ashley told me that in 2002 crude oil flowed up into the toilet at the Hacienda. A couple of weeks after that, an incensed Dick Watt demanded in a letter that the Railroad Commission perform “an objective and independent investigation, and not a whitewash of Chevron.” In the groundwater, a monitoring well drilled by Chevron found toxic benzene, a carcinogen also known to cause anemia. Chevron plugged some of the ranch’s existing water wells and drilled new ones.

Ashley believes her mother’s cancer could be linked to the groundwater contamination. Memories of her mother’s painful death were still fresh when the Estes 24 began leaking.

At Houston’s Kinkaid School, which counts George W. Bush and JamesBaker III among its alumni, Ashley earned three varsity letters her senior year. After graduating from the Naval Academy, she served five years in the Marines, including a seven-month deployment to Afghanistan. “I’ve killed a lot of people with drones,” she said. Ashley left the military in 2013 with the rank of captain and enrolled at Harvard Business School. After graduation, she tried investment banking in Houston, but she realized she wasn’t any good at it and didn’t find it interesting.

In May 2018, Mary Williams Watt was diagnosed with an aggressive adrenal gland cancer; according to an American Cancer Society estimate, Mary was one of perhaps two hundred Americans each year with that form of carcinoma. Within the span of a few weeks, she went from being an active 68-year-old to nearly dying. Surgeries and chemotherapy at MD Anderson Cancer Center briefly restored her vitality, but by that Thanksgiving, she was under hospice care. Ashley became her mother’s primary caregiver, vacuuming fluid out of her throat to help her breathe. Mary died on Christmas Eve 2018. Emotionally devastated, Dick followed just fourteen months later.

Ashley believes her mother’s rare cancer could be linked to the contamination of Antina Ranch groundwater. This suspicion motivates Ashley and stokes her anger. Memories of her mother’s painful death were still fresh when the Estes 24 began leaking.

I first visited Antina Ranch last summer, a couple of weeks after the leak’s discovery. Watt drove me around in her gray Ford F-150. The dashboard thermometer read 103 degrees, but she wore a long-sleeved top and dark-gray leggings with a baseball cap. Her fingernails had the chewed remains of a weeks-old green polish. As we crisscrossed the ranch, she jerked her truck down dead-end roads to show me weathered pieces of oil equipment—not all of it belonging to Chevron—in various states of neglect and disrepair.

Around one corner sat a rusty pump jack upon which a bird had built its nest. Around the next, a stubby, decades-old wellhead poked a couple of feet out of the ground, surrounded by a patch of odorous, oil-stained dirt. We also drove past another well that had recently leaked salt water. I could see the path along which the water had run by noting the trail of dead mesquites. “Each of these mesquites that are just deader than doornails were not dead last year,” Watt said.

She declared that she was willing to spend whatever it took to underwrite a lengthy investigation into the Estes 24. She was adamant that Chevron should repair the damage to her ranch—she wouldn’t accept a financial settlement. If she did eventually settle for a payoff, she said, “I insist that it is not confidential because if I’m going to sell my soul, everyone’s going to know my price.”

A few weeks before the leak’s discovery, she had invited Stogner, who was going through a divorce, to move into the ranch’s pool house. They had planned to spend the summer sending oil operators sharply worded demands to clean up the aging wellheads and pipelines. Stogner instead became Watt’s wartime adviser. (Stogner went on to make headlines earlier this year with an ultimately unsuccessful bid in the Republican primary for a seat on Railroad Commission, during which she released a video of herself riding a pump jack on Watt’s property while wearing only a hat, underwear, and star-shaped pasties. She forced a runoff with incumbent Wayne Christian.)

Stogner sent photos of the Estes 24 leak to Bill Burch, who’d been on the team that sealed the disastrous Deepwater Horizon spill in 2010, in addition to other problem wells as far away as Kuwait and Algeria. Burch packed some clothes, threw them into his Cadillac Escalade, and drove nearly nine hours from his home in East Texas to Antina Ranch. Watt also hired Joshua Pollard, a Sherman man who specializes in fixing up and selling past-their-prime oil wells, to closely monitor Chevron’s activities at the Estes 24 site.

Chevron likewise marshaled its own team. At one point, the number of its contractors at the ranch grew to as many as fifty, to contend with the cantankerous and unpredictable well. Plugging it proved time-consuming. Security guards were posted at the well, and a portable office building with a twenty-person conference room was set up nearby. The company dispatched a high-priced Baker Botts lawyer as well as some top well-plugging experts. A commissary truck provided Tex-Mex lunches, and a cool-down tent was set up for contractors laboring in the triple-digit summer temperatures.

Watt seemed to enjoy her fight with a multinational company worth more than $300 billion, frequently taking her complaints public on Twitter. Not long after the arrival of the Chevron contingent, someone put a red bucket over the top of the Estes 24 pipe that water continued to spray out from under. Watt tweeted a photo of it with the sardonic caption “Yeah that should fix it” in response. “A big thank you to Red Bucket Well Control LLC!”

Meanwhile, the Hacienda began to feel like a mixture of the mobile headquarters of a military operation and the home of a large, busy family composed of Watt and what she calls her “motley engineering crew.” Stacks of documents related to every well on the ranch piled up on any available surface. Computers, printers, and crates of bottled water were delivered. Even a sort of air force was created when Watt spent $5,000 on high-end drones and cameras to keep an eye on Chevron from above.

Stogner organized records, discussed wellhead pressure readings, and chopped mangoes and vegetables for group dinners. Watt coordinated supply runs into town for Diet Coke, Marlboro Reds, and fuel for the Polaris ATVs. Burch gave impromptu seminars on well construction and control. Stogner’s fifteen-year-old, nearly blind black poodle, Blue, and Watt’s rambunctious airedoodle Bucephalus, named after Alexander the Great’s horse, added to a sense of familial chaos.

Stogner had noticed unusual pressure readings at several Antina Ranch wells even before the Estes 24 started flowing. She hypothesized that the cause might be an underground blowout. That’s when pressure builds up and finds an outlet, such as an old well, for pushing an out-of-control mix of oil, gas, and noxious water to the surface. Sometimes, the flowing mixture exits a well underground, filling up porous spaces in rock. Such a situation can be devilishly difficult to contain.

Watt worried that Chevron would plug the well without figuring out what had occurred underground to bring the Estes 24 back to life. (Chevron said at the time that its work to replug the well wouldn’t “prevent any future root cause analysis.”) Watt also didn’t have faith the Railroad Commission would do anything other than rubber-stamp Chevron’s plans. The agency’s position, according to a staffer’s email to Chevron, was that it considered the leak a “civil matter and we will not be acting as a mediator.”

Chevron worked hard to stop the Estes 24 from flowing. Its team installed valves allowing them to close the wellhead, but it soon became clear that the problems were only beginning—the pressure inside the pipe kept rising. A significant, unknown force was continuing to push water up from underground.

The Estes 24 began to reveal its secrets just after the long Fourth of July weekend. Chevron drilled out all the cement plugs that had been installed when the well was abandoned. Then, starting at the bottom, its workers set new plugs at several depths. When the crew reached a zone 1,475 feet belowground, something unexpected happened, according to Burch, who was at the well site at the time. As is always done with such plugs, before filling the inside with concrete, the workers shot holes in the steel pipe to squeeze cement around its outside. But this time, salty water poured through the holes with the force of a fire hydrant. The water rose to the surface at a rapid clip. Burch texted Watt and her team. “Right now it’s flowing brine at a rate significantly higher than any we’ve seen,” he wrote. He estimated the rate at 10,000 barrels a day. “Christ on Friday that’s a lot of water,” Pollard replied. (Chevron disputed some aspects of Burch’s version of events but agreed the water in the well was under significant pressure.)

The water appeared to be coming from the bottom of an underground layer known as the Salado Formation, a hundreds-of-feet-thick slab of salt left over from when the Permian was at the bottom of the ocean. It’s animpermeable solid—or it had been when Chevron plugged the Estes 24 in 1995, according to company records filed with the state. So when had this patch of the Salado Formation apparently become an underground river?

Watt wanted diagnostic tests run to try to answer that question, but Chevron’s crew instead quickly sealed off the holes by injecting cement containing a fast-setting chemical. Watt guessed that Chevron didn’t want to know what was happening because knowing could lead to expensive remediation. (Chevron disputed this characterization and said it too wanted to understand what was happening underground, in addition to sealing the well.) Burch and Stogner suspected that salt water was surging from one subterranean zone to another, as well as up to the surface. If that were the case, the problem was a lot bigger than one well.

Watt confronted Chevron’s team at the well site. According to a letter sent a couple of hours later by the Baker Botts attorney working for Chevron, Watt “shouted ‘f—’ ” multiple times. “Chevron will not accept any aggressive or threatening behavior towards Chevron personnel whether in person or on the phone,” the letter stated. Watt copped to the profanity. “I didn’t scream at them, but I was like, ‘You have f—ed this up, and you’re going to clean it up,’ ” she told me.

Later that same day, she received news that further enraged her. Tests of the water samples taken by Raymond Straub, Watt’s consultant, had found elevated radioactivity and levels of benzene at more than 150 times the concentration legally allowed in drinking water. “Did I mention that @Chevron now officially has a *HIGHLY RADIOACTIVE* uncontrolled subsurface blowout on their hands?” Watt tweeted.

Following the meeting with Watt, Chevron’s team agreed to bring in oil-field service firm Schlumberger to run a sophisticated diagnostic test. Chevron would let Burch review the results but would not help him interpret the brightly colored squiggly lines on the readout. “Unfortunately for them, as a former Schlumberger logging engineer in Saudi Arabia and Oman, I didn’t need to ask how to read an isolation scanner tool log,” he told me. He described what he saw as the worst-case scenario. (Of course, he admits to being a pessimist by nature.) He texted Watt’s team, asking them to join him on the patio at the Hacienda. When they had all arrived, he grabbed a Modelo. “Join me for a beer,” he said. “This isn’t pretty.”

Based on the Schlumberger test, there were multiple holes in the top six hundred feet of well. This wasn’t a case of salt water entering the well from the bottom, rising upward, and corroding the pipe from the inside. The results pointed to the pipe’s being eaten away from the outside. (Chevron told Texas Monthly there were indications of corrosion on the inside of the pipe, not the outside.)

Burch explained that there was evidence of a high-pressure lake of potentially toxic and radioactive water underground pushing into the Estes 24 and likely other wells that were plugged by aging cement that might easily give way. Toxic water could get into a drinking-water aquifer. If it found a path to the surface, it would take it. Indeed, as Watt was about to learn, this might have already happened on her land, seven months earlier.

Shortly after sunrise on December 10, 2020, an Antina Ranch foreman was driving down the ranch’s main road when he saw water flowing about three hundred yards through a bunch of mesquites, according to Watt. He traced the water to a still-operational well, the Estes 20, which had been drilled two months before the Estes 24, roughly a mile away. The foreman reported the leak to Chevron.

Watt was out of state at the time, and the foreman never told her about what seemed to be a minor leak. But back at Antina the next month, she noticed a bunch of trash at the Estes 20 site, as well as tire tracks on a side road where it looked as if a large number of trucks had turned around. She complained about the mess to Chevron and asked to see the paperwork the company had filed with the state about the leak. Clay Calhoun, a Chevron employee in Midland, explained that because no crude had spilled—only 31.69 barrels of water—no report to the Railroad Commission was required.

The following March, the mesquites throughout the ranch began greening with the spring weather, except where the Estes 20 had spilled water. There the mesquites remained sickly and leafless. Calhoun told Watt that Chevron would pay the going rate of 8 cents for every square foot touched by the spill, or $1,401.03. Watt wondered how less than 32 barrels of water could have covered such a large area, roughly four-tenths of an acre.

The next month, Chevron sold its wells on the Estes lease to Pitts Energy, a small firm in Midland. Chevron—and before it Gulf—had owned the wells continuously for nearly a century. Pitts acquired the active wells, though Chevron retained responsibility for the plugged wells, including the Estes 24. Four months later, after the Estes 24 leak began and she’d begun to suspect a much-larger problem underground, Watt asked Steve Pitts, the president of Pitts Energy, if he would share the files of detailed history about each well that he’d purchased in the deal. He agreed.

One of the files contained a Chevron document describing the Estes 20 leak. Watt learned that when Chevron arrived at the Estes 20 following the foreman’s reporting of the leak, water was flowing from the well at the rate of about a barrel a minute. Watt was in disbelief. How had Chevron come up with its estimate of 31.69 barrels? Had it arrived half an hour after the leak started? The records indicated that contractors had worked on the leak for five days, facing high pressure and using heavy mud and cement to control it. At least 1,400 barrels of liquid had been hauled off, more than enough to fill a backyard swimming pool. Then Chevron plugged the well permanently.

Chevron had never mentioned to Watt’s team that just months earlier, at the Estes 20, it had dealt with a scenario similar to the Estes 24 leak. Watt wondered what more the company knew that it wasn’t sharing, and Pollard started scouring documents to try to find out. In mid-August, he noticed that a file about a well designated the Estes 27 had recently been uploaded to the state’s record-keeping system. About a third of a mile north of the ranch house, the well had been plugged and abandoned in 1999. Yet Chevron had gone back into the Estes 27 in March 2021—after the Estes 20 leak but before the Estes 24’s—and injected cement down the entire length of the pipe between the surface and a depth of 1,335 feet.

There is so much routine oil-field activity at the ranch that Watt hadn’t realized anything was unusual about what went on at the Estes 27 at the time it was re-plugged. Chevron told me the re-plugging was prompted by a “wet spot” discovered at the site in December 2020, another instance of a well on the ranch coming back to life. Though the paperwork reveals nothing about Chevron’s intentions, the cement injected would prevent anything from coming up the well from the Salado zone. If there were high-pressure water at that depth, it wouldn’t escape to the surface. It would remain flowing underground, into new cracks, possibly toward far less protected wells.

Joshua Pollard seems to subsist on steak and Flamin’ Hot Cheetos. Watt said she has never seen him eat a vegetable. He stands five foot five, weighs 125 pounds soaking wet, and wears thick glasses that make it difficult to tell where he’s looking. He appears unthreatening and blends inconspicuously into the oil field.

But Pollard is a savant at finding and understanding Texas oil and gas records. That’s what he does for a living: figure out who owns which mostly forgotten wells, then buy them low, repair them, and sell them. A former Marine machine gunner, Pollard had his leg shattered in a training accident while serving in Iraq in 2004. It took several plates, pins, and wires to put his limb back together. His post–high school education consists of a free online earth sciences class offered by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

While babysitting Chevron’s plugging operations at the Estes 24, he’d grown restless and begun to try to figure out where the water was coming from. He spent hours poring over Railroad Commission well files, looking for clues. (“I quit drinking two and a half years ago, and I have some time on my hands now,” he explained.) After going down a few rabbit holes, he came across a 1978 document about Gulf Oil. The company had wanted to expand a project it had begun in 1965. For every three barrels of oil it pumped out of the Estes lease, it also got stuck with a barrel of briny water. Gulf Oil proposed a relatively common industry practice: taking some of that water and pumping it back underground, where it would push the remaining oil toward its wells, boosting production. This “waterflood” proposal included turning the Estes 24 and 27 into wells for injecting that water. (The Estes 20 would remain an oil well.) Pollard sent an email to Watt. “Smoking gun?” he asked. Watt told him to keep digging.

Pollard did just that, and what he found didn’t add up. By August 2021, he’d learned how much water Gulf had been permitted by the state to inject (an “estimated maximum” daily rate of 200 barrels into each well), and he had the records—some handwritten—of how much Gulf, and then Chevron, had injected. While some months the numbers were below that 200-barrel rate, the company had at other times massively exceeded the rate for months at a time. For instance, in 1983 Gulf Oil injected an average of 410 barrels a day into the Estes 31. In 1991 Chevron injected 670 barrels a day into the Estes 23. In January 1991 it injected 1,681 barrels a day into the Estes 23 and 903 barrels into the Estes 55.

Chevron had reported all of these numbers to the state. “[The Railroad Commission] should have flagged it. Why it wasn’t flagged I don’t know,” Pollard said. “The commission does nothing. It is shocking.” Chevron had pumped a sea of water beneath Antina Ranch, and the state had either ignored injection rates significantly in excess of the “estimated maximum”—or never noticed them.

Chevron told me—and the Railroad Commission agreed—that the permit does not explicitly limit the number of barrels the company can inject into wells. It could return as much water as it wanted to belowground, as long as it stayed below a maximum-allowable pressure within each well; two hundred barrels was an estimate of how many per day would result in that much pressure, a level it says it never exceeded. Chevron also noted that the state never complained. “Our record review . . . did not find any indication that Gulf ever received any notice of violation in connection with its injection activities. If Gulf were over-injecting at the rate alleged by Ms. Watt, we would expect Gulf would have received such notices,” the company said.

In late 1999, Chevron had filed to change its waterflooding program. The Estes lease had produced 2.7 million barrels of oil since World War II, but by then the field was tired. For every barrel of oil drawn from the remaining wells, more than two barrels of water came up. Chevron asked to use a single injection well with a 3,000-barrel-a-day “estimated maximum,” and the state approved. The application was full of mistakes. Chevron needed to specify which wells were within a quarter of a mile of the new injector well. One of the listed wells was the Estes 24, which the company said had been plugged in April 1965 rather than 1995. But the true oddity was Chevron’s attestation that it had notified nearby landowners. “Chevron is the surface owner,” it stated. This was not true. Ashley told me that no one had ever informed Dick and Mary Watt about the plan to create a large water-injection well less than a mile from both their ranch house and the source of their drinking water.

“Chevron’s lie created a fake world where they could avoid giving any notice about their injection activities to the actual landowners, my family,” Ashley Watt wrote in a letter to the Railroad Commission last December. “This kind of reckless behavior is par for the course when dealing with Chevron’s well and injection records. Had she been notified that Chevron was overinjecting salt water under the ranch, perhaps my mother would have known to have tested our water wells more often, and would still be alive today.”

The public knows the Permian Basin as an oil field. Pumpers and petroleum engineers, ranch owners and roughnecks know that this is not strictly correct. The Permian is more accurately described as an industrial operation that pumps a veritable sea of salt water from the earth daily, then separates out the oil. Older wells produce 14 barrels of water for every barrel of oil, according to a recent study. For newer wells, the water-to-oil ratio is lower—between 1.8 and 3.6. Every day, the industry produces more than 5 million barrels of oil from the Permian, along with something like 30 million barrels of water. If this water were piped east into a swimming pool covering the entirety of the city of Dallas on January 1, residents would be treading water by the end of the year.

This water is too salty for anything besides putting it back underground. The oil industry, year after year, decade after decade, is replumbing the subsurface under West Texas, pulling water from one depth and putting it back at a different, more convenient, depth. Such movement of water parallels—in scale and complexity—the damming of the Colorado River and the California State Water Project. But Texas state regulations are loose and permissive, and the records a jumbled mess. Meanwhile, the Railroad Commission has continued to permit larger and larger salt water disposal wells, even as state agencies have determined that pumping too much salt water underground likely triggered earthquake spikes in the Midland area and central Oklahoma. So far this year, permitted injection levels in Texas are 58 percent greater than those allowed a decade ago, according to state data.

To reach oil reservoirs, wells are routinely drilled through the freshwater aquifers needed to grow crops, slake the thirst of cities, and nourish livestock. Landowners obviously don’t want drillers befouling their aquifers with hydrocarbons or, worse, salt. So a compromise was struck long ago. Oil companies could drill deep into the earth for fossil fuels, but its wells needed to be encased in cement as they passed through drinkable water zones. This is the foundational deal between Texas and the oil industry. Almost every Railroad Commission form requires drillers to answer two basic questions: What is the depth of the deepest fresh water, and is that groundwater protected? Which leads to another question: What happens when that deal between the state, landowners, and the oil industry falls apart?

Chevron finished its work at the Estes 24 near the beginning of September. I visited the ranch shortly after that. All Chevron had left behind was a wellhead, painted turquoise, sticking about four feet out of the ground amid an acre denuded of vegetation. A small red lock secured the valve. “They think we’re going to sabotage it,” Watt said, laughing. Chevron would monitor the well for changes to surface pressure, but if liquid is indeed flowing from one subterranean zone to another, as Burch and Stogner fear, that could remain a mystery buried under several cement plugs.

Watt told me that the ranch felt “weirdly empty” after her five hundred head of cattle had been moved elsewhere because of the concerns about water contamination. One morning, she, Stogner, and I piled into the F-150 and drove south toward Fort Stockton. We pulled off the two-lane highway at “Lake Boehmer,” parked, and walked around. The toxic body of water first appeared in 2003, when an abandoned well began sending water to the surface, and it now covers more than sixty acres. Nothing the lake touches survives. The water is three times saltier than the ocean, but it’s as clear as the water you might encounter on some picturesque Caribbean beach.

“Kind of beautiful, if you don’t smell it,” Watt said. She looked across the lake, past the spindly dead trees poking out of the water, toward the big blue sky beyond. The scent of rotten eggs, the telltale sign of hydrogen sulfide, wafted toward us. A few months later, in March, a hydrogeologist working for the local groundwater district would find elevated levels of arsenic and radium in the water, as well as trace amounts of hydrocarbons and H2S levels in excess of 14,000 parts per million—seven hundred times higher than the federal government’s workplace safety guidelines allow.

The next month, a gate would finally be installed to prevent public access to Lake Boehmer. The Railroad Commission has taken the position that because the abandoned well was long ago turned over to the landowner and converted into a water well, the agency has no jurisdiction over it. To Watt, Lake Boehmer is an example of the state’s see-no-evil approach to oversight. A former oil well has been spewing toxic water and belching lethal concentrations of gas, and the state has let the situation fester for decades.

Back at the ranch, Watt said she wanted to require Chevron to clean up any damage both on the ranch’s surface and belowground. “I want to hang a precedent on the oil and gas industry saying ‘If you make this mess, you have to clean it up,’ ” she said. If the company finds salt water in her aquifers, she said, it should be required to treat the water, stripping out the salts and other contaminants, and then pump it back underground.

Watt had spoken at a Railroad Commission public meeting in Austin about a week before my visit. She wore a simple gray blouse and black pants and introduced herself as a West Texas rancher broadly supportive of the state’s oil and gas industry. She noted that the water from the well next to her house is now saltier than the ocean. “The citizens of Texas, and especially those of us who live in the oil fields, deserve safe and clean groundwater,” she said. “The oil and gas industry cannot be allowed to permanently destroy the land and waters of West Texas.” Two of the three commissioners thanked her and promised to look into the matter. One of them went further. “I will stay on top of everything I can do within the law to make sure that things are done correctly,” Jim Wright told her. His office made plans for him to visit Antina Ranch.

Over the course of the fall, Chevron drilled about twenty feet into the soil near several wells to look for contamination from the leaking well. The results from the Estes 24 indicated the potential presence of toxins, including benzene. So Chevron drilled water monitor wells into the shallowest of three aquifers beneath the ranch—the Pecos Valley Alluvium—around Thanksgiving. Watt collected water from the test wells and sent it for testing. The results indicated that it was radioactive and very salty. Chevron, in a February letter responding to the results presented by Watt, noted that radionuclides occur naturally in the aquifer. This is true, but it’s not the whole story.

The last major examination of radioactivity in Texas aquifers, by UT-Austin geologists working for the state’s Water Development Board, occurred in 2011. It analyzed 84 water samples from the Pecos Valley Alluvium. The water from 58 of those wells had detectable levels of radioactivity, and the median level was 4.8 picocuries per liter. In contrast, the water Watt’s hydrogeologist drew from near the Estes 27 had 128 picocuries per liter—more than eight times the federal limit for drinking water. (Chevron told me there was “no indication that useable groundwater has been impacted at Antina Ranch.”) Watt said the Railroad Commission has promised her that either Chevron or the state will drill a well into the deeper Rustler aquifer, looking for signs of an underground blowout, but nothing has been scheduled. Frustrated that the state wasn’t doing more to investigate what was happening, in December Stogner decided to launch her quixotic bid for railroad commissioner. (Watt made a $2 million donation to the campaign just ahead of the May runoff.)

Will the Permian become a denuded landscape of poisonous ponds and toxic geysers, capable of sustaining intensive oil and gas activity but little else?

Then, sometime around the final hours of 2021, another West Texas well failed in spectacular fashion. By the time the sun rose on January 1, a hundred-foot-tall column of salt water had appeared eight miles southeast of Antina Ranch. To Watt and Stogner, it was further confirmation of a zone of massively pressurized water in the area. “For months, people were saying we were crazy, and then came the geyser,” Watt said. The well from which the geyser (technically a blowout) sprang was a mystery; neither Chevron nor the Railroad Commission could find any paperwork for it. For days, all that was known about it was that 25,000 barrels a day of brine was pouring out. It was a veritable Spindletop of salty water. Wright canceled his trip to Antina Ranch a few days later. His spokesperson said it was both out of concern over rising COVID-19 cases and because Stogner’s newly launched bid for election to the Railroad Commission presented “a host of issues.” Though the geyser was successfully contained, months later the well remains a mystery—no one knows when it was drilled or who owns it.

But Pollard did find paperwork for a Chevron well, called the CT-112, that sits extremely close to the site of the mystery geyser. (“CT” stands for “core test.”) In the mid- to late fifties, Gulf drilled hundreds such core tests from Los Angeles to Houston. At least fifty were in Crane County, including two on Antina Ranch. It appears that Gulf was drilling so many of these wells in order to better map the boundaries of oil reservoirs. They were plugged soon after they were drilled. Gulf sometimes removed the entirety of the pipe, leaving an open hole with just a couple of cement plugs. If these plugs failed, the wells were open elevator shafts for whatever might rise from below.

Pollard also found a record showing that a few months before the sprouting of the mystery geyser, and less than a mile to the northeast, a cement company was sealing a Citation Oil & Gas well when it encountered flowing water at a depth of 1,200 feet that had pushed its way up the well. The cementer paused for four days, then added a plug at 1,160 feet. In other words, it simply sealed the well above and below this watery zone, and moved on.

Between the Antina wells, the geyser, and the Citation well, there were now multiple pieces of evidence pointing to an extraordinarily pressurized zone of salt water. Draw a parallelogram between these wells on a map, and it covers more than seven thousand acres. Where else had wells encountered this pressure zone, which didn’t seem to exist a few years ago, and how big was it? The groundwater in that part of Crane County flows north to south. So was it headed toward Fort Stockton, seeking pathways through poorly plugged wells until it finds gaps between the rocks where it can form a giant underground sea?

The Railroad Commission doesn’t seem to want to drill test wells to determine the extent of this problem. And in a March letter to Watt, Chevron denied what it called her “sensationalized allegations.” Even so, the company sought permission from Watt to assess and possibly replug three more wells—the Estes 5, 11, and 28. All were in the middle of the area of Gulf and Chevron’s massive water injections, between the Hacienda and the Estes 24. Chevron said it wanted to take this step “based on proximity to wells that have experienced breakouts within the past two years.” Thus far, Watt has denied Chevron permission to work on these wells or drill more wells to monitor the water. Like her father before her, she says it’s because she worries that all that would result from these steps is a “whitewash.”

Earlier this year, Watt, Stogner, Pollard, and I sat on the patio of the Hacienda, in front of a robust blaze in the outdoor fireplace. Blue, the blind poodle, had recently died, and Bucephalus had a new buddy, a puppy named Briscoe. I asked Watt if she was still intent on neither reaching a financial settlement with Chevron nor selling the ranch.

“If I wanted to sell it, I am absolutely positive Chevron would buy it right now,” she responded. “I have no doubt in the world, but I don’t want money. If I want money, I would have shut up, lawyered up, and we let them do their thing.”

Developing an oil lease typically requires drilling pads, pipelines, power lines, roads, and disposal wells. Landowners can seek damages for spills from wells and leaking pipelines. An aggressive landowner can become a time-consuming headache for an oil company. Sometimes, the company decides it’s better to simply buy the ranch so that it doesn’t have to deal with the owner. “We call it the industrialization of the ranch real estate,” said Keith Barlow, a Midland-based ranchland appraiser. “They don’t have to check with the owner to do everything. So it just makes their deal a little easier to work.”

In the past couple of decades, oil companies have quietly become significant landowners in West Texas. Chevron owns 12,647 acres of ranchland in Crane County, home to Antina Ranch, and 34,411 acres next door in Upton County. Most of that is the former McElroy Ranch, which Chevron bought in 1990 and closed to quail hunters. “We could make our operations more efficient by buying the surface and making sure there were no trespassers on the ranch,” a Chevron spokesperson told the Odessa American a few days after the sale.

Also in Upton County, SM Energy, Pioneer Natural Resources, ConocoPhillips, and Apache Oil each own more than 7,000 acres apiece. In Crane, ExxonMobil owns 14,410 acres. Late last year, a company with the generic name US Land Guild bought the 13,600-acre Doodle Bug Ranch, in Crane. The company’s address is the same as that of Blackbeard Operating, a private Fort Worth oil company that already owns 8,368 acres in the county.

Charles Gilliland, a research economist with the Texas Real Estate Research Center, at Texas A&M University, said these transactions are a one-way street. After oil companies buy such acreage, they tend not to sell it. Parts of the Permian Basin are slowly transforming from being wide-open ranchland that hosts some oil activity to being an oil-industry fiefdom with islands of ranchland. No one seems to be tracking how much land across the Permian is now owned by oil companies, so I pulled land records from eight counties. (Several counties with significant oil activity make it difficult to access their tax rolls.) Among those, I tallied 370,395 acres—larger than several Texas counties—and I expect that’s an undercount.

Once the land is in the hands of oil companies, who’s left to complain about damage to the land or the groundwater? Oil companies can ignore it, and the Railroad Commission has shown little interest in being a rigorous regulator. Will the Permian become an increasingly denuded landscape of poisonous ponds and toxic geysers, capable of sustaining intensive oil and gas activity but little else?

“I suspect the Permian Basin in fifty years is just owned by oil companies,” Watt told me. She wondered aloud if she would accept a trade in which Chevron buys her what she called a “ranch of my choosing and just trade it to me, and I’ll just move on and go back to ranching.” I asked her where she’d want the ranch to be. “Still in West Texas, but not near oil and gas,” she said.

“People are always like, ‘Well, we don’t want more regulations because that’s going to stifle oil and gas and everything.’ The only regulation I want is already on the books, which is like, ‘Okay, if you make a mess, you have to clean it up.’ And that’s, like, basic, you know, golden rule. If that is too much regulation for the oil and gas industry, then what the f— are we even doing?”

This article originally appeared in the July 2022 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “What Lies Beneath.” Subscribe today.