Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences Earth Sciences Faculty News

Zhong Lu, Earth Sciences, featured in Fortune Magazine

Fortune Magazine

Originally Posted: May 25, 2018

Excerpt from an article titled Lone Star Rising in the May 2018 issue of Fortune Magazine:

Zhong Lu, a geophysics professor at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, is part of a scientific team that has used satellite imagery to study what it regards as alarming land subsidence throughout the Permian. Over time, he believes, water from decaying oil-and-gas-related wells has leaked, dissolving subterranean salt layers and causing the ground to shift and ultimately, in places, to cave in. He warns that the industry needs to better shore up its aging wells against leaks. “We’re not trying to point fingers,” he tells me. “Everybody is enjoying the prosperity of oil and gas. But there’s technology we can use to modify the health of these wells.”

When I mention to Lu that I’m planning to visit the cracking section of County Road 201, he offers some advice: “I wouldn’t park my car there.” At any time, he warns, the road might “collapse.”  READ MORE

Lone Star Rising

In a dusty swath of West Texas known as the Permian Basin, a historic oil boom is pushing U.S. production to record levels and bringing sudden wealth to local landowners—along with some thorny challenges. As they rush to invest, oil majors like Exxon Mobil are betting that this bonanza has staying power.

Smack in the middle of Grier Brunson’s family’s ranch, a patch of West Texas dirt that sprawls across 45 square miles, sits a lush, green dip in the land that the family calls “the draw.”

Thousands of years ago, Pueblos built rocky settlements here. Hundreds of years ago, Comanches thundered on horseback across this plain. Today, the natural bounty in and around the draw is producing a rather more modern stampede.

On the rim of the draw, amid the mesquite trees and the sagebrush, oil rigs loom like rockets at launch, and a team fracking a well shoots untold thousands of gallons of water and hundreds of truckloads of sand down into the earth, using huge hydraulic pumps that emit a dull, constant roar. For the Brunson family, these are the sights and sounds of money: Two miles underground, oil—thousands of barrels of it every day, worth millions of dollars—is being cracked loose from the rock and pulled up through carefully engineered holes.

Under the terms of the mineral leases they’ve signed with oil companies, Brunson and his extended family receive one-quarter of the revenue from every barrel the drilling companies pull up. The Brunsons have about 50 wells on the ranch, of various sizes and ages. With oil trading around $70 per barrel, among the most prolific of those wells could generate as much as $3.8 million per year in royalties before taxes for the Brunsons. And that’s just for the oil. The Brunsons earn additional royalties from the sale of the natural gas and other hydrocarbons that come up with the oil. And they earn fees from the drilling companies for permission to install infrastructure such as pipelines.

The size of this unexpected windfall is a bit bizarre and more than a little embarrassing to Brunson, who drives a GMC pickup, idolizes a grandfather who rustled cattle here nearly 100 years back, and curses like a cowboy—“goddamn it!”—when he drives across his ranch and sees what he regards as messy operations by the oil companies leasing his land. The money “is more than we need. We don’t know what to do with it. But it keeps coming,” says Brunson, a lanky, bespectacled 73-year-old, who evokes Colonel Sanders with his silver goatee and Will Rogers with his silver tongue.

“We have no inclination to be rich beyond our wildest dreams,” he adds. “Apparently, it’s going to happen anyway.”

Indeed, it’s hard not to rack up wealth when fate puts your ranch at the epicenter of one of the biggest oil booms in history. Brunson’s land sits in the bull’s-eye of the Permian Basin, a petroleum-rich swath of western Texas and southeastern New Mexico—bigger than North Dakota—that is experiencing a gusher of production growth epic even by the outsize standards of the Lone Star State. The boom is remaking every aspect of life in this parched part of the country, for good and for ill. And it is reverberating across the globe. READ MORE