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Living off the Land

November 24, 1999

Chamiso is hot crop for area residents

Staff Writer
PECOS, Nov. 24, 1999 - The bell pepper harvest has been going on for a while now in the Trans-Pecos, and with the first freeze of the year due over Thanksgiving, cotton harvesting is about to get into full swing.

But right now in the Pecos area, harvesting of Four-Wing Saltbush seeds (chamiso) has been the agricultural equivalent of Pokemon toys - the hottest commodity of the season.

Nearly a quarter million pounds of chamiso have passed through Roger Jones' warehouse on Western Avenue in Pecos during the past several weeks, since it was announced Jones was paying a dollar a pound for the seeds, which can be found all over the region.

"We've gotten about 240,000 pounds, and we've got an 18-wheeler out there going to Colorado Jones said from inside the Pecos Produce warehouse, standing in front of a 50,000 pound pile of seeds. "Some of it's going to Abilene, some to Colorado and some to Spearman."

Jones was contacted by an Abilene seed company about harvesting seeds from the shrub, after plant seeds in Arizona failed to germinate this year. "It just started off as something to help the high school kids, and then it just snowballed," he said.

The students began by harvesting seeds from land owned by the Dixie Cattle Co., but in the month since it began, those going out daily to pick seeds and bring them to Pecos has multiplied into the hundreds.

"We've had people from Carlsbad, Odessa, Midland and Big Lake, and we've even had some come in from Van Horn. It's been amazing," said Jones, who is employing 22 boys and girls from Pecos High School to help around the warehouse.

"The price has been real good. It's been a little big better than we though it would be," he said, adding that recent the mild weather conditions during the past month have helped increase the harvest.

"We've been real fortunate with the weather. Yesterday (Monday) was the first windy day we've had in a while," Jones said. He added that the expected Thanksgiving freeze, "Will just make it better," because the seeds should fall off the plant even easier than they do now.

All of the seeds shipped out from Pecos are expected to be used for re-seeding. Jones said last week the chamiso is to go to Conservation Reserve Program land and to U.S. Bureau of Land Management areas in New Mexico and Arizona, though some could be used in cancer research.

Students and others involved in the harvest have been able to earn $100 to $125 a day either by picking the seeds or working around the warehouse. And while Jones said they'll shut down for the Thanksgiving holiday, lots of people will still have a chance to earn some extra Christmas money - to buy Pokemon toys or whatever - since "We're planning right now on running this through Christmas."

Hot wells could provide new industry

Staff Writer
PECOS, Nov. 24, 1999 - The price of oil and gas has come back from their low levels of a year ago, and drilling activity has risen from its historical lows of just six months ago. But during the rough times over the past 18 months, a number of low-producing wells have been capped, and the crisis once again pointed out how dependant the Permian Basin is on the oil industry.

But if a Midland geologist and his partner are correct, capped gas wells in the western sections of the Basin could find a second life as a source of a different form of energy, which in turn could boost the economies of cities such as Pecos and Fort Stockton.

Douglas B. Swift, Director of Geological Research for the West Texas Earth Resources Institute, is proposing that capped wells within the Delaware, Val Verde, Anadarko and Appalachian Basins be used as a source of geothermal energy, which could then be converted into electricity for use as a power source for cities within a 700-mile radius.

"This is something that the communities in this area are well suited to take advantage of," Swift said. "It's there for the people of Pecos to jump on, or the people of Fort Stockton, or the people in Alpine."

Swift and his partner, Richard Erdlac, recently presented their plan to the West Texas Geological Society's Fall Symposium in Midland, and Swift made a similar presentation this past Thursday at Sul Ross State University in Alpine. Their idea is to take advantage of the high temperatures found at the bottom of the deep wells in the western Permian Basin region, and pump up super-heated water from the wells to power turbines, similar to those found at sites in other parts of the world.

"The deep basins contain demonstratably high thermal reservoirs," Swift said. "Loving, Reeves, Pecos and Terrell all have bottom hole temperatures from 120 to 180 degrees (Celsius)," with temperatures higher at the southern end of the region, which in general parallels U.S. 285 from the Orla area to north of Sanderson.

"The wells are there and represent many billions of dollars," he said. "There are 1,400 wells we've identified that have temperatures that could qualify for geothermal temperatures. That's more than there currently are in the world."

Geothermal wells are generally associated with `hot spot' areas that are also conducive to volcanic activity, such as California and southern Italy. Swift said the first use of geothermal energy was in Larderello, Italy in 1904. It currently accounts for less than one percent of the world's energy production, but supplies as much as 10 percent of the energy in nations like El Salvador, Nicaragua and Kenya.

It's been a while since the last volcano blew it's top in West Texas _ both the Big Bend region and the area between Balmorhea and Fort Davis are sites of extinct volcanoes _ but Swift said the underground temperatures drillers have reported in the region should be high enough to make their use as a geothermal source practical.

"We're looking at what has been a negative becoming a positive," Swift said. "In the Delaware Basin, they've know about these things for years, and it's been a pain," he said, explaining how drillers have been hampered by the high temperatures in the wells and have worked to lower their levels below the boiling point of 100 C.

"U.S. production began in 1960 at Geyserville (Calif.)," Swift said, which boasts the world's largest geothermal field, at 15 square miles. But as the name of the town implies, the geothermal activity there is above as well as below ground, and commercial use of the field can exceed the water recharge rate, causing the geysers to disappear.

"Recharge limits cause geysers to go extinct, which is bad public relations for the companies," he said. In addition, some prime geothermal areas, like Yellowstone National Park, are off limits to development. And areas where the water passes through igneous rock tends to pick up heavy metals, such as Mercury, Arsenic and Cadmium. Deposits such as mercury are mainly found in the Shafter-Presidio area of West Texas, but not in the Delaware Basin region.

Swift said this area has already had its deep wells drilled, and the super-heated water over a mile beneath the surface comes from a separate source than the regions shallow underground aquifer sites. And because there are no heavy metals in the area, potable water would be the main bi-product.

"Gomez field (southwest of Fort Stockton) is 137 square miles, and there are no heavy metals, no geysers, and it is within 700 miles of the market," which Swift said is the roughly 15 percent of the U.S. population that lives between Phoenix, Ariz., northern Oklahoma and the eastern border of Texas.

The 700-mile distance is the longest that can be covered by a generating site in West Texas without electrical degradation, Swift said.

Some things still need to be tested, and Swift and Erdlac are seeking a $1.4 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy to see if the cost to tap into geothermal is comparable with other available power sources. Swift said the cost "needs to come in at about four cents a kilowatt hour," to be workable.

He added that current state and federal laws would make geothermal a more attractive energy source in the next decade.

Federal law currently gives alternative energy sources a 10 percent tax credit and a 1.5 KwH subsidy, which would allow a geothermal project's cost to come in at 5.5 to 6 cents a KwH and still be viable. In Texas, Swift said Senate Bill 7 requires utilities increase their generating capacity by 2000-megawatt hours by 2009. "That the equivalent of 66 million barrels of oil a year at $20 a barrel," he said, or $1.3 billion.

Swift said he was able to collect data on bottom well temperatures from figures released by the oil industry. "We have temperatures from 4,500 wells available," he said. And while the oil business can be a bit secretive about some of their drilling information, "They released them simply because the oil companies did not consider it worthwhile."

In response to a question following his presentation, Swift said he's been in contact with three of the major oil companies and a number of independents since his Midland presentation. "The oil companies won't block (development) for public relations reasons," Swift said, adding, "A lot of people who work for the oil companies are environmentally sound at heart. I believe you'll find more help from the majors than resistance."

He added that the oil companies at this time do not control the geothermal leases on any of the area's wells. "They're owned by the mineral rights owners. It's an open market out there, an entirely new field," Swift said. However, a different person could control access to the well bore, if surface and mineral rights ownerships are divided.

As for the generating plants themselves, Swift said there are four different methods for using geothermal energy, either within an open (in which steam is vented into the atmosphere) or closed (recirculating the underground water) system. He said a 10-megawatt plant using a closed system would cost about $15 million, while an open system would come in at about half that price. A 10-megawatt plant can handle the electric needs of about 40,000 people, he added.

Swift also said unlike other alternative forms of energy being looked at in West Texas _ using wind turbines or solar panels _ geothermal energy "is not seasonal. Geothermal plants are on line about 95 percent of the time."

If Swift and Erdlac receive their DOE grant, the first step would be to develop a pilot plant on one of the field in the Delaware Basin. "We know the Delaware Basin is the best place to start, because the wells already have been drilled," he said.

The main thing lacking in the area right now are "engineers and geologists needed to tap the facilities," Swift said, adding that the community that acts first could reap long-term benefits.

"In the 19-teens the question was where should Texas put a technical college. The two cities competing for it were Big Spring and Lubbock, which was just a little cotton town out on the South Plains. Now, much of what's there is centered around the university," Swift said. He added that in the 1920s and early 30s Midland was able to center the Permian Basin's oil industry in their city, and that the same thing could happen with a new geothermal industry in the upcoming decade.

Outdoors in the Desert

By Jim Allen
Game Warden

I have been receiving a lot of calls from individuals in different areas of the state regarding the upcoming mule deer season. Usually the first question they ask is, "How are the mule deer looking this year?"

I have been advising them that some areas are looking o.k., but it is going to be hard hunting when the temperature is 80-plus degrees with less than two weeks before opening day. Hopefully we will get some moisture and cool weather soon.

For this month's column, I would like to focus on those individuals who have hunting leases or are guests on a ranch. Most, if not all, of the game wardens in West Texas will receive calls in reference to individuals going onto a ranch and throwing out trash, shooting onto other adjoining properties, leaving gates open, etc.

Most individuals throughout the state who have a lease or are guests on a ranch follow the rules, but there are always a few individuals who break the rules.

First of all, respect the landowner's property. If you come to a gate that is open, leave it open, and if it is closed, leave it closed. If there is trash lying on the side of a pasture road, pick it up.

Chjeck with the landowner regarding the property boundaries. If there is one particular type of species that is to be hunted, then hunt that species only. Stay on the ranch roads while traveling in a vehicle. If you happen to come upon a broken water line or a windmill not pumping water, advise the landowner.

If you respect the land you are on and the landowner, there will probably be several more seasons in the future that you will be granted access. A more common issue that I come across is shotshell casings around windmlls or in the pasture. Livestock will eat these shell casings, and they are littering the ground. Pick them up.

If at all possible, touch base with the landowner before going into the field. Some livestock may have been moved to a new pasture, and the landowner may want to close that area to hunting for a while. If you observe a hunting violation, advise the landowner and your local game warden.

If at all possible, take a youngster hunting or fishing during the upcoming holidays. If you observe a hunting or fishing violation, contact me through Pecos Police Department communications or the Operation Game Thief hotline at 1-800-792-GAME.

Average is the word for 1999 prices

Staff Writer
After a year of historic lows and near-record surges in the price of crude oil, where will the Permian Basin's mineral valuations be priced when assessment day comes on January 1?

Right about where they would have been if none of the dips and rises over the past 18 months had ever happened, according to a petroleum geologist with Pritchard and Abbot of Fort Worth.

"For the first time in a few years we'll be using a price projection that's in line with what everybody expects the normal price to be," said Rodney Kret of Pritchard and Abbott, the firm that does oil, gas and mineral valuations for the Reeves County Tax Appraisal District.

Since much of the annual budget for Reeves County, the Reeves County Hospital District and the Pecos-Barstow-Toyah ISD are based on those valuations, those numbers will be important for determining the budget for those groups next summer. As of right now, Kret said, "West Texas Intermediate is 30 percent above 1998's average price. It's $18 compared with $13.50 we used as the average price on Jan. 1, 1999, which is a lot better."

However, he added the increase would still not bring oil and gas valuations back to the average price level reported on Jan. 1, 1998. Kret explained that under a bill passed in 1994 by the Texas Legislature, valuations are set on the first day of each year and are based on the average price of oil during the previous year.

Six months ago, that number was looking pretty bad, when oil hovered just above $10 a barrel and oil drilling activity in the area fell to record low levels.

"It's been quite some change," said Kret. "At this time last year we were sitting at the lowest price, inflation adjusted, in 50 years. Since then, we've had a big increase in market value."

That translated into estimated valuation losses of $758,000 for the Pecos-Barstow-Toyah ISD. Losses were even higher for other district, ranging up to the $8.3 million estimate for the Iraan-Sheffield ISD in Pecos County.

Oil prices reached their highest level since the $32-a-barrel days of the 1991 Persian Gulf War on Monday, increasing to $27.93 on the New York Mercantile Exchange before profit-taking shaved $1.10 off the price on Tuesday.

"Oil and gas are commodities and are going to fluxuate up and down, and some might argue the periods between the highs and lows are shorter and short as time goes by," Kret said.

The $18 average Pritchard and Abbott are using is based on the median price since 1986, the last time oil prices collapsed, and a gallon of gasoline was selling for as low as 59.9 cents in the Permian Basin Ï great for drivers, but terrible for schools and county governments in the region.

The latest increase has brought drilling activity back up as well. Kret said that another thing his firm does valuations on, but unlike the oil prices, that sectors has shown a far slower comeback.

"Progress is slower than we'd like to see it," he said. "There's been an upturn, but a cautious upturn.

"I don't think individuals are sold on this lasting longer than the short-term. We haven't seen indications of people jumping on the bandwagon and hiring people when they may have to lay them off at the end of the year," said Kret. "Plus a lot of operators are busy paying off debt they incurred to make it through he tough times."

He said it would take at least another six months of strong prices before drilling activity would return to consistently higher levels.

Oil's phenomenal price run-up took off last March when the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries and key allies, disconcerted by plummeting prices and a world glut, cut production by 2.1 million barrels a day Ï 2.6 percent of world totals.

Except for a dip from $25 to under $21 this fall, it has continued unabated as OPEC members have largely adhered to the lower production levels. Now they are widely considered likely to extend them past their scheduled expiration in March.

With crude oil inventories near a two-year low, OPEC is still largely complying with the cutbacks. With the arrival of colder weather that increases demand, analysts say there's no end in sight to oil's rise.

Ironically, experts say, while OPEC's strategy is paying off in the short run, it will hurt long-term demand because soaring prices have drawn other producers into the market to fill the gap. But most of that production is either offshore or at other overseas sites.

Krut said the fact that most fields in the Permian Basin have been fully explored means the underground assets are being depleted with no new fields coming on-line.

"Oil and gas is a working asset, and when you are not replacing it with new wells or workovers the values are going to decline," he said.

Those declines may be 5 percent annually and are relatively stable, according to Krut. Because of the jump in price during the second half of 1999, he added that the total valuation would still come in above last year's total, even with the depletion taken into account.

"In the year 2000 we may see expanded drilling to offset production declines. That would be my rosy scenario for Jan. 1, 2001," Krut said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report

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