If you have ever flown into Midland, Texas or Almetyevsk in Tartarstan in Russia, or into any other mature oil and gas province, you might have glanced down and noticed the elaborate network of roads that connect producing and abandoned wells, tank batteries and drilling sites. To say that we have scarred the land with roads in mature areas is an understatement. How much land area do oilfield roads cover globally? Let’s make a guesstimate. If we assume 2,000,000 million land sites in the world (there are more than 500,000 in the U.S. alone), each with a road to it measuring one mile long and 15 feet wide, then worldwide oilfield roads cover 5,681 square miles. The distance of the average road is probably overestimated but you can see the magnitude of the problem. Some of these roads, like the board roads in swampy Louisiana or the simple dirt roads in the Black Warrior Basin will erode over time, allowing the track to revert to its natural state. However, a large number of these roads, like the caliche roads of West Texas, erode very slowly and represent an environmental scar for decades if not centuries.
That’s why I particularly like the Disappearing Roads project now underway in West Texas. The program, a joint industry project overseen by the GPRI Department of Petroleum Engineering at Texas A&M University and funded, in part, by the Research Partnership to Secure Energy for America (RPSEA) has secured an unused tire test track outside Pecos, Texas. On this site, they plan to construct roads out of degradable material and monitor their degradation. The intent is to come up with a road that disappears in certain amount of time.