Fracking in Texas: Seen as the future, also viewed with fear

The people of Dewitt County and their proximity to the Eagle Ford shale formation tell one part of a big story

A drilling well on the Eagle Ford formation in south Texas in May 2012.
Eric Gay/AP

The Eagle Ford shale geological formation unfurls through the lower third of Texas, stretching 400 miles long and 50 miles wide from East Texas to Mexico, from Brazos County northeast of Houston to the Burgos Basin just over the border.

It could turn out to be the largest recoverable oil deposit ever found in the Lower 48.

And that, according to Dewitt County Judge Daryl Fowler, is a good thing. Fowler -- a native Texan who ran for office as a pro-oil Republican -- owns a ranch here in the south-central pocket of the state. Before his election, he studied petroleum land management, knowing he'd probably be hearing cases about Eagle Ford.

But from where he sits, behind his tidy desk in the courthouse in the county seat of Cuero, Eagle Ford is how the area can keep its young people from moving away. After all, all it takes now is a high school diploma for someone to land a job at one of the fracking companies near town, with a starting salary of $60,000.

 “People who say this is going to end soon are very shortsighted,” says Fowler, 56. “I’m in the camp that says the Eagle Ford will be a catalyst for us to go forward.”

More than two hours northwest of Cuero is an oil pipeline known as Ho-Ho -- an acronym for “Houston, Texas, to Houma, Louisiana.” Until earlier this year it carried crude from the Louisiana Gulf to refineries in Texas. But technology has changed all that.

Now, oil workers can access oil and gas reservoirs underneath hard-to-reach places like towns and lakes, or even in solid rock, by using horizontal drilling and fracturing, or “fracking.” The process uses pressurized water mixed with sand and chemicals. Shell, which owns the Ho-Ho pipeline, recently reversed the direction of its flow. By the end of the year it will carry more than 325,000 barrels of Texas crude to Louisiana refineries.

The Ho-Ho reversal is significant for a slew of reasons, but crucially it illustrates just how huge the fracking boom in places like DeWitt County has become. It is an indication, perhaps, of an intention to eventually export U.S. oil -- a commodity so vital that sending it abroad would take an act of Congress.

A damper on the boom?

Texas has always been known for its oil, and predictions that U.S. production would peak in the 1970s have been proved very wrong. In fact, according to a report by consultancy Wood Mackenzie based on capital expenditure, the Eagle Ford Shale now ranks as the world's largest single oil and gas development.

The U.S. imposed a ban on the export of crude oil in 1979, both because of fears that domestic drilling had peaked and the effects of an oil embargo imposed on it by oil-rich Arab states -- a move prompted by the U.S. support for Israel in the Yom Kippur war. Aside from small amounts to Canada, 40 years on that moratorium still exists.

A map shows the swathe of oil and gas wells on the Eagle Ford gas-shale formation.
Texas Railroad Commission

But much has changed since then. Five years ago, the U.S. produced 5 million barrels of oil a day; today it produces 7.4 million, thanks largely to these new methods of extraction. As a result, there is a major oversupply, and as Bloomberg News put it in an editorial in July, the export ban that is still in effect “is threatening to put a damper on the shale-oil boom."

According to Benjamin Salisbury, a senior policy analyst at FBR Capital Markets & Co., it would be a very big deal politically to export crude from the U.S. If that’s ever to happen, he says, “the pain for over-supply of oil, which probably shows up in terms of falling domestic reinvestment in production, has to exceed the fear policymakers have in giving away our strategic natural resources.”

That pain, some say, will come with the realization that the Gulf coast refineries -- complex marvels of modern engineering that cost hundreds of millions of dollars -- are designed to refine heavy, sour crude, but that what the U.S. is producing in abundance is a lighter, sweeter crude. As Salisbury says, “The free market thing to do would be to export the light sweet and import the heavy sour -- less valuable -- product which we’re able to refine.”

This oil boom, naturally, is creating an abundance of jobs. Some farmers and landowners, once struggling, are becoming overnight millionaires. Oilfield supply firms and those manufacturing steel pipes or the concrete that lines disposal wells are all cashing in.

Tale of two mayors

Sara Post Meyer was a school teacher before she ran for mayor of Cuero in 2010. She likes to say that when she was growing up here, “upstream, midstream and downstream referred to fishing holes,” and that now she’s had to learn a whole new vocabulary.

The oil boom has been good to Cuero. In 2009, Post Meyer says the town was lucky if it attracted $150,000 a year in sales tax from local businesses. Now it takes in anywhere between $250,000 and $270,000. The city used to make $30,000 a year from water sales. Now it sells water to oil companies for fracking, raking in $30,000 a month.

Kathy Pain is mayor of tiny Nordheim, Texas, where the fracking boom has left bumpy roads and repair bills.
Alex Hannaford

But what about the water table? By some accounts, the fracking boom -- combined with agriculture and domestic use -- is currently pumping twice the amount that’s being recharged to the aquifer. And then there are the concerns about air quality, and the worry that the water table could be poisoned by toxic chemicals stored with waste water from fracking in disposal wells -- that it could leach into the soil.

Post Meyer isn’t concerned. “I haven’t heard of anyone becoming ill because of the air they breathe or because of the emissions from wells,” she says.

Elsewhere in DeWitt County, the fracking boom has fewer benefits, if any. Kathy Pain is the mayor of Nordheim, a tiny town of 300, where the big rigs needed for fracking have damaged the roads. Cabeza Road was so torn up, she says, that she had to pay for crushed rock to fill in the holes. Crushed rock cost $480 a load. She couldn’t afford asphalt at $1,500 a load. Then residents complained about the dust created by the crushed rock.

 Just outside the Nordheim city limits is a 200-acre plot that local ranchers have rented to the oil companies for disposal wells. Half are lined and covered, but the other half are known as “treated cells” -- open pits where waste from fracking operations is tilled with soil. Pain says the oil companies told her it evaporates “so it's safe.”

The stealth activist

Sister Elizabeth Riebschlaeger, 77, would beg to differ.

“It puts horrible chemicals into the air,'' she says. "And there are cattle right next to that lease and hay grown on the other side.''

Riebschlaeger is a native of Cuero and a nun with the San Antonio-based Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word, although some days she prefers the term “stealth activist.” Several years ago her congregation signed up to the Earth Charter, which pledges, among other things, to support “ecological integrity.”

Sister Elizabeth Riebschlaeger
Alex Hannaford

She's a familiar face behind the wheel of her old Honda Civic in the towns at the center of the fracking boom, and she can see the changes the boom has brought.

“Some ranchers are making more money than they’ve ever seen,'' she says. "And if they’re on the wrong side of a geological formation, they’ll just sell their well water to the fracking companies or allow disposal wells to be placed on their property -- to the horror of their neighbors.”

Riebschlaeger insists she’s not “anti-oil.” Her family owns a lease in La Salle County, and although the proceeds are split 10 ways between relatives, she still makes some money. Long-term, she says, she wants to see us free from dependence on fossil fuels altogether, but for now she feels an obligation to make sure any concerns about environmental fallout are addressed.

“I don’t want anybody’s health suffering when I’m profiting from this,'' she says. "I have a moral responsibility to make sure that doesn’t happen.”

Ever since Spindletop began spewing black gold in 1901 a hundred miles east of Houston, marking the beginning of the petroleum industry, the history of Texas has been saturated with oil. A century on, the fracking boom is already significant. But it’s a boom that, for better or worse, is only just beginning.

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