For decades, most urban Texans thought of oil and gas as a West Texas thing – pump jacks bobbing along the horizon, glimpsed from cars speeding on their way to somewhere else.
That changed in the 1990s with the bonanza of natural gas in the Barnett shale, as drilling became an up-close-and-personal experience for suburbanites in North Texas.
“Everybody was going to be wealthy,” said Sharon Wilson, who lived in Wise County at the time. “I launched a campaign to get people to drill on my property.”
She soon changed her mind and later joined a campaign against the drilling, which so far has sparked two state investigations into health concerns, hundreds of complaints filed with state agencies and scores of lawsuits.
So when drilling began in South Texas’ Eagle Ford shale four years ago, people were understandably nervous.
Exploration companies wanted the oil and gas, but not the lawsuits and hassles. Residents wanted the royalties and the jobs, but not the worries about health and environmental problems.
“I think the Barnett was a real eye-opener,” said Leodoro Martinez, executive director of the Middle Rio Grande Development Council in Cotulla, who is involved in several efforts to ease the growing pains.
Outwardly, at least, experiences in the regions have been vastly different.
The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality reported receiving 329 complaints about drilling in the Barnett shale for the fiscal year that ended Aug. 31, compared with 45 for the Eagle Ford shale.
South Texas is more rural – drilling in North Texas is concentrated around the northern and western suburbs of Fort Worth, while it is spread across 20 sparsely populated counties in South Texas.
And people say they have learned from mistakes made earlier.
“I think the oil companies learned some lessons. The Railroad Commission learned some lessons from what happened in the Barnett shale, and we worked a lot harder,” said Railroad Commissioner David Porter, whose state agency regulates the oil and gas industry.
Complaints about Barnett shale drilling reverberated from North Texas to Austin and beyond.
Calvin Tillman, the former mayor of Dish, a tiny town in Denton County, moved his family out of town because of concerns about health problems he blames on a nearby processing plant.
He, like Wilson, later joined the Texas Oil & Gas Accountability Project, an arm of the environmental group Earthworks, which organized opposition to the drilling.
“Is that what we’re all expected to do, to move away from our homes because the state regulatory agencies are not protecting us?” Tillman asked last month as the group released a report critical of state oversight.
Porter said he has seen no evidence of lasting health problems.
The Texas Department of State Health Services conducted two investigations related to drilling in the Barnett shale.
In 2010, after a consultant hired by the city of Dish found elevated levels of benzene in air samples, state investigators collected blood and urine samples from 28 people and analyzed them for volatile organic compounds. The investigation concluded there was no community-wide exposure.
The department also investigated a possible cancer cluster in two ZIP codes in Flower Mound after residents reported concerns that benzene from gas drilling could have caused a spike in cases from 1998 to 2007. The investigation found no evidence of a cancer cluster but did note a slight increase in breast cancer, which it said was consistent with population growth and likely higher mammography use.
Still, Porter said, the Railroad Commission and production companies entered South Texas determined to do things differently.
“The perception was that the oil and gas industry was completely unregulated and could do whatever they wanted to,” he said. “Which wasn’t true, but if you’re not telling people what you’re doing, that (perception) can grow.”
Porter formed a task force in May 2011, made up industry representatives as well as South Texas residents, in an effort to avoid the problems that continue several hundred miles to the north.
“We wanted to make sure communities within the shale understood what was happening around us,” said Martinez, who runs the development council serving a nine-county region in South Texas.
He is a member of Porter’s task force, as well as one formed by regional leaders that began meeting in 2010.
Wanting to be ready
Everyone knew about the problems in North Texas, he said, and they wanted to be ready.
But Martinez said no one was prepared for how quickly drilling took off in the Eagle Ford shale.
The Railroad Commission issued 28 drilling permits in the Eagle Ford shale in 2008; it issued 2,957 in the first eight months of this year.
No number of committee meetings could make that painless.
“We do have some problems,” said Live Oak County Judge Jim Huff.
Everyone complains about traffic and damage to roads from heavy equipment. Housing, or the lack of it, is another problem, and Huff said travel trailers are parked wherever they can get water and sewer connections.
But he focuses on the positive. “It is bringing income into the county,” he said. “It’s a really good thing.”
Teddy Carter, vice president for government relations at Texas Independent Producers and Royalty Owners, worked for the state Senate Natural Resources Committee when drilling heated up in the Barnett shale.
“I think there were, I wouldn’t call them mistakes but maybe errors in judgment in the Barnett,” he said. “Maybe mistakes.”
This time around, he said, “the more we can educate the public and convey exactly what to expect, the better received it will be.”
But it takes more than talk, and Carter said drillers have also changed the way they operate.
They use hydraulic fracturing in shale rock formations, injecting millions of gallons of water, along with sand and chemicals, to blast cracks in the dense rock to allow oil and gas to filter out.
Exact figures aren’t yet available, but CJ Tredway, a water consultant who works with the Texas Oil and Gas Association, said current estimates indicate the average hydraulically fractured well in the Eagle Ford shale uses 3 million to 4 million gallons of water. That compares with 6 million gallons of water just a few years ago.
That’s not necessarily all freshwater, Tredway said; drillers increasingly use brackish water or buy recycled water from a power plant or another source for at least part of their needs.
And Huff, the Live Oak county judge, said he doesn’t worry that drilling will drain the Carrizo and Wilcox aquifers, although there have been instances of illegal dumping of drilling sludge.
Afraid to speak up
Wilson, who now is Gulf regional organizer for the Texas Oil & Gas Accountability Project, said she often hears from South Texas residents unhappy about the drilling but afraid to speak up publicly.
“There is a reluctance to make a complaint,” she said.
Martinez acknowledged that some residents, at least initially, were concerned about the environmental impact of drilling.
“I think those questions will never go away, but the thing is not to shy away from asking questions,” he said.