Eagle Ford Shale boom helping poorest Texas counties

San Antonio — Former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Henry Cisneros used to worry that South Texas was a region lost to poverty, dependence on welfare and the influence of cartel drug violence.

Now, though, Cisneros said he’s stunned by the economic opportunity coming from the Eagle Ford Shale, a massive oil and gas field that arcs across some of the traditionally poorest counties in the state.

“It always pained me the region was as poor as it was,” Cisneros said. “This is huge for us. We can do this right.”

Cisneros, also a former San Antonio mayor, moderated a panel discussion on the economic impact of the Eagle Ford Shale at the University of Texas at San Antonio downtown campus Thursday.

A study released this week by UTSA said the Eagle Ford  last year had a $61 billion impact and supported 116,000 jobs across a 20-county swath of South Texas.

America’s Natural Gas Alliance, an industry trade group, paid for the study.

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Thomas Tunstall of UTSA pointed to the report’s cover photo — a much-distributed NASA image of Texas at night in which the lights from the swooping arc of the oil and gas field are clearly visible from space, “like the Great Wall of China.”

“Rigs are operating 24-7, and there’s also some flaring,” Tunstall said.

Drilling permits in the Eagle Ford region rose from almost nothing (26 permits in 2008) to 1,010 by 2010 and more than 4,100 last year.

The Eagle Ford is producing more than 352,000 barrels of crude oil per day, and that number is rising, Tunstall said.

“We may yet catch up with the Bakken before it’s over,” said Tunstall, referring to the prolific shale field in North Dakota.

Shale oil and gas production has stepped up across Texas, which has almost half of the country’s drilling rigs.

“This is not just a South Texas issue,” said Bob McKinley, UTSA associate vice president for economic development. “This is good for all of Texas.”

The state produced an average of 1.427 million barrels of oil per day in January, up 34 percent from last year, according to Texas Railroad Commission preliminary data released Thursday.

Oil boom: Eagle Ford January crude output rises 50%

Karnes County was the top oil producer in Texas in January, with nearly 2.9 million barrels.

Two other Eagle Ford counties also ranked in the top 10: Gonzales County, with 2.1 million barrels, and La Salle County, with 2 million barrels.

Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff said he hopes state lawmakers reinvest some of the state’s severance tax money in the Eagle Ford region, which has never before had a major industry like this and has never had the benefit of sustained corporate or government investment.

There are a number of infrastructure issues, but the region’s deteriorating roads, in particular, have become a sore point for communities inundated by oil field truck traffic.

“South Texas has always been shortchanged,” Wolff said. “Put your money back where you got it from.”