Why you should care

Shale oil and gas have made America an energy superpower virtually overnight. The country is still trying to weigh the impacts.

The South Texas town of Kenedy (population 3,400) looks like a relic from another time. The streets are dusty and dry, and the tall arched windows of once-stately brick buildings are now boarded up. You half-expect to see a tumbleweed skitter across the empty avenue. But look more closely and you’ll see glimmers of economic resurrection, from new home construction to “Now Open” signs on new businesses. The ultimate proof that Kenedy is on its way up: a CrossFit gym has just opened on West Main Street.

Behold the miracle of fracking. Thanks to the Eagle Ford shale play, the country’s third-largest shale oil resource, dozens of neglected towns in South Texas are getting new infusions of blood and business. But with every boom, of course, comes a bust — and that brings us to Leodoro Martinez Jr., a silver-mustachioed politico who grew up in nearby Cotulla and has been everything from county judge to mayor. Over coffee at a greasy spoon, Martinez tells us his fears about fracking — and his solutions too. He wants the shale to create jobs and infrastructure that will last for generations of residents in this hardscrabble region. Make no mistake: Martinez is hell-bent on keeping that CrossFit gym firmly in place.

The environment? Not so much.

For residents of South Texas, it’s hard to fault anyone for welcoming a golden goose.

The term “fracking” — short for hydraulic fracturing, a technique that uses pressurized liquid and chemicals to drill into shale rock — can conjure ominous images of health problems, environmental degradation and small farmers struggling against Big Oil heavies coveting their land. Even as fracking for shale oil and gas has rocketed American energy production to new heights, communities from Colorado to New York have grabbed headlines for choosing to fight fracking in their area. Denton, a city of 100,000-plus just north of Dallas, became the first city in Texas to ban fracking last year (a lawsuit is pending).

But stakeholders in the Eagle Ford shale play have taken a different tack. Instead of conflict, Martinez and civil leaders like him have opted for collaboration, with an eye toward getting their piece of the pie. Will they change the terms of the debate over fracking? Perhaps. The community-based organization they’ve created, Eagle Ford Consortium, is already being viewed as a model for other places, including in Mexico, where the president recently deregulated its state-run energy sector. For residents of South Texas, a region crippled by poverty, it’s hard to fault anyone for welcoming a golden goose. But in this corner of the world, deep in the heart of Texas, only fools don’t consider that in the end, they may still be setting themselves up for all sorts of long-term pain.

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For residents in this rural slice of South Texas, the sudden leap from backwater to bonanza has been dizzying. Energy companies, with new fracking technologies and equipment, began drilling in Eagle Ford late last decade. In the past five years, activity has skyrocketed. The University of Texas at San Antonio released a report in September estimating that energy production from the shale play generated $87 billion in economic output for the state in 2013.

That’s a lot of money pouring in, to be sure, but with it comes a tidal wave of people and demands that these little towns aren’t equipped to cope with. Recreational-vehicle parks have sprouted like toadstools to house the men eager to work the rigs. Roads are worn down and potholed. Schools and hospitals are overflowing. There are also nagging concerns about the environmental fallout — the methane emissions, drilling waste, risk of water contamination and earthquakes. Karnes City Manager Don Tymrak sums up the Eagle Ford impact in three words: “Hallelujah! Holy crap!”

Martinez is confident that South Texas can weather the downturn in oil prices, however long it lasts.

Oil and gas development was starting to hit its stride in South Texas in 2010, when Martinez, the executive director for the state-run Middle Rio Grande Development Council, organized a workforce forum to look at the job opportunities being created by the fracking boom. That November, he and his colleagues assembled a group of 35 to 40 people — local officials, engineers, community college administrators, academics and energy executives — in Carrizo Springs to discuss how to put South Texas’ unemployed to work in the energy field. But the meeting soon morphed into a discussion about the broader impacts — not just on jobs, but also on infrastructure, the economy and the environment. That marked the beginning of what would become the Eagle Ford Consortium, which now represents more than 20 counties in South Texas and conducts regular meetings, site visits and committee examinations on a range of subjects. In May, it’s hosting its fourth annual conference in San Antonio, which is expected to attract hundreds and possibly even thousands.

“This is a fairly unique approach,” says Robert Velasquez, director of the Eagle Ford Shale Community Development Program at the University of Texas at San Antonio. The idea is essentially power in numbers, Velasquez explains: meeting the challenges of the fracking boom by sharing know-how, while bringing collective clout to bear on state government decision-makers. “Since day one, our topic and our sight has been on sustainability. We need to make sure that our communities are prepared for whatever happens,” Martinez says. That includes a plunge in prices, like the one hitting the oil industry right now. But Martinez is confident that because the towns and counties of South Texas have been smart about finances, they can weather this type of downturn, however long it lasts.

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Now in his 60s, Martinez was born and raised in Cotulla, 90 miles from San Antonio. Its claim to fame: Lyndon B. Johnson taught at an elementary school there in 1928, and witnessing the residents’ hardscrabble existence informed the future president’s “War on Poverty.” “It was a typical South Texas city,” Martinez recalls, “a lot of poverty, not many jobs.” Many of the community members were migrant laborers, working in the fields, but agriculture and ranching started to drop off. Despite efforts to jump-start other economic engines over the years, nothing seemed to take off in Cotulla or elsewhere in the region. Opportunities remained scarce — until the energy companies came to Eagle Ford.

Tymrak, the Karnes City manager, doesn’t know a single landowner in town who didn’t agree to lease their land to the oil company for drilling. Now “these people are going to the mailbox every month and they’re getting little checks,” he says. “It’s like, ‘Christmas in July!’” But there are downsides to living in the epicenter of the oil and gas industry, Tymrak says: “They’re tearing up our damn roads,” for instance. Still, he and Martinez acknowledge that the energy companies are working with the consortium and individual towns to help improve worn-down or overstretched infrastructure. “They are not the enemy,” says Tymrak.

Notably, neither man seems terribly troubled over fracking’s effects on the environment, despite the intense national hand-wringing about the risks. “The biggest issue in our area is the flaring issue,” says Martinez, referring to the practice of burning off excess natural gas from drilling rigs. Indeed, an investigation last year by the San Antonio Express-News found that flaring from Eagle Ford energy production released 21 billion cubic feet of gas into the air. The Obama administration is expected to release new regulations on methane emissions soon (it just issued new rules for drilling wells on federal land). But Martinez says energy companies have taken steps to lessen the flaring, and notes that as more pipelines are built, there will be less excess gas to burn off. As for the fear over the growing number of earthquakes in the area, Tymrak says there have always been quakes: “Is this speeding them up? I don’t know. I’m relying on the scientists, and right now they’re arguing amongst themselves.”

But Sharon Wilson, Gulf regional organizer at Earthworks, an environmental group, says the problems are far graver than officials are letting on. The effects of fracking on air quality, she says, are “horrible.” Flaring is the main concern, but there have also been problems with illegal dumping of drilling waste in the area. Still, she concedes, “It’s been a little bit challenging, organizing down there” to oppose the fracking, especially because the area is largely rural. Martinez has another explanation: In places like Denton, fracking won’t make a big difference to the economy: “They don’t have to quit living their middle-class or upper-middle-class lifestyles, you know?” Whereas in South Texas, “the difference is day and night.”

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Other communities hoping for a similar reversal of fortune are looking to imitate the Eagle Ford Consortium. Now that exploration is set to begin on Mexico’s half of the Eagle Ford shale play, Martinez is working with officials from the Mexican state of Coahuila, across the Texas border, to put together a consortium. “They want to help prepare their workforce,” among other things, he says. Velasquez says he expects other communities to pick up on the model as well. In the meantime, work continues to make sure that the towns and counties in South Texas invest their newfound wealth wisely. The shale boom, after all, may go on for another couple of decades, but it won’t last forever.

“We want a diversified economy. We want a city that’s made up of something more than hotels,” says Tymrak. One idea, he says, is to establish Karnes City as a stopover destination between San Antonio and Corpus Christi.

But environmental risks still lurk, and even if Eagle Ford has skirted major catastrophe so far, no one can say how long its luck will last. Researchers continue to study the impacts of new drilling technologies, and environmentalists worry that the more we learn, the more we’ll regret ever digging up our land this way. One thing, at least, is certain: “South Texas will never be the same,” says Martinez. “No matter what happens, it will never be the same.”

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