Editor’s Note: The following story is part of a periodic series exploring regional issues of interest or importance outside San Antonio.
If there is one thing we can all agree on about "The Eagle Ford" it's that we deeply regret not owning a South Texas ranch.
The Rivard Report went searching for an available ranch that comes with a substantial interest in mineral rights, although the buyer might have to pay more than the asking price to secure those rights. We found a nice little spread, 513 acres, near Charlotte, that is something of a steal at $6,000,000. That's right: $6 million, or $11,692.03 an acre. Cash to seller, as they say. Of course, there's no guarantee the land sits on any oil or gas.
For many South Texas land owners, the Eagle Ford shale play has proven to be an unanticipated bonanza. Tens of thousands of others, ranging from oil field workers to truck drivers, have found good paying work in the boom. San Antonio, the closest big city, is benefitting in a big way.
Yet many of us quietly wonder what it all means in the long run. Doesn't every boom come with a bust? Not this one, some say. The Eagle Ford seems to be a different kind of oil and gas boom with seemingly no historical comparison, one where drilling technology advances are coming so fast they just keep extending the possibilities. The Eagle Ford already is the leading shale play in the world with nearly 250 active wells, new ones being permitted or drilled every month. The boom generated $20-25 billion worth of economic activity in 14 counties last year, depending on whose numbers you use, with even greater investment predicted for 2013. Nearly 40,000 people are employed in Eagle Ford-related work, and there is all the indirect economic activity in the surrounding 30-county area, including Bexar County, where thousands of oil and gas managers and workers now live, work and spend.
That kind of money is like a drug. Even second-hand effects are potent enough to affect those of us just standing on the fringes. What does the Eagle Ford play mean in the long-term for the economy, the surface environment, water supply, air quality, and the economic and social well-being of South Texas? No one really knows. Not as many people are taking about it, either. It's easier to talk about the boom that the boom's complexities.
It's easy to find people to defend or attack the oil and gas industry, but that doesn't make it any simpler for the thinking person to draw his or her own informed conclusions. Media coverage has intensified, and that helps.
Express-News reporter Jennifer Hiller has taken over the Eagle Ford beat, and the results already are evident with an increased flow of stories. NPR's StateImpact reporting project also has produced a series of stories that analyze the economic and environmental impacts and consequences of drilling and hydraulic fracturing ("fracking") in Texas.
But long-term effects that can't be measured now simply cannot compete with the short-term euphoria of a God Almighty black gold rush. The news environment is driven by Eagle Ford economic updates coming from all directions. The numbers almost defy absorption, even by the most engaged citizen.
On Tuesday, the San Antonio Economic Development Foundation (SAEDF) released its 2013 Eagle Ford Task Force Report [PDF], and in it, all the big numbers just keep getting bigger. You get the idea just by reading the first paragraph of the report:
"The Eagle Ford Shale reserve is one of the most significant domestic energy discoveries in decades. The University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA) estimates the total economic impact of the Eagle Ford Shale in 2011 for the 14 county region was just under $20 billion with 38,000 full-time jobs supported. Although Bexar County and San Antonio are not directly involved in the drilling and extraction activities, they are affected indirectly with other activities such as supply chain activities, regional headquarters, refining, construction, and labor supply. UTSA reported the total economic impact of the Eagle Ford Shale in 2011 in Bexar County was over $705 million with 4,290 full-time jobs supported."
The SAEDF Report is the combined work of three sub-committees that focused on Workforce and Education; Transportation and Infrastructure; and, Small Business Opportunity. Their findings are summarized in brief, two-page increments, and while nothing in the report's recommendations is likely to generate big headlines, there are some very sensible proposals for maximizing job opportunities for the area workforce and students who will be joining that workforce.
The SAEDF Task Force itself is a roster of blue-ribbon names from the San Antonio business community, headed up by SAEDF Chairman Henry Cisneros.
"This task force brought together key stakeholders, industry officials, academia, civic and municipal leaders, and others to engage in a public participation dialogue,"the report states. "The goal of this process was to identify the key issues, challenges and opportunities in the development of the Eagle Ford Shale oil and gas industry for the City of San Antonio, Bexar County and South Texas, specifically addressing the areas of workforce and education, transportation and infrastructure, and small business."
Yet none of the task force members are drawn from the independent scientific, environmental and social welfare community. How can "key issues" be identified and addressed without experts looking at issues such as disposition of water used in fracking operations, the impact of trucking and drill site activity on regional air quality, and the long-term impact of the boom on the social fabric of small town South Texas?
As an economic development report, the task force work is credible and certainly it's call on the Texas Legislature to fund such things as transportation solutions makes sense and should happen. But no one should pretend the report addresses the range of complex issues posed by the Eagle Ford play.
Those issues will be discussed on January 29 when I moderate a panel discussion organized by the San Antonio Clean Technology Forum at the Pearl Stable. The event is still being organized by Clean Tech Founder and Chairman Michael Burke, but the panelists are confirmed (see below). Mayor Julián Castro will deliver the opening remarks and Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff will provide closing remarks. KLRN-TV will record the panel discussion for later broadcast here and in other public television markets in Texas.
The panelists include SAEDF Chairman Henry Cisneros; Texas Comptroller Susan Combs; James D. Marston, the founder of the Texas office of the Environmental Defense Fund and the EDF's national vice president of energy; and Lance Robertson, Vice President-Eagle Ford Production Operations for Marathon Oil.
Burke said the Forum's goal is to promote both economic development and sustainability and citizen engagement.
"We've offered some outstanding Forums at the historic Pearl Stable and we believe our Eagle Ford Forum II may be one of the best because the story is so unbelievable: the magnitude of dollars invested and economic gain is mind numbing, and, literally, tens of thousands of well-paying jobs have been created almost overnight," Burke said.
"The innovation and technological development over the past few years is equally stunning, and is contributing to U.S. energy independence," he went on. "But there are issues and challenges. The polarization of “haves” and “have nots” is one. And severance tax money is pouring out of the region into the Rainy Day Fund while some of the poorest counties in the nation search for funding.
"A dearth of adequate housing, medical facilities, primary and trauma health care and emergency services, and road and highway maintenance is becoming the norm and not the exception," Burke said. "Some local areas worry about future water supply and appropriate water disposal areas. We don't promise to provide all the answers, but we will make responsible individuals more aware of the issues."
Interested in attending the forum? Click here to contact Burke. Individuals interested in contributing articles about the Eagle Ford shale play for publication on the Rivard Report are invited to contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.