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Part 3 of Eagle Ford Shale series: Environmental concerns get little play amid oil, gas boom

By BY DIANNA WRAY - DWRAY@VICAD.COM
Dec. 17, 2011 at 6:17 a.m.
Updated Dec. 18, 2011 at 6:18 a.m.

Yoakum rancher Les Prause rips open a bag of feed to give to his cattle. When asked whether  he was concerned about a spillage at one of the nearby Eagle Ford Shale oil wells possibly contaminating his cattle, he said, "I think they're so careful that I don't see anything like that happening here." He offered few concerns, other than a slight alteration of his way of life in rural Yoakum. "The world's changing," he said. "We're not going to stop it."

YOAKUM - Reaching out to unchain his pasture gate, Les Prause paused.

"Someone's been in here," he said, hands fumbling with the unfamiliar knot. "This isn't how we close our gates."

He swung the gate open and moved his four-wheeler into the pasture.

He was right. Another four-wheeler came into view, a couple of Petrohawk employees surveying the land for a coming pipeline.

"Y'all sure are changing the country around here," Prause, 64, called to them with a grin that showed off his strong white teeth and made his pale blue eyes spark in his ruddy face.

"Yeah, we're punching holes like Swiss cheese down here," the woman driving the vehicle called back, laughing.

Prause chuckled at that and drove on through his pasture to check his cattle.

When Prause looks out at his land he sees some of the best cattle country in the state. His family has been working this land since they came over on a boat from Germany, three generations back. Born and raised here, he has worked 40 years to put together 1,500 acres of gently rolling prairie where he runs his cattle. His granddaughter, Kaci, is a 10-year-old who shot a 9-point deer when deer season opened and danced the lead role of Marie in "The Nutcracker" this year, but Prause believes that someday she'll be working cattle on the ranch he painstakingly built.

It turns out Prause may have more than a good piece of cattle country under his feet. Thousands of feet below him are pools of oil and natural gas trapped in the Eagle Ford Shale formation.

This is oil country now.

The Eagle Ford Shale play started about two years ago, when oil companies harnessed hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling to get oil and natural gas out of places that had never been successfully drilled before. Since then there has been a flood of activity and the phrase "Eagle Ford Shale" almost audibly jingles with promise.

It also seems to drown out any other concerns. Despite the fact that hydraulic fracturing in Pennsylvania and North Texas have left environmentalists screaming and oil and natural gas companies with a slew of bad press, few people in the Crossroads express any concerns. In a place with a long history of ranching and farming to make a living, no one presses hard on what the possible fallout could be for the environment. Prause says he doesn't know what the future holds, but if the worst fears of environmentalists come to pass, the ranch he built could be nothing but contaminated grassland.

Outsiders' concerns

In June, environmentalist Sharon Wilson came to Cuero, part of a group from North Texas that have spent the past decade grappling with the problems that came with the Barnett Shale. Gathered in the Municipal Park Clubhouse of Cuero, about 20 people listened to their story in the dimly lit room.

It all started about 10 years ago in the Barnett Shale, Wilson told the crowd. By flushing millions of gallons of slurry, a mixture of water, sand and chemicals, down a well, drillers found they could fracture the thick impermeable shale formation, allowing the hydrocarbons trapped inside to bubble up through the pipes. Everything seemed good at first, and Wilson said she was thrilled when she learned her mineral rights were being drilled, but then she saw waste pits being covered up, while her calls to the Texas Railroad Commission were ignored.

From her research, she became worried about the possible health risks, and the possible contamination of drinking water. She started a blog and began contacting local media to get her point across. Wilson, a former member of the oil industry herself, underlined the point that she isn't against drilling, but she and the other speakers urged the crowd to learn from their experiences.

"I want to give you the opportunity to have things better than we did. We had some pretty big problems with the Barnett Shale," Wilson told a crowd of about 40 people.

When drilling began in the Marcellus Shale in Pennsylvania about five years ago, community members from Northeastern towns came down to North Texas to hear what people living on top of the Barnett Shale had been through. There were reports of a myriad of problems from drillers who left trash at drilling sites, left the gates open, allowing livestock to escape or damaged property without paying for it. Calvin Tillman, once the mayor of Dish, Texas, talked about headaches from the air pollution and his children having nosebleeds every night. Some studies even claimed that the hydraulic fracturing was causing small earthquakes in the area.

Despite the myriad concerns, it all boiled down to water. An EPA study published in 2004, said fracking wasn't responsible for contaminating wells, but a Duke University study published earlier this year indicated that it was.

Passion for ranching

Despite the headlines and the talk, Prause says he's not worried.

"I can't see anything but good things coming out of this," he said, as his eyes scanned the horizon, taking in the sight of his cattle strolling sedately through the field.

Prause is a retired U.S. Postal worker, but ranching has always been his passion. He bought his first parcel at the age of 19 and he has worked hard as the years rolled on to buy more land. When his mineral rights were leased five years ago, he was thrilled to get $125 an acre, and he promptly poured that money back into his cattle.

The grass carpeting the rolling fields was dry and brittle, and it turned blinding white, the color of bleached bones, when the sunlight hit it. The reflected light was blinding.

"I can't explain why I love it. If you love this, it's just in you," he said, a smile playing on his face as he reached to adjust his baseball cap over his sharp blue eyes.

Still, he has worked to learn more about the oil business, and he has a smattering knowledge of just about every part of the drilling process. Wells are scheduled to be drilled on the edge of his ranch. A pipeline now crosses part of his property, and another is set to be put in at the edge of his property line. His worries are minimal, but he and his wife, Gay, attend meetings ready to listen intently and get all of the information they can.

Ranchers have spent the past year watching the skies and praying for rain, in the grips of one of the worst droughts in the history of the state. The money from the oil companies, "mailbox money" as it's known, has been helping a lot of ranchers get through this drought. Water is precious.

He does worry about injection wells where used frack water laced with chemicals is stored after the fracking process. A leak from an injection well might seep into the water table, contaminating area wells. If something happened to his water supply, that could mean the end of his ranch.

"Cattle can get by without a lot of food, but they're like us. They can't get by without a drink," he said.

Wastewater injection wells have been springing up around Yoakum. After fracking a well, it's cheaper to put the water into the ground than clean it.

"Maybe time will change it and forces from somewhere will make them clean the water up and reuse more of it rather than injecting it into these wastewater wells, but who knows?" he said.

Watching the water

Water is what it's all about, which is why Prause and his wife were at the Chisholm Heritage Museum in early November listening to a talk about the subject. The pair sat quietly in their seats, listening to an introduction by the representative of the Noble Royalties, the company that sponsored the meetings, but across the room a petite, gray-haired woman's hand shot into the air.

"Excuse me!" Sister Elizabeth Riebschlaeger said. "I've seen 'Gasland.' Have you read the Duke University study that found methane in water wells (in the Marcellus Shale)? What can you say about that?"

"I've only read what the media reported, but I want to know what I'm talking about, so I'll go sit down and read over it," the man said, adjusting his thick-framed Buddy Holly glasses and smiling politely.

Riebschlaeger is a ball of energy, talking rapidly, firing questions and sussing out answers with the alertness of a terrier on the hunt. She habitually holds her hands clasped together when she stands, and one gets the feeling that those clasped hands are the only force keeping all of that energy from flying off into a million different directions. When she puts herself to a task, she does it wholeheartedly. When the Eagle Ford Shale boom moved into DeWitt County two years ago, Riebschlaeger started learning about hydraulic fracturing and the things that could go wrong.

Riebschlaeger isn't against the drilling, though. In fact, her family has leased their mineral rights in La Salle County, so she stands to gain from the drilling.

"Somebody has to do it, and I have nothing to lose. Because of my way of life, no one suffers if people don't like me. I do want my faith to stand for what's right in the eyes of God, and that's loving your neighbor and making sure your neighbor isn't harmed. This, if it isn't done right, could harm my neighbor," she said.

Riebschlaeger tries to attend every meeting about the Eagle Ford Shale and while most people ask how they can get leased, she asks about the environment.

Containing the chemicals

During every meeting about the Eagle Ford Shale, someone stands up and says hydraulic fracturing is perfectly safe. The water that comes back up from the well after the fracking process is stored securely, they say, and the water left down in the well won't come back up because it's too far down in the ground. Drillers are required to put cement casing around their pipes as they drill. That way if something goes wrong, the chemicals being pumped into the ground won't get into the water table or the aquifers.

While fracking has never been found to directly contaminate drinking water, the cement casings that keep the slurry from leaking into the water table are the weak link in the process. If the well is drilled properly, if the cement casings are put in correctly, nothing can go wrong. It all hinges on the word "if."

But humans are fallible, and it's not a question of if mistakes will happen - it is a question of when.

David Blackmon, the Texas representative of America's Natural Gas Alliance, stood before a group of Cuero officials and told them he knows the oil and gas industry has a bad reputation. He even admitted that they had been known to cause some damage over the years.

"I used to work for a company - and I won't say which one - and back then we made a mess. I'm going to be honest with you, we made a mess on those farms and ranches, but things have changed since then," Blackmon said. "The main reason we are here is to make sure we don't repeat the mistakes made by companies in our industry in the Barnett Shale."

America's Natural Gas Alliance has even made moves to encourage more openness in the business, starting a website where natural gas and oil companies can voluntarily register the chemicals they use when fracking wells.

"If you believe what you're drilling with is safe and responsible, there shouldn't be a problem disclosing it," he told the group, while heads in the audience nodded in agreement.

Jerome Schubert, a professor of petroleum engineering at Texas A&M, grew up on a farm in Bayside, but he has spent three decades studying the industry. People within the industry have made mistakes, Schubert owned, but they aren't a crowd of archvillains trying to make a buck, he said.

"Some of it's earned; some of it is not. People think J.R. Ewing is typical of the oil industry. They think of Enron and BP and all of that stuff. Any large industry, you've got people involved and things happen and there can be corruption - but you've got to realize most of us aren't J.R. Ewings. We're from farms and ranches and we don't want to mess up the land. We don't want to hurt the environment," Schubert said.

History repeating?

Bard Letsinger's family has been ranching in Karnes County for more than seven generations. They've also been leased before.

There has been drilling in Karnes since the oil business came to Texas when Spindletop blew in and they know how to work a lease. Letsinger puts his faith in contracts, but he acknowledges human error.

"Let's be honest - life is a risk," he said. "Every day you get in your car and drive across town, you're taking a risk. Is there going to be a spill here, or a tankard truck that wrecks and spills something on the side of the road? Yeah, that's bound to happen, but that's part of the risk."

He was a teenager in Kenedy when the last oil boom roared through the Crossroads in the 1980s. Sometimes a well would blow out, and they'd drive out at night to see it, roaring up from the ground so bright they could see the fire from 30 miles away, like an eternal flame, but jutting 200 feet in the air.

He saw the boom, and he saw the bust, when the oil money went away and the oil field people went with it, leaving the community to settle down back into the business of ranching and farming and hoping for another play.

"Most ranchers, this isn't our first rodeo, so to speak," Letsinger said, grinning.

'Have to be an optimist'

Prause motored his red pickup onto the drill sight and paused alongside the frack pond. The azure-colored sky was reflected in the sparkling water. The water was clear, a piercing blue. A turtle that had been sunning itself on the red-dirt edge of the pond plunked itself into the water with a splash as the truck approached, it's brown head bobbing in the water as it swam away.

"Look at how clean it is," Prause said, gesturing at the water. "Look at how nice that fence is that they've put up. They keep these sights up, and they don't leave any trash. I don't have any problem with them."

Driving away from the frack pond, Caracara birds circled slowly overhead, their wings casting a blot of dark shadow on the ground. Prause's face grew grim as he watched them making lazy swoops across the sky. The raptors are known for tearing into the flesh of cattle and other livestock, Prause explained. They are also an endangered species, so they can't be killed, even if they are a threat to his cattle.

"I've seen them attack newborn calves and their mothers while they are still alive," Prause said, his face twisting in disgust.

The birds worry him more than drilling in the Eagle Ford Shale. Even Prause will admit he has some worries, but he stays determinedly positive.

"I'm concerned about the amount of water they use for fracking and things like that, but I'm more concerned about the injection wells. If they keep that secure and below our water table, then I still think we can all live. The world is changing and we're not going to stop it," he said.

Standing in one of his pastures, he took a deep breath of cool, clean morning air, filling his lungs. He knows the history of the land beneath his worn brown boots. People have farmed and ranched here for generations. The man who carried the last known message from soldiers in the Alamo is buried just across the road. He knows its past and he believes his children and grandchildren will be a part of its future. It will be calving season soon.

"Kaci and I agree it's the best time of the year," he said, watching as his pregnant heifers moved their bodies with the majesty of ocean liners to dock at the feeding trough.

The whole family will start in the morning, searching the pastures as the sun comes up over the rolling hills, turning the world pink in that first light. They'll take the newborn calves, wobbly on long skinny legs, check them over and tattoo them, just as it has been done for generations in this country. Even with the oil rigs digging into the ground, the wells steadily pumping oil and gas from the depths thousands of feet below, just on the edge of his property, Prause believes things will always be this way. He has to. The oil will get taken out of the earth one way or another.

"If you're in agriculture at all, you have to be an optimist. There are too many bad years to be anything else. You have to believe that everything is going to be fine," he said.

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