Riches or ruins? Lessons from Barnett Shale (video)
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GODLEY - For a moment, they are standing in a timeless place.
It almost seems possible that the buffalo herds that once roamed the plains could reappear, that the men who worked the Chisholm Trail might materialize on the ridge of the neighboring hill in North Texas.
Bobby and Maureen Green stood on their back porch. They have lived on this hilltop just outside of Fort Worth for decades, a spot where the sloping green hills of the prairie meet the vast expanse of the plains.
The last rays of the sun shot over a neighboring hill, covering their small corner of the world with soft pink light. Even the twisted metal of 12 natural gas well-heads looked beautiful in the glow. The light cast a delicate tangerine tint onto the white painted sides of the natural gas compressors.
Maureen Green, a slim, hazel-eyed woman with a Roman profile, shivered in the breeze and Bobby Green slid an arm around his wife while his clear eyes scanned the view stretched out before them.
With a clatter, the compressors came to life, shattering the stillness and the illusion of suspended time.
They live on top of the Barnett Shale, a dense formation rich in natural gas that stretches beneath 5,000 square miles of 24 counties in North Central Texas. The Barnett Shale formation became the hottest play in the nation a decade ago. It's thought to be the largest natural gas field in the country.
Since then, the Greens have been living on top of what some see as a gold mine and others a curse. Money has rolled in, towns have been revitalized and the nation has seen natural gas reserves increase for the first time in 20 years. But some say the price is too high, citing health concerns, demolished roads, water contamination and depletion, and battles over property rights.
The Eagle Ford Shale play is a direct successor to the Barnett Shale. DeWitt County Judge Daryl Fowler had heard some stories from the Greens, his aunt and uncle. When he learned that a wide swath of the Eagle Ford stretched beneath his county, he went to his family to find out what to expect.
Maureen Green's family has lived on this land for generations in this small community of cattle ranchers and dairy farmers. With deep roots in the land, it only made sense that she and her husband came to live on this hill and raise their children in Godley, a town where children grew giddy with excitement waiting for the day a train would roar through and every Lions Club meeting closed with the recitation of a poem.
Maureen became a teacher in the school and, later, principal. Bobby worked as a truck driver, living for the weekends when he got the chance to smear on paint and run around arenas as a rodeo clown.
They built a nice life for themselves on top of this hill - they never imagined what was under it.
To the Greens and the rest of the 6 million people who live on top of the Barnett Shale, the consequences of the discovery were complex.
Yes, it brought unforeseen riches to the area, but it also put these people in the crosshairs of history. Suddenly, they were having to negotiate a world they never anticipated, one where valuable hydrocarbons lay beneath their feet and people clamored to get at it, a game they were all playing without knowing the rules, because they hadn't been written yet.
WHEN IT ALL CHANGED
The Greens were surprised when a landman showed up to lease their land. Everyone was talking about this new play, but they'd always been told no one could get at the part of the formation that ran beneath their land. More than 20 years earlier, an oil man had pulled out a map and showed Bobby the spot that was Godley.
"There's a whole lake of oil down there," the man said. "But we don't know how to get it."
There was natural gas trapped down there, too. Lots of it. In the late 1990s, after almost 20 years of work, Texas petroleum engineer George Mitchell finally figured out how to get it out of the ground cheaply enough to make it worthwhile. By drilling horizontally through the shale formation and then using hydraulic fracturing to shatter the dense rock, he unlocked the natural gas trapped there for countless years.
Then the Barnett Shale started flowing.
It started in Wise County. Next, they found that the formation stretched under Parker, then Tarrant and Johnson counties, on and on until 24 counties were found to be sitting on top of the Barnett Shale.
By 2002, energy companies were swarming across the land, leasing as fast as they could and drilling as quickly as they could get rigs in place to poke the holes in the ground and get this new play producing.
'THERE ARE ALWAYS PROBLEMS'
Texas energy production, once a powerhouse, had been in decline for decades when the Barnett Shale began producing. The play took many by surprise. It was a new frontier, of sorts.
That meant tackling problems energy companies never had to contend with before. Rigs cropped up across the region, countless numbers protruding into the sky from suburban backyards, schools, churches, in the middle of downtown Fort Worth and along every road and highway - wherever they could get a lease to drill.
Energy companies were drilling in urban and suburban areas, places where the people living there weren't accustomed to the smell of exhaust or the clatter of a drilling rig in their backyard.
"There are always problems. If I was in the Eagle Ford, I'd learn about roads, get good relationships going, watch water supplies and try to learn from the Barnett Shale. Learn from what we went through," said State Rep. Phil King, R-Weatherford.
King was one of the first state legislators to deal with the complications that arose from a shale play in his district. District 61 was right in the center of the play.
Water was the first issue. The region was in the midst of a drought when the Barnett Shale started, and the aquifers and wells used to supply fracking water were feeling the strain.
"Lots of wells, including my own, were low and sucking air," King said.
As concerns grew, King and other government officials had to learn to work with the energy companies to deal with their difficulties - everything from the water use to figuring out who would pay for the damage to roads torn up by oil field traffic. Figuring out how to cooperate and communicate was key.
"Learning to work together, learning what the real facts were and preventing unintended consequences, that was the challenge," he said.
Lawmakers also found themselves struggling to balance between the rights of the property owners and the needs of the industry.
"No one likes a pipeline going through their property," he said.
Most cities and towns thought oil and gas production had petered out 50 years before, and they didn't have any ordinances governing where companies could drill. Another sore spot was that people living in suburban neighborhoods didn't typically own the mineral rights beneath their property, thus giving them little say about what was going on beneath their homes.
Meanwhile, the Barnett play boomed.
Most of the problems related to the Barnett Shale had to do with the newness of the technology, which proved to be safe, King said.
However, some who have lived on the Barnett Shale disagree.
Sharon Wilson, a woman with striking grey eyes, the same color as her hair, has been voicing her concerns about the environmental impact of drilling in the Barnett for almost a decade. She has spoken before city councils across the formation, protested in Austin, and made a name for herself questioning and recording every aspect of the Barnett Shale play's progress.
Wilson was living on 42 acres in Wise County, the center of the play, when she heard about the Barnett Shale.
Wilson, a single mother, watched as her neighbors began buying new trucks and putting up new fences and taking vacations. She thought she wanted to get in on that.
"I wanted to be a shaleionaire," Wilson remembered with a sharp laugh.
Drilling activity skyrocketed during the next few years, and the Barnett Shale was booming. But Wilson was watching what happened as millions of gallons of water and chemicals were pumped into the formation to shatter the brittle shale and unlock the natural gas.
"People said I was crazy, but now water is one of the biggest issues," she said.
She looked at her own water well and worried that the companies now surrounding her tract of land would suck it all up in their quest to frack the wells. She kept putting off leasing her own mineral rights and, when no one could answer her questions, she started a blog to bring her concerns to public attention.
As her blog grew in popularity, people began contacting her. The same things were happening to them, and they sent her their stories, their photos and videos, asking her to tell their story, too.
When the Marcellus Shale play began booming in Pennsylvania, even more stories and requests for help came flooding in.
"There wasn't anyone out there telling this story from the viewpoint of the landowner," Wilson said, so she started helping them get organized.
As the Barnett Shale play rolled on, the stories kept coming.
Calvin Tillman, the former mayor of Dish, made national news when he fled the Texas town of 200 people and 60 natural gas wells last year. The town of Dish is in the middle of the Barnett play. The faint odor of exhaust from the wells greets you when you step out of your car and breathe in. High levels of benzene, which is known to cause breast cancer, have been recorded in the town.
Last year, Tillman gave up his position as mayor and moved away out of concern for his children's health, he said. Their noses were bleeding every night.
There were anecdotes about companies that tore down fences to drill, about headaches and coughing that never stopped, about animals that lived near drilling sites dropping dead for unclear reasons, about companies caught dumping untreated fracking wastewater directly into streams.
Wilson and other newly minted environmentalists were out there, taking pictures of every alleged incident and posting it online.
BRINGING HER STORY TO CUERO
Wilson looked tired as she sat waiting to be introduced at the Cuero Municipal Park Clubhouse in March. It was her third trip to Cuero in as many months. Wilson turned her activism into a career and now she represents Earthworks, an organization that promotes accountability and regulations for the oil and gas industry.
Once she has been introduced, she tells her story and then hammers home the same points - people need to educate themselves, watch the companies, test their water, test their air, realize that everything has changed.
She uses videos, photos and testaments of those who have lived on top of the Barnett Shale to tell people living on top of the Eagle Ford Shale what could be in their future.
"This is your fate if you do nothing," she tells them. Sometimes she gets a response. People will raise their hands and ask questions during the meeting, and hang around once it's over to have intense conversations about what the future may hold. Other times she's left alone after speaking, and she'll gather up her printouts and handouts from Earthworks, throw her gear in her car and head back to North Texas.
LESSONS FROM UP NORTH
Like Midas' touch, the Barnett Shale play altered everything it came in contact with.
Just before the Barnett was discovered, there had been talk of pulling the railroad tracks up and doing away with the line, but as the Barnett got going, Godley became a hub where pipeline and fracking sand arrived from across the country.
Truck drivers barreled through town at all hours of the day and night - many of them were inexperienced - and Bobby Green, a volunteer firefighter, began expecting the worst when he was called out to accidents.
In the first days when the drillers first arrived in Godley, Bobby glanced out the window and saw a scene that looked like a glimpse of the past - buffalo were stepping daintily across his driveway; they were accidentally released when one of the company men left a gate open down the road, allowing buffalo to wander out of their pasture.
One day in 2008, Bobby stepped out his back door and, breathing in the cool air from a south wind, he got a whiff of something that smelled like tar. It burned his nostrils, and he couldn't catch his breath as he stumbled back inside the house, where he stayed in bed for three days.
There was a leak in the well, and company men came out to fix it, but never acknowledged Bobby. That's not how things are done in a small community like Godley.
"They never said a word to me, never even walked up to the house to apologize or check and see if I was OK," Bobby said, shaking his head.
The Greens have learned to be careful who they do business with. Some companies, the smaller outfits, have a reputation for sloppy work, the kind of people who leave gates open and trash at the drilling site.
In the months after that, he began suffering from allergies and breathing problems severe enough to land him in the hospital. The well is required to be 200 feet from their home, but it's only about 100 feet from their barn. It got to the point he could spend only a few minutes at a time down there. The doctor tested him and told him he was allergic only to chemicals.
"I thought about suing, but it would cost too much money. Maybe they'll buy us out or something. I hate to leave here. I've lived here since 1971, and Maureen has been here since 1943," he said. "I don't know what we'll do."
When Judge Fowler asked his aunt and uncle about their experiences in the Barnett, they also had some good things to say. Once a company started drilling on their place, they began getting royalty checks in the mail for nice chunks of the money because of the high price of natural gas. They used the money to buy some bucking bulls and to travel. The Greens attended a retired rodeo clown convention in Deadwood, S.D., an experience Bobby grows misty-eyed about whenever he mentions it.
But it has come with a price. The Greens didn't realize that when the drilling started, but they know it now.
The play has slowed, too. The Barnett Shale was the first natural gas rich shale formation to start producing, but it wasn't the last. Natural gas prices were high when the play started a decade ago, but they dropped in the midst of the economic slowdown in 2008 and have never recovered. The Barnett Play shuddered and slowed to a crawl.
Cheap natural gas has been a boon in some ways, leading to a resurgence in U.S. manufacturing as companies build plants made to run on cheap natural gas. Natural gas production has grown so much that a Houston-based company plans to begin exporting it for the first time in decades.
The energy market is a complex system of cause and effect. Unlike the Barnett, the Eagle Ford Shale is rich in crude oil, and that has made all the difference in the world. Even as sinking natural gas prices dulled interest in the Barnett, the Eagle Ford has been booming because of high oil prices.
But every play has an end, and this one will end, too, someday. Fowler knows that.
As the Barnett Shale play thundered along, Fowler watched his family and the people he has known since childhood dealing with the kind of money they had never dreamed of. Families that had struggled on the old dairy farms in Godley were living the American Dream with unanticipated wealth flowing into their pockets.
"It's no different than what's been happening to people down here," Fowler said. "People that slaughtered their own hogs and did for themselves, who survived without electricity until the 1950s, their lives have been transformed."
But the Barnett is still a cautionary tale in some respects. Fowler gives companies the benefit of the doubt and hopes they will continue to choose to do the right thing. People also are better educated about what to watch for than they were when the Barnett Shale play started - the publicity from the Barnett has taught property owners what to look for, and the backlash that followed the massive British Petroleum oil spill has made companies more cautious, Fowler said.
"There's a lot of good that comes with this, but it's measurable, and you have to weigh it against the bad things that creep in," Fowler said. "You know, it's like I've always said: 'Nothing is free. There's no such thing as a free lunch.'"
Maureen Green noted that she and her husband never got in the habit of depending on the money. As they have watched the size of their royalty checks shrink, that proved a smart thing to do.
"We never let ourselves count on it. It's a good thing, but that's what you have to remember," she said, glancing out at her land as the last of the light faded away into an indigo darkness. "It's done good things, but it didn't last."
To read previous installments of the special series, "The Play," click here.