Natural Gas Revolution Part I – Mad Max Bizarro World

There’s a Mad Max quality to the back roads and blue highways of South Texas these days. I’d been hearing about this strange phenomenon almost since I arrived in Texas 3 years ago, but only recently did I get an invitation to see it for myself.

I hopped in a car with a Texas State Representative this month to tour a drilling site with an independent oil and gas company in the Eagle Ford shale in South Texas.

As the State Rep and I zoom past empty acreage – not unlike Mel Gibson’s Australian outback – we spy on the horizon a small caravan of specialized tricked-out trucks approaching menacingly.  As they roar past us, we observe flatbeds full of monstrous piping overflowing with weaponized-looking plumbing on their backs.  Ironically these Mad Max vehicles forecast not the last known energy reserves on the planet, but rather the opposite – nearly a century worth of abundant, cheap, domestic energy.

As a relative newcomer to Texas I carry all my prejudices and misconceptions about oil and gas drilling with me.  Most of what I knew before my Eagle Ford visit I learned from Hollywood, via Giant and There Will Be Blood.

I found crucial differences between my preconceptions and what we saw there.

Foremost in my mind is that most people I speak with in San Antonio, not to mention the rest of the country, do not understand just how big the Eagle Ford operations are.

If my estimates of investment are anywhere near correct – something on the order of $100 Billion – the Eagle Ford dwarfs USAA, HEB, or Rackspace[1] as an economic driver of the South Texas region.

Second, the scale of financial investment forces a corporate, risk-mitigating approach to operations down there, which is a good thing when it comes to environmental risks, a major concern about Eagle Ford.

Third, the employment boom in the South Texas region is palpable.  They need more people than they have right now.


What is fracking and what is the Eagle Ford Shale play?

So here is as good a time as any to explain what I’ve learned about how the Eagle Ford shale ‘play’[2] works, as opposed to oil and gas operations in other times and other regions of the world.

Historically, exploiting oil and gas reserves in many places on the earth has required sophisticated geological and engineering search techniques, seeking large hidden pools of hydrocarbons that can be extracted from a vertical drill in the ground.

A ‘shale’ play like the Eagle Ford, however, is the kind of seemingly un-exploitable geological formation that oil engineers and geologists skipped over for the past century, in their search for large underground pools.  Oil and gas trapped in small bubbles between tightly packed shale rock could not be released using traditional techniques until the last decade or so.[3]

A combination of two techniques changed all that: horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing (fracking).[4]  The horizontal drilling allows above-ground rigs to exploit a much broader underground area from which to extract hydrocarbons, and the fracking involves the use of underground explosive charges to blast open tight rock formations, followed by high pressure water, sand, guar[5], and chemical combinations to keep rock formations open long enough for oil and gas to flow and eventually to be extracted by the horizontal pipe.

Suddenly – and by suddenly I mean in the last 10-15 years – exploitation of shale oil and gas deposits trapped in shale formations has become economically viable.  And by “economically viable” I mean the oil and gas industry has suddenly found 15 years’ worth of profitable drilling in South Texas and maybe 90 years’ worth of U.S. domestic energy underground in the Bakken, Marcellus, and other major shale regions.  Horizontal drilling and fracking has caused an oil and gas revolution.

This revolution is what the State Rep and I have come to see in Bee County, Texas.


Up Next Part II – No Dry Wells in the Eagle Ford

Part III – The Scene at Drilling and Fracking Sites

Part V – The labor market in the Eagle Ford

[1] To name a few overly-referenced economic engines of South Texas.

[2] ‘Play’ in this context is what oil and gas folks call it.  Also, I’ve learned that if you’re a Yank and not from around these here parts, Eagle Ford is pronounced as one word: “Eagleferd.”

[3] A little online research reveals that fracking techniques were known and used in the oil industry as early as the late 1940s, with additional advances in the technology in the 1970s, but commercially successful exploitation of shale-trapped gas, using the sand and chemical mix, dates only to 1997.

[4] I only got through one season of the Battlestar Galactica redo that came out a few years back.  I think it’s important to acknowledge the rise of their particular Galactica method of swearing (“Frack!”) and the concurrently perfected process of releasing hydrocarbons from closed shale rock.  For linguists, this may represent an important example of “multiple independent discovery” in the development of the English language.

[5] I hadn’t heard of guar either, but it’s a common cheese and ice cream-additive, derived from beans in India and Pakistan, lately applied to the fracking process.

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I founded Bankers Anonymous because, as a recovering banker, I believe that the gap between the financial world as I know it and the public discourse about finance is more than just a problem for a family trying to balance their checkbook, or politicians trying to score points over next year’s budget – it is a weakness of our civil society. For reals. It’s also really fun for me.

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