LAREDO — The impacts of a new oil and gas drilling boom on this South Texas city and the communities surrounding it have been staggering. Towns that didn’t have gas stations before now have multiple hotels. Laredo’s population has grown by one-third since 2000.
“These are not just sudden economic impacts,” said Mercurio Martinez, director of Texas A&M International University-Laredo’s Small Business Development Center. “These are huge.”
Martinez and representatives of the energy industry discussed the boom’s economic benefits for the region during a forum this week at the university. Researchers at the University of Texas at San Antonio estimate that activity in the Eagle Ford Shale, a hydrocarbon formation that stretches from the Laredo area to East Texas, generated more than $61 billion in economic impact in 2012 and supported 116,000 jobs.
But the presentation of the study, funded by America’s Natural Gas Alliance, did little to assuage concerns in the region regarding the less-understood environmental impacts on the area — whether it’s the use of water for hydraulic fracturing, the process of extracting oil and gas from rock by injecting it with a mix of water, sand and chemicals; the disposal of the resulting wastewater; concerns over possible ties to air pollution; or the explosion in truck traffic.
“We need to know how full or empty that glass is,” said Pete Saenz Jr., an attorney for landowners and ranchers in Laredo who attended this week’s presentation. He asked for a study on how much water is available in the area aquifers and whether the water that oil and gas companies are drawing out is being replenished.
“It may have taken a million years to fill up that aquifer, and we could be depleting it in 20 years,” Saenz said, but there’s not enough data to know what could happen.
“There are folks looking at that. That’s pretty much what I can offer you,” said Jose Ceballos, a spokesman for America's Natural Gas Alliance in South Texas, acknowledging that the aquifers were slow to recharge. But, he added, “there’s definitely less water being used now than there was in 2010.”
Ceballos said a typical hydraulic fracturing job would have used about 5 million gallons three years ago; now, it requires just 3 million gallons. (But far more fracking jobs occur in the Eagle Ford Shale today than in 2010, because the number of gas-producing wells has more than quadrupled since then, according to the Railroad Commission of Texas).
He also argued that population growth, not fracking, was driving water demand. “Texas was going to have water issues one way or another ... even without the drought,” Ceballos told the audience. He said more operators were using recycled water for fracking, though specific numbers were not available. Some operators have also experimented with using liquid propane gas instead of water, though the process has not become widespread.
The San Antonio-based Southwest Research Institute estimates that one-third of the water used in the Wintergarden Groundwater Conservation District of San Antonio goes to the oil and gas industry. The district covers Dimmit, LaSalle, and Zavala counties in South Texas.
Ceballos said other technological advances, such as horizontal drilling, allow more wells to be drilled on one site to limit the impacts to the land. And those techniques nearly always lead to production.
“You’re going to go there to extract. You’re not going to go there in there to miss,” he said.
But some say the environmental impact of such techniques can be more complex. On Hugh Fitzsimons’ ranch, about 80 miles North of Laredo near the town of Carrizo Springs, there has been conventional drilling since the 1920s. But the new type of drilling is different, he said.
“It’s not necessarily the fracking. It’s everything that it brings,” Fitzsimons said, referring to the increased truck traffic, the support personnel needed for frack jobs and the water supply required for fracking.
“This is not my grandfather’s oilfield,” he said, looking out over his 13,000-acre ranch, where little specks of orange — the flares from newer oil and gas wells — dot the landscape. “This is a mining operation. And nobody was really prepared for that.”
If oil and gas companies’ drilling efforts didn’t hit oil, they often moved on, he said. That’s less likely to happen now: “When you go horizontal, you’ll hit something.” And that means more activity and impact on his land.
Fitzsimons said his water well levels have dropped, but he’s also worried about the effects of drilling on air quality. Little puffs of black smoke fill the air on his range now, as the new wells flare off excess gas. That releases volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, which are considered harmful air pollutants.
Recently, an employee, Freddy Longoria, and two of Longoria’s sons fell sick. Fitzsimons worries that the VOCs could be the cause.
“They just started coughing and sneezing all of a sudden,” Jeannelle Longoria said of her two teenage sons, who had been out on the ranch working with their father. “One of them would sneeze, and then the other. And then one, and the other.” Her husband’s eyes also started burning. Such sudden symptoms had never happened to them before, and are consistent with what the Centers for Disease Control says could be caused by VOCs.
Ceballos said flaring in the region is becoming rarer, as pipelines get built to capture that gas and disposing of it becomes unnecessary. That means truck traffic will eventually decrease as well, he said. The 140-mile Double Eagle Pipeline, from Karnes to Corpus Christi, and the 720-mile Sand Hills Pipeline, from Midland County to Mont Belvieu, are expected to come online this year. The industry also says harmful air pollutants come from all sorts of sources — like increased population, transportation and other industries — and that oil and gas are not necessarily the culprits.
Still, other concerns remain. As wells reserved for wastewater from fracking near capacity, operators want to drill more such wells — even as they discuss plans to use more recycled water.
Ceballos said 15 percent of the water used for a frack job in the Eagle Ford Shale comes back as waste, a low number compared with other shale formations. But even then, “the waste has got to go somewhere.”