Off the bus, off the bus. Sunglasses down against the washed-out Texas morning, the climbing white sun. A denim sky, 360 cloudless degrees. And tilting against it, a shuddering lattice of crossed steel beams, ascending above a prolix cluster of clattering machinery, logjams of rusted steel pipes, a loose dusty square of unvegetated land.
Forty environmental journalists fan out around the ensemble, drop to a knee to snap pictures, jot chickenscratch on forty notepads balanced upon forty upturned palms. So this is what a fracking rig looks like.
Well, so, not exactly. This rig is owned by Windsor Energy, and they’ve contracted Academy Drilling to slurp out the easy-to-get stuff through conventional extraction methods. The fracking won’t start for another week or two, long after the Society of Environmental Journalists has dispersed around the country and gone back to their local beats, forgotten about this baked corner of West Texas. We were supposed to visit a real-live fracking site, but at the last minute the operators got cold feet about letting two-score environmental writers crawl over their rig. Can’t imagine why.
An industry representative emerges from behind a shed, radiating quotable authority, and we instinctively rush to him. An arsenal of tape recorders and microphones bristles in his face, every body rubbing against other bodies in the knot of reporters that presses tight around Ben Shepperd, President of the Permian Basin Petroleum Association, an advocacy group or a consultancy or something that, according to their website, provides “legislative and regulatory involvement and support services for the petroleum industry,” which as far as I can tell means searching for loopholes.
“The Permian Basin produces one million barrels of oil a day,” explains Ben Shepperd into the muzzles of several dozen recording devices, himself totally unfazed by the hot tangle of limbs closing in around him. “That’s 70% of the oil in Texas, along with 25% of the nation’s oil rigs, right here where we are.”
I wander away from Shepperd and toward the rig. The operation emits a constant, grinding whine that is a few decibels louder than ambient. Men wearing sand-colored helmets stroll around the decks of the rig twenty feet above me and appear to check some gauges.
Adjacent to the rig is a containment pond, into which a stream of wastewater sloshes noisily. Unlike frack fluid, which is laced with a chemical proppant to keep shale fissures open, this water contains few human chemicals. But it does gets injected underground to lubricate the drill-bit, and may have acquired all sorts of harmful natural substances during its subterranean sojourn. “It’s not a toxic mess,” I hear Shepperd say above the snarl of the rig. “But it’s not something I’d want to play in, either.”
Rafts of milky scum swirl and collide like shifting continents upon the surface of the pond, reminiscent of the bacterial mats that cover Yellowstone’s geothermal features. A few reporters climb the embankments that surround the pond and gaze into its opaque depths. The pond is lined with a tattered plastic sheet that’s supposed to keep the mysterious fluid from leaching into the water table. The sheet does not look impermeable.
Nobody, including Ben Shepperd, seems to have any idea what the scum is. Nobody wants to fall in.
I skid down the embankment and go talk to an oil guy whose name I don’t catch. He explains that the wastewater will take about six months to evaporate after the well is no longer being drilled. “What you’re left with at the bottom of the pond is cuttings” that contain the toxics, he explains. “The cuttings are folded over, like a burrito, and buried underground.”
This can’t be the best system of disposing waste, can it? In New Mexico, the oil man acknowledges, they typically use closed-loop systems, whereby the water is separated from dissolved chemicals with a centrifuge and often reused at other drill sites. Companies in adjacent states also frequently store their wastewater in sealed tanks.
So why stick with the open pits? I ask.
The oil man shrugs, as though I’d asked why he parts his hair to the left. “Because we’re allowed to,” he says. “And because that’s what we’ve always done. That’s historical practice, here in Texas.”
The journalists are now scattered around the site like cats set loose upon the landscape. A man whose badge reads National Geographic takes the same picture of a flaking pile of abandoned pipes a dozen times. A woman whose badge says Freelance Radio Reporter holds a fuzzy microphone into the wind and intently records the squeal of machinery. I look back to the NatGeo guy and realize he’s now photographing me; obligingly I gaze out at the scrubby dun horizon as though observing a distant hawk surfing a thermal. In reality, there are no birds.
What there are are pump jacks in every direction, nodding rhythmically like herds of browsing dinosaurs. A reporter with a faint German accent holds a tape recorder to the mouth of a bowling ball-shaped man whose shirt reads “The A-Team!” The A stands for Academy Drilling. On the man’s helmet is a strip of tape that identifies him as Wylie Stokes. Blurry biceps tattoos peek out from beneath Wylie Stokes’ sleeves.
“This here’s probably the only job where a guy with no education can make the kind of money that we can,” Wylie Stokes says. He’s the rig manager. Two other reporters toting recorders of their own dart over; Wylie seems flattered by the attention, and he smiles beneath his wispy moustache. “And it’s a lot safer than when I got out of the army,” he adds. “Pays better too. I started out making $6.90 an hour, in the late ‘90’s.”
His smile spreads perceptibly. “Quite a bit more than that.”
Everybody, it seems, works in oil fields here –– even the leaders of the nearby Gardendale Accountability Project, a non-profit campaigning against Berry Oil’s predatory land practices. Turns out that in Texas, surface and mineral rights are separate estates: just because you own your land doesn’t mean you own the fossil fuels beneath it.
And here’s the kicker: the right of oil companies to access their minerals often takes precedent over landowners’ surface rights. If you happen to wind up living on top of their oil, well, that’s tough luck for you.
The bus rolls through Gardendale, down Sunflower Street and Morning Glory Road and North Windswept Avenue, and a man named Shane Leverett points out Berry Oil’s claims: unassuming metal stakes topped with pink flagging tape that snaps in the silica-laden wind. The stakes are everywhere, both in uninhabited scrub fields and people’s backyards. A few wells are already up and running, and the embankments of containment ponds rise above the roadside. A rabbit rattles through the brush that grows from the earthen walls. On a chain-link fence hangs a sign that says, “NOW HIRING CRANE OPERATORS.”
“We were gonna graze this land,” says Leverett, gesturing to a few acres that he and his wife bought in 2000, before Berry began drilling, “but they leave out those saltwater pits and the cows drink from ‘em and die.”
Didn’t the oil companies offer the landowners any compensation at all before they started putting the wells in? Well, yeah, says a guy named Joe Paul Wood, but it was pennies on the dime. Besides, adds Wood, giving the oil company license to drill is tantamount to giving it license to destroy. “They put two very dangerous words on the lease: necessary and convenient,” he says. “Necessary means whatever they need to do. Convenient means whatever they want to do.”
Put it together and there’s not much they can’t do on other people’s land. A man named Hector Rodriguez gets on the bus and tells us that Berry Oil put a stake in the middle of Rodriguez’s six acres and told him he couldn’t do anything to develop his own property. Not that Berry is about to start drilling there anytime soon, but they might change their minds someday, and they don’t want, say, a house impeding their operations if they do.
Northeasterners tend to conflate fracking with horizontal drilling for natural gas, but those things aren’t necessarily synonymous. In Gardendale, hydraulic fracturing means vertical drilling for oil. In fact, Leverett wishes Berry would start digging horizontally –– it would take up a whole lot less space. “When there’s a well every 600 feet,” Wood says, “and each well is 300 by 300, do the math: there’s not a whole lot of space to live.”
Still, whether the wells are vertical or horizontal, hydraulic fracking is unavoidably a water-intensive operation, and that’s a whole ‘nother problem. Wood directs our bus to another well, one which is actively fracking. We stand outside a rusted fence and watch the workers ignore us. On the dusty wellpad stands a row of giant steel tanks containing fresh water almost certainly pumped from the vanishing Ogallala Aquifer. Wood says that the oil company recently began drilling on his neighbor’s land, and Wood’s own water well dropped 12 feet almost as soon as the fracking started.
“Y’know, Texas is a great state to own property,” says Wood, absently touching his drooping moustache. “Until someone with more money than you comes along and wants it.”