“Y’all Smell That? That’s the Smell of Money.”
Chasing the boom in South Texas.
In 1981, when my father was 26 years old, he quit his job at a chemical plant near Houston, loaded his family into the car, and moved us back to Big Spring to get rich on the boom. It was a journey similar to one his own father had made during the Depression, when he’d struck out from Georgia in a T-model Ford and headed for West Texas and the sea of oil that lay beneath it. My grandfather found work as a roughneck and derrick man and started his family in a shotgun house owned by Conoco. In later years, he ran his own dump trucks hauling caliche for rig roads and drill pads. My dad’s uncles and cousins worked on maintenance crews and drove tankers. Fifty miles away, in Snyder, my mother’s father ran the corner Exxon for over thirty years. As a young man, Dad followed the family tradition. He started on pulling units, cranking the tubing and casings out of the well bores. But losing fingers was a common hazard, and after a while, he decided he could do better selling cars. He was salesman of the month at the Ford dealership in Midland, but at the “tote the note” lot in Albuquerque, which he opened when I was three, the luster started to fade. Dad’s brother managed to get him on at Monsanto in Chocolate Bayou, where he was working when the boom lured him back home.
Dad’s friend Grady Cunningham, whom he’d known since childhood, had just started his own oil company and named Dad the vice president. Being an oilman had always been Grady’s dream, and providence had smiled on him twice. He’d married the daughter of Big Spring’s biggest tycoon, the late Raymond Tollett, president of Cosden Petroleum. Not long after he’d had the great fortune of winning a stake in a Wyoming oil well after entering a lottery through the mail. With the proceeds from the well, plus his wife’s inheritance, he’d started Cunningham Oil. The new venture was headquartered in the top floor of the Petroleum Building, where his father-in-law had built his own empire during the forties and fifties. Grady hired a top-notch geologist and engineer, and he was smart enough to drill where they told him to. By the time Dad showed up, the first wells had struck pay dirt. Suddenly, we had money. That Christmas morning, after opening presents, I was watching cartoons on the living room floor when a delivery truck pulled up outside. Before I knew it, two men had carried the biggest television I’d ever seen through the front door and carted off the old one.
“Watch your cartoons in color now, kiddo,” the deliveryman said, and winked.
In the months that followed, the company hit a string of good wells, and as the oil started to flow, so did more money. Before long, my parents, Grady, and his swelling entourage were flying to Vegas and the Caribbean on chartered King Airs; sometimes they’d fly to Dallas just to buy fur coats and gold-plated Rolexes. I remember new Stetson hats and ostrich-skin boots and how my parents’ bedroom always smelled like fresh leather. The company hosted celebrity golf tournaments at the country club with Roger Staubach and Terry Bradshaw, and Mom even got to ride with Reba McEntire from the airport. To cement his reputation as a big-shot oilman, Grady bought a semi-pro football team. At the first home game, he made a grand entrance, landing on the 50-yard line in a helicopter.
My sisters and I had no trouble adapting. We liked riding in Rolls-Royces and playing shuffleboard on the porch of our new ranch-style house, the one that Dad purchased on a sixty-day note from the bank. For my second-grade show-and-tell, I brought a mason jar full of crude oil that Dad had skimmed off one of the rigs. Standing in front of my class, I popped open the lid and dipped a finger into the green-black liquid. As it streaked down my hand, the room filled with its sulfury vapor.
“Y’all smell that?” I asked, my accent as thick as the crude. “My daddy says that’s the smell of money.”
It was the smell of a boom, the same smell that hung over Beaumont during Spindletop, over the Daisy Bradford No. 3 in Rusk County, and over the Santa Rita No. 1 when it blew the Permian Basin into play and changed Texas forever. If you rolled down your window outside Forsan, it would take your breath away. To people like my dad and Grady, and countless other dreamers, it was the smell of glorious reinvention. “When the boom is on,” Dad would say, “there’ll never be another poor day.”
Texas is founded on booms—they built our cities and universities and museums. They gave us H. L. Hunt and Claytie Williams; J. R. Ewing and Jett Rink. They gave us our swagger, known around the world. In Midland they raised crystal skyscrapers on the plains, and in Big Spring they built hotels and mansions where buffalo bones once whitened the expanse. They’re our proof that the American dream is alive and well. For the dream flourishes in every boom, or at least a feverish version of it.
But like all dreams, a boom can end in an instant. By 1983, Grady had managed to burn through most of his wife’s inheritance, along with every dollar Cunningham Oil had made. When the price of oil plummeted, he couldn’t cover his debts. Dad managed to bail out before the company filed bankruptcy. With little to show for the last two years besides some Henredon furniture salvaged from one of Grady’s properties, Dad moved us to San Antonio and swore off the oil business forever. He became a commercial real estate appraiser and opened his own firm. Whenever oil prices jumped, Grady would blow through town in a limo and take everyone to Ruth’s Chris, but Dad could never return to that life. “It’s too much like gambling,” he’d say. “And I ain’t much of a gambler anymore.”
Over the years though, the industry continued to lure members of the family. My mom’s brother worked as a field engineer; my cousin surveyed well sites. As for me, I became a journalist, and while that was its own tenuous industry, it seemed a lot more reliable than the oil field. I moved to New York, then Africa, and wrote some books. Then, in 2008, on one of my visits to San Antonio, my dad started talking about the Eagle Ford Shale. It was a massive oil and gas play, he said, just an hour south of where he and my mom lived. As he spoke, something caught fire in his eyes. Once oil’s on the brain, it never leaves. “It’s gonna change everything down there,” he told me. “This is the big one.”
It wasn’t long before he was proved right. The stories in the paper became increasingly more outlandish. Oil companies were buying up hundreds of thousands of acres at a time; companies from Holland, India, and China were rushing into South Texas and spending billions for a slice of the action. Pretty soon, both of my brothers-in-law were working in the Eagle Ford, one selling materials for oil field construction and the other building wellhead compressors. Both were making the best money of their lives. My uncle told me about someone in his Sunday school class, a guy who’d bought a ranch in the nineties that was “worthless” and was now sprouting with oil wells. Meanwhile, one of Dad’s friends owned a couple of “man camps,” and while I wasn’t entirely sure what that meant, it sounded impressive. Before I knew it, the boom was tugging at me.
The guy with the man camps was Richard Dockery, an appraiser and real estate broker who lives in Three Rivers, a small town in Live Oak County at the heart of the Eagle Ford. I decided to go down and visit him. I wanted to see the boom up close for myself and maybe feel some of what my dad and grandfather had felt years ago. In May I drove down on Interstate 35 from Austin and entered the shale region at Cotulla. As I hooked east and joined Texas Highway 72, the main corridor through the Eagle Ford, the world was instantly transformed. The once quiet two-lane road was as furious as a Los Angeles freeway. A tanker truck slid up behind me, lights flashing, then jerked its load into the opposing lane to pass. It barely made the distance, forcing an oncoming pickup into the grass to avoid a collision. I stepped on the gas to keep from being run over and soon I was rocketing along at 85 miles per hour, amid a convoy of semis and tractor-trailers, all of us shrouded in a haze of road dust.
I began to notice the gas flares burning over the tops of the mesquite trees. Drilling rigs appeared every couple of miles, some far away, others pressed against the barbed-wire fences that lined the road. They seemed a product of science fiction, both beautiful and barbaric, like battleships turned on end. Each was festooned with Texas and American flags and surrounded by a ring of air-conditioned trailers. Billboards shouted at me from the sides of the road: “Mineral Acquisitions!” “Frack Water for Sale!” “Packers Plus: The Leader in Open-Hole Multi-Stage Fracturing.” “Hit by a Semi? Call 1-888-277-HURT.”
A massive land invasion had swallowed the Brush Country. I was suddenly taken back to Congo during my years covering the war, when the United Nations would mobilize into the “pacified” towns and villages and unleash its armada of white 4x4s and scads of cheap, temporary housing. When I finally reached Three Rivers and stopped at the downtown red light—there are only three in town—the idling trucks were lined up twenty deep past city hall and the old town square. I made it to Richard’s house, on the eastern edge of town, and found him outside waiting. He is in his mid-forties, heavyset, with short black hair and a mirthful grin.
“Aha!” he said. “I see you survived the Tunnel of Death.”
I told him about the near miss with the pickup, all the drilling rigs along the highway, and the line of semis downtown. Richard nodded excitedly, smiled, and spread his arms wide: “Just another day in paradise, baby.”
Henry Cisneros tells a great story about the Eagle Ford Shale. Earlier this year, the former San Antonio mayor was flying home from a business trip to Mexico City. He had a window seat, and as the plane crossed the Texas border, he looked down in search of the Rio Grande and the Valley. What he saw was a revelation. “There was a sudden demarcation in the land,” he told me. The brown desert gave way to a patchwork of raw, earthen squares as far as the eye could see. They were pad sites for drilling rigs. “And not just a few,” he said, “but thousands. The whole region was squared off.”
What Cisneros glimpsed from thirty thousand feet wasn’t the same South Texas he once knew. For the past five years, the vast and mangy Brush Country—with its poor, hard-luck towns forever cursed by drought and flood—has been home to one of the hottest oil booms on the planet. The Eagle Ford is now the biggest play in a shale bonanza that’s penetrated every region of the state. Thanks to the Eagle Ford, as well as the Spraberry, Wolfcamp, and emerging Cline shales in West Texas, the state has doubled its crude output over the past two years. By 2014, the state of Texas is expected to move ahead of the countries of Kuwait, Venezuela, Mexico, and Iraq to become the ninth-largest oil producer in the world.
This year, three companies alone—BHP Billiton, EOG Resources, and Conoco-Phillips—are expected to spend nearly $30 billion to get their Eagle Ford wells into production; another $70 billion will be spent by smaller players. No other play in the world surpasses it in terms of the money being spent on exploration and drilling. The frenzy to drill the shale formation—which stretches four hundred miles and covers fourteen counties—is so intense that even Cisneros’ story fails to capture the extent of it. To really appreciate the size and scope of what’s going on in South Texas, you have to see it from outer space. The nighttime images taken by NASA satellites reveal an arc of white light stretching from San Antonio all the way to the border—a galaxy of gas flares burning in the dark.
Like all booms, it began innocently enough. The Eagle Ford sits directly underneath the Austin Chalk, a formation that stretches from the Texas-Mexico border all the way to Mississippi and perplexed and hog-tied oilmen for decades. Its secrets were finally unlocked in 1975, in part by Roland “Rock” Robertson, a Corpus Christi–based geologist who was instrumental in helping develop the Giddings Field, near College Station, one of the most significant oil plays of the past century. Nearly forty years later, his son Gregg would help tap the secrets of the Eagle Ford.
Gregg Robertson had followed his father into the business, even working out of the same high-rise office on Leopard Street in downtown Corpus Christi. Like his dad, he focused on the portion of the Cretaceous platform that contains the chalk and the Eagle Ford Shale. In 2007 he started monitoring a particular well that had been drilled by Burlington Resources in the southern chalk in Live Oak County. The vertical well had produced 150 million cubic feet of gas. But what was more surprising was the 30,000 barrels of crude that it had also delivered, particularly in a region of the chalk not known to contain much oil. After checking Burlington’s well log at the Railroad Commission, Robertson saw that half their perforations had been in the chalk, while the others had penetrated the dense, thinly layered shale of the Eagle Ford. As Burlington kept on drilling, other oil companies began buying up acreage around them and tapping into the chalk, hoping for the same success. None of the wells were profitable.
“Burlington had perforated the Eagle Ford,” explained Robertson, “but made the decision that all their production was coming out of the chalk.” He assumed the other companies thought the same. “I’d looked at that Cretaceous platform since 1975 and drilled fifteen hundred wells that penetrated the Eagle Ford,” he continued. “But it wasn’t until the shale play began that we saw it could be a viable reservoir. You have to take your bias goggles off and have an open mind. Nobody even tried it.”
That’s because up to that point, the shale play, which got under way in the Barnett Shale, in North Texas, was mostly about natural gas. No one had yet extracted oil and liquid gas from shale on a large scale, even though they knew it was in there. With hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling, Robertson figured that he could do just that. Looking at his father’s old geological maps, he studied the formation more closely. If his hunch about Burlington’s well was true, it meant the Eagle Ford could contain vast liquid reserves, and best of all, they now had the means of getting it out.
He drove to Houston and shared his hunch with some longtime friends at Petrohawk Energy, which was founded by Floyd Wilson, a wildcatter who’d made a reputation for himself as a savvy operator. In the late nineties Wilson had sold a small exploration outfit he’d started in Kansas to Chesapeake Energy for $380 million, then turned around and formed 3Tec Energy, which he later unloaded to Plains Exploration for $443 million. After spending $60 million to start Petrohawk in 2004, he’d attacked the Haynesville Shale with bravado, famously leasing one billion dollars’ worth of land before drilling a single well.
At the Petrohawk offices, Robertson and geologist Jana Beeson examined seismic data to determine the thickest regions of the Eagle Ford. They sent landmen to county clerks’ offices to find out which ranches were available, then started looking for comparable wells to support their theory. Combing through old logs, they found only two, both of which had been drilled more than fifty years earlier. Dick Stoneburner, Petrohawk’s COO, wanted to see rock samples before he’d commit. “Good luck finding that,” Robertson thought. But miraculously, the cuttings from one of the wells still existed. They’d been stowed away since 1952 in a box at the Bureau of Economic Geology, at the University of Texas at Austin—row 57, bay H, shelf 4. The cuttings came back from the lab showing a high potential for oil and gas. When Stoneburner and Wilson saw the results, they set the project in motion.
“What’s your deal?” Wilson asked Robertson.
“You take ninety percent, and I’ll take ten percent,” he answered. For such a small player, 10 percent of the production costs was an enormous front-end gamble. One of the most significant oil deals in Texas history was then settled with a handshake.
But they had to keep it quiet. The Haynesville had made Petrohawk a known threat in the business. Anything they did would arouse suspicion now, so they stealthily began leasing land under Robertson’s company, First Rock, which his father had founded in the seventies. They approached owners of the biggest ranches in McMullen and La Salle counties and offered a lease price of $150 an acre. Not one of them countered, Robertson said. In fact, he’d heard a few of them laughing from the other room, taking him for a rube. Over the course of sixty days, Petrohawk quietly snatched up 155,000 acres. The first well came online at 265 barrels of liquid condensate, which was strong. Others would soon extract a light, sweet crude. Finally, on October 21, 2008, almost exactly five years ago (and just as the country’s financial meltdown was beginning), Petrohawk announced production levels on their first well. Within four days, the price of land across the region had nearly quadrupled, and, according to Robertson, “the whole world blew up.”
Since then, life in South Texas has been completely altered. A study released last March by the University of Texas at San Antonio’s Institute for Economic Development found that in 2012 the oil and gas industry generated $61 billion in economic impact across just twenty counties, while supporting 116,000 jobs. On the ground, there’s been an unprecedented surge of newcomers, money, and development. From Carrizo Springs to Hallettsville, populations are soaring, along with tax revenues and property values. The story of Cotulla, the impoverished, predominantly Hispanic town where Lyndon B. Johnson taught migrant children in the twenties, is particularly striking. Once described by Lady Bird Johnson as “one of the crummiest little towns in Texas,” Cotulla has seen its population more than triple in the past two years, to ten thousand people; no fewer than thirteen new hotels have opened. The school district—which remained a perennial charity case long after Johnson came and went—was so flush with cash last year that it was forced to return $17 million under the state’s Robin Hood provision, which redirects resources from rich districts to poor ones. Long on the receiving end of that system, Cotulla ISD now ranks as one of the wealthiest in Texas.
When the oil boom swept into Three Rivers and the surrounding areas, it came in familiar waves. First the landmen came in droves, sprawling across the tables and floors of the county clerks’ offices with their maps and wish lists, even spilling into the lobbies and hallways. The seismic teams then followed, to read the earth with their explosives and 3-D scanners to determine how deep the oil lived down in the shale. Next came the mid-level oil executives to eyeball the real estate and roads and the available hotel rooms and determine if the place would yield easily to the boom. Some did their best to warn the locals. At the Three Rivers Chamber of Commerce, Mike Pierson, who was the director at the time, remembered two ConocoPhillips men who stopped by one quiet afternoon, while he was helping to plan a bass fishing tournament.
“Do you have any idea what’s coming?” the men asked.
“I thought they were crazy,” Pierson said. “And so did everyone else.”
That is, until the overnight mail brought contracts that changed people’s lives faster than the hand of God. I heard a story in Three Rivers about an elderly rancher who walked into the bank, very pleased to be depositing a $100,000 signing-bonus check, only to be pulled aside by the teller. “Sir,” she told him. “This check’s for a million dollars.”
Once the farms and ranches had been bought and leased, another land rush began, one that touched the average person. Land—regardless of whether any carbons existed beneath its surface—would be needed to support the wells. You needed land to park the semis and store the stacks of pipe, to build hotels and storage tanks, and to erect the dun-colored steel buildings used by the myriad oil and service companies that swooped into town.
This is where Richard Dockery found his angle. It turned out that the man camps were only part of what he had going. For twenty years, he’d been selling real estate and insurance to most every rancher in Live Oak and McMullen counties. By the time the Eagle Ford hit, Richard was the only game in town. As land prices soared into the stratosphere, he began closing monstrous deals. As we drove down Highway 72, he pointed out some of the highlights. That strip right there with the buildings on it? “That’s fifty acres,” he said. “Five years ago, the guy couldn’t get twenty-five hundred dollars an acre for it. I convinced him to hang on to it. I just sold it to a trucking company for thirty-five thousand an acre. All fifty. Made the guy a millionaire.
“And over there,” he continued. “Eight acres. Sold it for fifteen thousand dollars an acre. Guy’s asking thirty-five for it now, and he’ll get it. Oh, and right there, see that storage tank? Sold that too.” And so on.
Whatever the town used to be, it was clear that its main purpose now was to sustain the industry that had swallowed it. This was the case with the Valero refinery, located in the heart of downtown. Just three years ago, it was such a marginal player among the company’s facilities that Valero had considered closing it. But with the Eagle Ford under heavy production, the refinery has become one of the company’s most valued. Before, about 90 percent of the oil it refined was purchased from foreign markets. These days, 90 percent comes straight out of the ground in South Texas.
Along the main drag, slapdash metal buildings butted against quaint storefronts, selling same-day drug testing and flame-retardant clothing at a premium markup. Two nightclubs had opened—to the dismay of many locals—including one with blackened windows where girls danced on the bar. Just a few weeks before, Richard said, some guys out of North Dakota called looking to open a strip club. Said they were making ten grand a night there in the Bakken Shale and could double that in the Eagle Ford. But Richard declined to help them, afraid of what the ladies in church might say. Other out-of-towners had already opened several new hotels (including the Eagle’s Nest Lodge, one of the hundreds of new businesses in South Texas that incorporated the word “Eagle” into their names). Developers were calling Richard every day looking for easy property and a quick return on their investment.
“Here’s when I knew things had really changed,” he said. “Had a guy come here to see me, hands me a business card with Chinese writing on it. He’s from New York, based outta Dallas, and he’s using Chinese hedge fund money. They wanna put in Marriotts, Wyndhams, Microtels. Let me tell you something: this world operates on OPM—that’s ‘other people’s money,’ amigo. And these days, they’re coming in all the time with cash and expecting to make it back in a year. And they do.”
We swung through the southeast side of town and stopped in front of the brand-new junior high and high school, built, of course, with oil money. The $11 million school featured terrazzo floors, a Valero-sponsored agriculture and vocational building, and a football field carpeted with the same lime-green turf used by the Dallas Cowboys.
Later Richard told me about two teachers who’d come into some oil money after their family’s land was sold. “Now, you tell me, if you were a young woman and you just got some money, what would you do with it?” he asked. “New car? Check. Caribbean vacation? Did that. Now they want to open a boutique. A boutique, in Three Rivers, Texas. Isn’t that fantastic? I mean, when that money rolls in, what are you gonna do with your life? What are you gonna do with yourself?”
It was a question Richard and his wife, Robin, had recently begun asking themselves. Years ago, Robin’s family sold its ranch near Three Rivers and divided the money between the siblings. Richard and Robin initially tucked their portion away for retirement, but then Richard spotted a piece of prime property, about eight hundred acres with highway and river frontage. It was too cheap to pass up, so he persuaded Robin to buy it using her inheritance. That decision had always bothered her—that is, until the Eagle Ford came along. In 2009 an oil company called wanting to lease the land, but they lowballed and Richard declined. Nine months later, the same company called back with the same price. Richard countered with three times what they were offering and got it. When the signing bonus arrived, he immediately turned around and bought more land.
To me, Richard captured the relentless opportunism of the oil patch. He wasn’t a big player, but he possessed a keen instinct for the small- and medium-sized deals that abound in any boom. He’d grown up in poverty outside Dallas and made his way with a mixture of luck, hard work, and plain savvy. In addition to the man camps, the real estate, and his own leases, he now had various stakes in oil and gas wells, pipelines, and even a few water wells; he was rehabbing an old shopping center for a rental property; and he also had a lucrative little title business going. Back in 2009, when the landmen were flooding into the clerks’ offices, Richard got an idea for how to make their work easier. He bought a few portable scanners and hired a college student to start copying the millions of pages of deeds, sales records, and plat maps. This project evolved into Tierra Title, a website offering county records online at $4 a pop. Not long after the site went live, an oil company called wanting an exclusive contract; now his electronic title business was growing faster than he could manage.
The water seemed to excite him the most. One of the things that he’d bought with his signing bonus was a small piece of property on the east side of town. He didn’t own any mineral rights to the land, but he could pump the water from the aquifer below and sell it to oil companies operating nearby frack wells. We ended our tour that day on a hillside, peering down into one of his man-made ponds. The bottom was lined in black plastic, giving the surface a crisp, gray sheen. Everything about the pond thrilled Richard. It wasn’t just the big ranchers and oil companies who were making the money, he explained. It was right here, all around us.
“Everything’s specialized,” he said. “This boom is like one giant square dance, and everyone’s got their own move. And everyone who shows up to the dance stands to make a killing.”
There was someone who specialized in laying down the plastic liner in the pond, which cost around $85,000. Someone else drilled the water well for $750,000. Someone else rented out the generators, while another company provided the pipe to the rig sites, and so forth. Heck, the woman who cleaned the company man’s trailer at the rig made five hundred bucks a visit. As for the pond, the rate for frack water was fifty cents a barrel, plus the oil company had to lease the land from Richard as well. “Even without minerals,” he said, “you can make one to two million just from selling water. Water!”
We walked down the hill to where a meter stuck up from the ground. Richard opened the cap and told me to look. Over the past week, about 220,000 barrels had been pumped from the Carrizo-Wilcox Aquifer, and the pond wasn’t even a third of the way full. Wow, I said, and at fifty cents a barrel!
Richard kissed two fingers, pointed to heaven, and said, “Makin’ money while I sleep, amigo. That’s mailbox money right there.”
Like any Brush Country landowner now sitting in the bull’s-eye of the boom, Richard wouldn’t disclose just how much money he was making. But judging from the numbers that slipped out whenever the fever took hold, I suspected he’d soon be a millionaire. This new reality seemed to put him in a philosophical mood. “This whole boom is a lesson in human behavior,” he said. “Money changes people, and it’s already changed people here. People’s expectations are much different now than they were before. So I wonder how it will change me. I’m sure it will. I’d like to say that it won’t be for the worse, but how can I know?”
During my visits to Three Rivers, I stayed in one of the man camps behind Richard’s house. Back in 2009 it had been one of the first in town. At that point, man camps were mostly unwelcome, considered as menacing as methadone clinics or homeless shelters. After Richard applied for the permits for his first camp, some of his neighbors crowded the city council chamber in protest. But with so little housing throughout the region, they soon became ubiquitous, and as with all things, they varied in size and quality. The low-end camps were full of RVs and FEMA trailers bought at a discount and arranged like tombstones on a caliche lot, perhaps with some Christmas lights to lessen the gloom. Their residents tended to be contract welders and pipeliners, independents without the flush per diems of the company men. The upscale camps could be very nice and were subject to a wildly competitive market. Although structurally confined to trailers, most offered executive suites, plus gourmet cuisine and amenities such as gyms and business centers.
The two camps behind Richard’s house were the upscale sort. I chose to stay in the one owned by an Austin company called Russell and Stott. The day-to-day operations firmly belonged to the camp boss, Sherrie Fuller, who’d spent more than thirty years managing man camps, mainly on offshore rigs. She had long brown hair, broad shoulders, and rode a Harley Wide Glide, which she parked out front. Her Sturgis Shovelhead was still up in Pennsylvania, where she’d last managed a camp, in the Marcellus Shale. She spoke with a heavy Louisiana accent and would get wistful about her days at sea—the “old oil field,” she called it, one less regulated and a lot more rugged. Once, after a dive boat accident, Sherrie had to store a dead body in her walk-in freezer until the crew turned over. And she’d survived Hurricane Katrina by surfing rooftops in Long Beach, Mississippi, after losing her own house in the Gulf. “Ask me,” she said, “I’d much rather ride out a hurricane on a tug.” Which she had. When I first arrived to interview some workers, Sherrie marched me into the dining hall and stopped at a table of men. She picked the biggest lug in the group and slapped the back of his head, then bent down to his ear. “Talk to this reporter and be nice,” she growled, “or else I’ll stab ya.” The men loved her, and so did I.
Most of the men worked on frack crews for Pioneer Natural Resources, an Irving-based company that was drilling on 230,000 acres throughout the region. Crews rotated each morning and evening at six, which is when I encountered them. They’d step off shuttle buses and file into the dining room, still wearing their smudged khaki coveralls, then quietly eat while televisions blasted Duck Dynasty and SportsCenter. Most nights, I’d fill my plate at the buffet table and ask to sit down with a group, then proceed with a litany of simple questions: How many gallons in a barrel again? The coil tubing does what? Is that explained on YouTube? As we chatted, I couldn’t help wondering if this would have been my life had we never left Big Spring and moved to San Antonio, where I ended up going to the artsy public high school that encouraged creative writing and set me on a less than profitable career path. Guys in the camp much younger than me were talking about pulling down $120,000 a year with just three years’ experience (and with no artsy high school diploma or a college degree).
From the vantage point of the man camp, I found the oil field to be a diverse place. The workers seated in the dining hall were black, white, Hispanic, from East and South Texas, from Louisiana and as far away as Kentucky. It felt much like the military, and in fact, Pioneer was among several big companies that were pursuing vets returning home from Iraq and Afghanistan. It wasn’t uncommon to see military-issue assault packs stacked by the door to the dining hall, still name-tagged and slung with hard hats. The regimented lifestyle and barracks atmosphere provided a softer landing into civilian life than most jobs. The oil field also offered a chance to live in remote corners of the world. One supervisor named Tony told stories about working rigs in the Northwest Territories, nothing but snow-blank tundra in every direction. “I lived in an eight-by-eight steel room with only a twin bed,” he told me. “It was the only place I ever dreaded getting off work.” As in the military, the tough schedule—seven days on and four days off—gave the men a shared experience of missing loved ones, being lonely, and feeling helpless when things went awry at home. They knew the important things, like whose kids were sick, but also the sordid secrets: whose wives were cheating and who among them had girls on the side.
“Oil field guys’ll try and screw anything,” said one man, who came from eastern Kentucky. “That’s why you never move your wife near the work site, no matter how lonely it gets.”
Prostitution and drugs follow every oil boom. In Three Rivers, the “lot lizards” worked the truck stop at night, darting between cabs to stay out of the lights. Some of the men, like the one from Kentucky, trolled for sex on Backpage.com, where they found girls from San Antonio and Victoria who were willing to travel for a trick. And during my weeks at the man camp, I stepped over more than one used condom in the parking lot. Speed and cocaine had always been easy to get down in South Texas and were especially popular now because they left the system quick enough to evade most drug tests. But I never encountered the stereotypical coke-snorting roughneck who lived out of his pickup—that stock character from the West Texas of my childhood. Rather, the oil field I saw reflected the modernized, corporate-sanitized industry as a whole, one where legal teams and OSHA had squeezed out the cocaine cowboys, just as technology and the towering cost of doing business had crowded out the wildcatters. The “old oil field” that occupied the memories of Sherrie and my father was now fading into folklore, where it would soon take its place alongside cattle drives and Comanche raids. The new reality was a dining hall filled with fat men in coveralls, grabbing handfuls of cookies to take back to their rooms, where they’d call wives, watch television, or surf Internet porn on the Wi-Fi before dropping off to sleep.
I spent most of my time in the Eagle Ford just driving. I would leave the man camp at night and head twenty miles east into Karnes County, where the new drilling was under way. I’d turn onto one of the county roads, oftentimes gravel, and plunge into total darkness as the farms and rangeland vanished beyond the headlights, and I’d go like this for miles until suddenly the sky lit up like a solar burst from gas flares spewing their blue and yellow flames. I’d pass them by and keep driving until I spotted more. After several hours, I’d head back to my trailer and sleep until five in the morning, when I’d awake to watch the raid on the convenience stores and truck stops. Before the first shift began, sullen men in coveralls and work boots formed lines that stretched to the door, buying their breakfasts of Red Bull and potato chips and then heading off to the rigs. I’d chat with the women behind the registers and discover that they lived in San Antonio, Laredo, or Del Rio and had ridden all morning on a bus to get to work. There weren’t enough people in the shale to fill all the jobs.
Driving these roads, with the boom so palpable around me, I began to wonder more and more how I could get a piece myself. The Eagle Ford was certainly maxed out already, but what about the Cline Shale, out near Big Spring? Geologists were saying that it could be even bigger than the Eagle Ford, and it was just now coming online. “This is my big chance,” I thought. So I got on the computer one night and started looking for real estate, only to discover that even out west I’d long missed the curve. The prices for small ranches and pastureland in the Permian Basin had already inflated in expectation of the growing boom, and I didn’t have that kind of cash. I was about to give up when I came across something I could afford. It was a parking lot off Interstate 20—cracked and weedy and only $7,000. It sure didn’t look like much, but I could imagine the phone calls I’d get about storing pipe, tankers, and trucks. I could even see a little RV camp, Christmas lights and all. In a year’s time, I’d triple my investment. In two years, who knows?
The parking lot became my little gold mine that I turned over in my head as I drove through the shale, dreaming about mailbox money. From Three Rivers, I would head west into McMullen County, where the cell network disappeared and the rangeland opened up. This is the land of truly giant ranches and very few people. There were only seven hundred in the county before the boom. During one visit to Tilden, the county seat, I met the sheriff, Bubba Shelton, who tried to explain to me what the town used to be like. Finally he threw on his cowboy hat and drove me to a cemetery to show me the tombstones of his ancestors, who had founded the town in 1858. Tilden was full of RVs and man camps now, and the county had swelled to at least five thousand people.
One of the towns I kept returning to was Cotulla. The boom had hit it particularly hard. On just a half-mile stretch of I-35, there was a new Hampton Inn, a La Quinta Inn, a Holiday Inn Express, a Comfort Inn and Suites, and a Petro Stay Inn. Keep going on the feeder road and you’d reach the newly built Eagle Ford Cabins and Eagle’s Den Suites, along the way passing Oil Field Road and Eagle Ford Lane. Farther down was a brand-new Flying J Travel Plaza, one of the biggest in America, that featured a Subway, two Cinnabons, and twelve kinds of pizza. At Uncle Moe’s Country Kitchen, where I often had my meals, it could take two hours to eat lunch just because of the crowds. In fact, it was in Cotulla where I first heard this line, common all over the shale: “I used to walk in a place and shake hands with everyone. Now I don’t know a soul.” One day at Moe’s I watched a burly roughneck corner one of the waitresses, who appeared startled. He then reached into his pocket, peeled three twenties off a roll, and stuck them in her hand. “I heard it was your birthday,” he said, and walked out the door.
Cotulla was mesmerizing to me, in part because of the stark before and after effect. When Lyndon Johnson taught at the segregated Mexican American Welhausen School, his students were among the poorest people he’d ever seen. He once told of watching a group of them dig grapefruit rinds from the garbage heap, shake off the coffee grounds, and suck the remaining juice. Some of his students’ families were migrants in the Winter Garden fields to the south. Others worked as laborers on the ranches that constituted the bedrock of the patrón system. Many of those giant spreads had been staked after the Texas Revolution and Mexican War, when mexicano ranchers were chased off and Anglos took over. At the turn of the century, Cotulla was one of the bloodiest towns in Texas, full of renegades, horse thieves, and outlaws. Three sheriffs were killed in shoot-outs, and railroad conductors would announce the stop by shouting, “Cotulla! Everybody get your guns ready.”
I would often drive there in the morning and sit in the old city park, where vaqueros once camped during cattle drives. One of the local men I got to know was Leodoro Martinez, who had served as both mayor and county judge. Like other Hispanics, he grew up in Cotulla’s barrio, along the east side of the railroad tracks. And like the other kids, he worked in the fields picking cantaloupe, spinach, and cotton. This was in the fifties, when white restaurants denied service to Hispanics unless they ate in the kitchen. Mexican American children still attended the Welhausen School, which had no cafeteria and limited teaching materials; only 20 percent of its students finished high school. Though the school was just down the street from Martinez’s house, his father forbade his children to go there, making them walk across town to Amanda Burks Elementary, the white school named after the queen of the cattle barons.
Like other South Texas towns, Cotulla was run for decades by Anglos, even though most of its population was Hispanic. That began to change in the late sixties, when the Chicano political movement La Raza Unida swept the Winter Garden region, starting in nearby Crystal City. In 1970 Cotulla elected its first Hispanic mayor, Alfredo Zamora. Six years later, Martinez was elected for the first of three terms. Hispanics finally had control of their town, but it was gutted by poverty and afforded little opportunity. During Martinez’s three terms as county judge in the eighties and nineties, many efforts were made to jolt the economy, such as building a tannery, a cotton gin, and a reservoir along the Nueces. Someone even tried turning Cotulla into a Western cowboy town for tourists. But for various reasons, all those efforts failed. A federal prison arrived in the eighties, but it couldn’t lift the town either. The barrio was still a heartbreak of gravel roads and wooden shacks. Drugs began pouring across the border, the cycles of welfare turned round and round, and to the rest of the state, Cotulla remained just a troublesome backwater.
Then the boom came. When it hit, the county courthouse was being renovated. So the landmen who came in to scoop up acreage did so in the temporary county offices, which happened to be housed in the old Welhausen School. It was a bit of cosmic justice not lost on Martinez, who’s currently the executive director of the Middle Rio Grande Development Council. Now in his mid-sixties and out of electoral politics, he also chairs the Eagle Ford Consortium, a kind of roving forum between industry and community leaders across the region. And in Cotulla, he was working alongside the current county judge, Joel Rodriguez, to make sure the city got as much as possible from the windfall.
The numbers are stunning: in Cotulla the sales tax receipts went from $400,000 in 2008 to $3 million in 2012. Over the same period, the property tax base increased from $52 million to $137 million—and for the county, it’s now at $4.7 billion. All tax revenues are being reinvested in new roads, police, annexation, and a brand-new sports complex, which will house softball facilities and a professional rodeo arena. This year Anadarko Petroleum completed its $100 million natural-gas processing plant nearby, and a refinery is being planned near the Gardendale Railroad terminal, where 28 miles of new track have been added to support the boom. The city also hired Larry Dovalina, the former Laredo city manager, to help with zoning and coordinate sustainable development. There’s now discussion with area community colleges to base a campus in Cotulla.
“This is our opportunity to bring ourselves to the standards that other parts of Texas see as normal: curbs and paved streets, the presence of the educational institutions—things that everyone else takes for granted,” Martinez told me. “It’s our time to reinvent ourselves.”
I saw this all over town. Just as the boom hit, Carlos Soto had left his job at a propane company after 25 years and gambled his savings on a modest mechanics shop on Main Street. Business was so steady that he’d since opened a taco stand next door, which had a line each morning. Housewives were capitalizing on the boom by washing workers’ clothes for as much as forty dollars a load. At the workforce center that Martinez ran, most everyone who came in left with a job; unemployment had sunk below 4 percent. So much work was available that down at the housing authority, over half of Nora Rodriguez’s clients had gone off public assistance for the first time. “Even if they don’t have a car, they’re washing clothes or selling food out of their kitchens,” she said.
Rodriguez added that the boom was having another, more surprising influence. Five of her friends had recently left their husbands for oil field workers. “I asked one of them why she left,” Rodriguez said. “And she told me, ‘I was just sick of him being so boring.’ ”
It was easy to get caught up in the boom and its happy stories. But I knew that in every boom there are also losers. Back in Three Rivers, the local paper reported that the cost of rent in Live Oak County had increased by nearly 300 percent. Housing was a problem everywhere, as landlords jacked up their prices. I went to see the local police chief, Vance Roberts, one day to discuss crime stats and ended up talking about his many properties. Like Richard, he’d sensed the boom coming and struck early, building an RV park that he sold to a Houston developer for twice what he’d originally paid for the site. He then snatched up eight rental houses, which he now leased to out-of-state pipeliners for as much as $900 a week (“I like to call them my mini oil wells,” he said, beaming, although he stressed he had not raised rents on houses in which families were already living). His captain, Jesus Rodriguez, also had some properties. The two men were making so much money on rent houses that they’d felt compelled to donate a sprinkler system to the city park out of their own pockets.
Nowhere was the housing crunch so clearly on display than Tips Park, which sat on the edge of downtown, near a ravine, and had become a makeshift encampment. I first visited there with Roberts, who pointed out some tents that had taken a real beating during a recent flash flood. A few of them belonged to some construction guys, Roberts said. “But that one there,” he added, pointing to another, “that’s a woman and her kids. Just breaks my heart to see that.”
Later, I returned on my own and found it was true. Her name was Tanya Mendez, and she was living in a tent with her husband and two children, ages twelve and fifteen. She was thirtysomething, with brown hair, and looked as if she hadn’t slept in a month. Mendez was born and raised in Three Rivers but had been living in Luling when a job opened up at the new Valero store, one that paid $12 an hour with benefits and started right away. So she packed up her family and returned to her hometown, only to discover she couldn’t afford it anymore. Right away she missed out on a two-bedroom apartment because five other people offered more money. “I’ll see something for rent and call immediately,” she said. “But the first thing out of their mouth is ‘Are y’all crew members?’ When I tell them no, they basically hang up the phone.”
She added that some of the landlords who turned her down were people she’d known her whole life, and it reminded me of another conversation I’d had in town: “When this boom is over, and it will be over,” a woman had said, “people are gonna remember how their neighbors behaved.”
Mendez had no family left in Three Rivers or friends with whom she felt comfortable crashing. So she and her husband had bought the biggest tent they could find, and for three months they’d been living in Tips Park. They paid the city $150 a month, and that included water, electricity, and access to the showers and toilets. At the back of the tent, her husband had cut a large hole and inserted an old AC window unit. Mendez kept a hot plate inside for cooking meals. At first it felt like camping, but the novelty quickly wore off. The previous week, their only car had broken down, and Mendez had had to scramble to bum rides to work. They’d survived the flash flood by moving to higher ground, but the heavy rain damaged the tent. It now sagged to one side and collapsed in the wind. “That night,” she said, “I used all our clothes to clean up the water and mud.” Several weeks after I met Mendez, someone went into their tent and stole everything they owned.
There were others for whom the boom did not bring good fortune. For the elderly, sick, and disabled who subsisted on fixed incomes, the rising cost of life in a boomtown was prohibitive. Across the region, gas and groceries were more expensive, lines were longer, and trucks chewed up the roads and turned simple outings into games of roulette. The driver’s ed teacher in Three Rivers told me that his students were having panic attacks on the highway. “I see those kids just tighten up,” he said. “It’s life or death out there.” One afternoon in Tilden, I watched a service truck run over a dog—but not quite kill it. When the driver jumped out to try to do something, the dog snarled at him, then dragged itself into some bushes. The driver made a kind of helpless gesture at the blare of horns behind him, then got back into his truck and drove away.
In Karnes City, I spent several days with Mike and Myra Cerny, whose quiet country life had been upended a year earlier when a ring of drilling rigs and gas flares surrounded their home. Their teenage son started to get nosebleeds. Sinkholes appeared in their yard and a tree died. Soon they all got migraines and skin rashes and needed inhalers to help them breathe. Large knots covered Mike’s arms and hands, his joints flared with pain, and he could no longer work. Then the state discovered that Marathon Oil was venting enormous amounts of benzene and other toxic chemicals from a storage facility a mile down the road, so much that an inspector had had to flee the site, according to her report. Yet remarkably, no penalties were issued. Meanwhile, the Cernys’ symptoms continued and the inspectors stopped returning calls. “We’re trapped in our own home, and it’s slowly killing us,” said Mike, who has filed a lawsuit against Marathon so the family can afford to move. “All we’re asking is to get the hell out.”
In Three Rivers I also began to notice another shift taking place. In May the chamber of commerce announced that it was canceling the Salsa Festival—an annual tradition for the past fourteen years—because of a lack of volunteers. Around that time, the Little Acorn Study Club also announced it would disband. It was the oldest ladies’ organization in town, founded in 1938, and for decades had raised money for the public library, college scholarships, and the general betterment of the community. But over the past several years, members had either passed away or gotten too old to participate. The younger generation had shown little interest. “People are just too busy, I guess,” said Norma Newport, who was president. In Three Rivers the traditional way of life was gradually dying and something loud and wholly unrecognizable was rolling in to take its place.
“They’ve ruined it all,” an old man said to me in the coffee shop. On that particular morning, a few of us had been discussing the boom and the traffic and the big front-page story: the largest-known alligator in the state of Texas had been hunted and killed on nearby Choke Canyon Reservoir. Eight hundred pounds and fourteen feet long, the story said, and perhaps fifty years old—meaning it was roaming the Frio before the lake was even built. A half-page photo showed it swinging dead from a chain, killed by some grinning kid from Houston. The old man shook his head and said it again. “They’ve ruined it all.”
The last time I saw Richard, I found him on the phone at his office trying to chase down some money. He waved me inside. On the line was a pipeline company that owed him a bonus check, now three months late. He’d been after them all morning. “I understand,” he said into the phone. “I realize you’ve been acquired. But that don’t mean you stop paying your bills . . .”
The phone call seemed to energize him. When he hung up, he threw his hands in the air and gave his usual greeting: “Hey! Just another day in paradise, right?” And then, “You ready to go?”
“Yeah,” I said. After weeks of my asking him to, Richard was finally taking me to see his oil wells. “You’re driving,” he said.
We drove out to McMullen County and pulled onto a gated road. Just over a bridge was one of his frack ponds. This one was completely full—400,000 barrels of precious Texas drinking water, sacrificed for the greater cause. It was servicing an oil well that was being drilled across the road, Richard said, in which he and Robin had a stake.
“There’s a pool,” he said, “with multiple owners. They’re gonna drill nine wells, and we’ll have half of one percent of each one. But when a well does over a million a year and you’re getting half of one percent times nine—think that through! It’s nuts! Don’t you think that’s nuts?”
It was nuts, I agreed. “So what do you plan to do with these water tanks?” I asked. “You know, once the boom is over?”
“Tilapia!” he exclaimed and headed back to the truck.
On the way to the next well, we stopped to eat lunch at a new barbecue place on the interstate. It was loud and full of workers. Richard started talking about his daughter Rachel, who’d just graduated from Texas A&M and was headed to medical school.
“She’ll probably be able to graduate from med school debt free,” he said, cutting into a piece of chicken. “That’s a pretty incredible thing to give your child.”
Back on the road, Richard told me to pull over at another gate. On the other side was a giant pad site plowed square into the mesquite. In the center, a little cluster of green pipes snaked out of the ground. It was about as impressive as a fire hydrant. “This is what started it all,” Richard said. We were standing on his original eight hundred acres. The first well. “And they’re about to drill three more,” he added.
The oil company had just sent the production report. Richard pulled out his iPhone and started running down the numbers again. “This is what’s exciting,” he said, and began adding the four wells, plus the nine he’d mentioned before, times the number of barrels per day, times the price of oil . . . I could no longer keep up. It amounted to a lot of money in a short amount of time, enough to send his daughter to medical school, enough to retire without worry, enough to keep chasing the boom.
As we drove back to town, Richard told me he was thinking about going to West Texas to try his luck in the Cline. “Sterling City, baby,” he said—the same land of promise where my family had chased its fortune down, but with a much different set of wheels.
A few weeks before, Richard had invited Dad down to Three Rivers to take in the action. “He can make a lot of money down here,” he’d told me. Although Dad had quit the oil business forever, something kept pulling at him. In fact, he was so curious that he’d even developed a secret fantasy: what if he could get hired on with one of these oil companies, maybe work some land deals for ’em? Think of the money I could make! So Dad drove down and got the grand tour from his friend. He saw the rigs by the highway, felt the excitement in the gas stations and restaurants, and smelled once again that money on the breeze. But it did nothing for him. That evening, he drove back home, then got up the next morning and went to work, a singular truth ringing in his mind: one day that price will drop.
Richard seemed puzzled by this. It was enough to inspire one of his long philosophical musings, this one on the merits of sticking your neck out. “You just can’t be afraid to take risks,” he said. And although he wasn’t talking about Dad anymore, the thought still made me laugh. At 26 years old, with three kids and a wife, Dad had taken one of the biggest gambles around. He’d quit the chemical plant and moved his family to the oil patch, risking everything for a chance to make his million. Not long after he left, the plant was bought out. Everyone on staff received tens of thousands in stock, enough for Dad’s brother to start his own construction company. But Dad had made his bet, and unlike Richard, Gregg Robertson, Floyd Wilson, and the rest of them, his ultimately came up short.
“That’s the oil business,” Dad would say, often with a shrug. “Yessir, that’s the oil business.”
I thought of this now as I said goodbye to Richard and headed out of Three Rivers, past the crowded restaurants, the trucks stacked at the red lights, and the rigs along the highway. I rolled the windows down. I wanted to take in that smell one last time. Just like my father and grandfather, I’d put myself up against the boom, and I’d come away with a new understanding. Unlike them, I wasn’t willing to risk everything for that slim promise of fortune, yet I knew why they had. I turned my wheels north and headed home, but in the back of my mind, I was still thinking about that parking lot.
Bryan Mealer is an author who lives in Austin. His latest book is Muck City: Winning and Losing in Football’s Forgotten Town.