In our final episode, we explore the rugged Big Bend region of far West Texas. Wildcatters have poked around for oil and gas in this area before. But the record-breaking production in the Permian Basin has pushed oil and gas companies to explore areas farther out. This has brought the boom to the Big Bend’s doorstep for the first time. And plenty of people are grappling with how to responsibly develop the region’s resources, make a living, and keep the beauty of the Big Bend intact.
Craig Carter is one of them. We visit his ranch, south of Marathon, in the heart of the Big Bend country. Craig was raised in the national park. He spent his youth exploring on horseback and visiting the little-known oases spread across the Chihuahuan Desert. As a young man, Craig worked on the family’s dude ranch and as a touring musician. Today, Craig is an animal coordinator on Hollywood productions all over the country. He’s worked on films ranging from the remakes of The Alamo and The Magnificent Seven to No Country for Old Men. It’s a good job, but last year he was gone for seven months, working on sets in Virginia and elsewhere. That’s a lot of time away from his wife and daughter and the ranch he and his father worked hard to buy, but it’s a sacrifice he’s willing to make to provide for his family and keep the land intact.
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Craig’s situation is not uncommon in this remote corner of West Texas. It’s hard to make a living off this arid land. Most folks have to get creative in order to survive. Many ranchers have turned to ecotourism and hunting. Several years ago, Craig was approached by an oil company looking to develop some leases on his property. Though he wasn’t thrilled by the prospect—he has nothing against the industry; he’d just rather keep the place untouched, as it is now—the amount they were offering would have been a significant financial windfall for his family. Ultimately, the deal fell through. But with the expansion of energy development in the region, Craig and his neighbors know that they’ll likely be approached again. That’s why he was happy to join a group called Respect Big Bend.
The Respect Big Bend Coalition started last year to help landowners navigate these difficult decisions, providing them with scientific research and legal support to help them make informed choices when energy companies come calling. Funded by the Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation, the initiative aims to create a dialogue between scientists, lawyers, community members, landowners, and energy industry representatives. Marilu Hastings, the foundation’s vice president of sustainability programs, conceived the idea.
Born in Midland, Marilu has deep ties to West Texas. She spent her honeymoon in Big Bend National Park and named her daughter, Elena, after the sheer limestone canyon that flanks the Rio Grande on the park’s west side. She’s also spent 24 years working for the Mitchell family, whose fortune was made by oil and gas. It was George Mitchell’s company that innovated fracking and helped ignite the U.S. shale boom. The development of this technology along with horizontal drilling is what has enticed companies to develop fields beyond the Permian Basin that had never really been profitable before.
Since the boom, major oil and gas infrastructure has been developed south of Fort Stockton and around the small town of Balmorhea. Helio’s Energy Limited, an Australian oil company, recently began drilling in places deep within the Trans-Pecos region. And it’s not just oil and gas that are moving into the area. Utility-scale solar fields and wind farms are either being planned or in the process of being built across West Texas. Over the past several years, foreign-owned firms have acquired thousands of acres around the Pecos and Devils River, where they’ve planted some seventy wind turbines and are expected to add more. Meanwhile, biologists are concerned that huge solar facilities could be devastating for the fragile ecosystem of the Chihuahuan Desert, which is considered one of the most biodiverse regions in the Western Hemisphere.
For Marilu, who is attuned to the economic and social benefits of the energy industry but also desperately wants to protect the region, this is a complicated challenge. She says that Respect Big Bend is not seeking any specific outcomes, nor are they trying to stop energy sprawl completely. The decision about what to do with the land rests with each individual landowner. Still, Marilu hopes that whatever development comes is done carefully and thoughtfully—and that the mistakes that have been made in the boom-and-bust Permian Basin aren’t repeated in the Big Bend.
These are the challenges that Coyne Gibson knows well. He lives and works at a research facility in the Davis Mountains. From his vantage point, he has watched the march of flares move south toward Balmorhea. Like Marilu, Coyne was born in Midland. As a young man, he became the fourth generation of his family to work in the oil and gas industry. But today, Coyne works in science, and he’s grown deeply concerned about the climate impacts of the fossil fuel industry. He moved to this region, in part, because of the dark, velvety night sky. From August 2015 to November 2018, he measured a 40 percent increase in sky brightness. He says that now when you look to the north at night, it looks like sunrise.
For now, there’s a marked difference between the industrialized Permian Basin and the pristine Big Bend. Whether that remains true, we’ll have to wait and see.
Before signing off with this final episode, I returned once more to the Permian Basin, to my hometown of Andrews. There I spoke with two longtime natives of the patch: my parents, Julia and Scott Wallace. For them and others who call the Permian home, oil is part of their everyday reality: pumpjacks, flares, pulling units, drilling rigs, tank batteries, and dusty lease roads. Sitting at my parents’ kitchen table, I was once again reminded that, when we talk about the future of energy, we’re not just talking about the climate, the economy, or geopolitics. Those are abstract concepts. What we’re actually talking about is people, the men and women of Boomtown.