Standing on his front porch with his 2-year-old son held tight in his arms, Stephen Sasser squints through blinding sunlight toward a drilling rig a couple hundred feet from his home.
“It’s been out here two months so far,” said Sasser, his voice raised to be heard over the rig. The machinery sounds like roaring mastodons in the background. “It needs to be further away.”
The rig towers over cattle grazing on wavy strands of yellow grass. Black smoke billows from diesel engines. A steady stream of traffic hums in the distance on U.S. 380.
“At night I can’t sleep,” Sasser said. “I only get a few hours of sleep per night.”
He said the noise is so loud it sometimes rattles the windows and knocks items off the shelves and walls of his home. The smells have also proved problematic.
“You can hear the noise; you can see the smoke. About every five minutes there’s a cloud of smoke,” he said. “I’d like to have the windows open, but the diesel smell is too strong. The smoke blows in the house.”
The 30-year-old Sasser served six years in the Marines. He just completed his training in the police academy and is searching for a local law enforcement job. After devoting most of his adult life to the security of his nation, the nearby rig has him worried about the safety of his family.
He said workers leave trash along the gravel county road separating his mobile home and the rig. He had to spend nearly $1,000 on a fence to keep men working at the drilling site from coming onto and driving onto his property.
“I had to put it up for family security,” he said. “I have trouble sleeping at night worried that someone could come over here.”
When the rig moved in, a representative from the company let him know what was happening. He said despite the problems, they have been cooperative on some issues. They laid down some fresh gravel in his drive after trucks dug ruts into it.
“I understand they are doing a job,” Sasser said. “But the reason me and my wife moved out here was to get away from all this stuff.”
Sasser’s family is trapped in the middle of an ongoing debate. The development of the Barnett Shale has created a billion-dollar industry in North Texas. But in recent years, it’s also raised a plethora of environmental concerns for residents living in the immediate vicinity of gas production sites. Voices and groups on both sides have risen in volume as the debate has continued.
A stirring in the shale
The Barnett Shale boom began in Wise County. In the early 1980s, local businessman George Mitchell sparked an innovation that changed the landscape of energy production in North Texas and around the world.
“The first wells drilled into the Barnett Shale were drilled in Wise County,” said Ed Ireland, executive director of the Barnett Shale Energy Education Council (BSEEC). “They were drilled by George Mitchell.”
The BSEEC, a non-profit organization, is housed in the seventh floor of the Fort Worth Club Building. The high-rises of Cowtown tower outside large, spotless glass windows. The din of traffic rises up from shadowed streets.
The BSEEC was created almost four years ago. It is primarily funded by the seven largest gas producing companies in the Barnett Shale. Ireland, a former economics professor, has a long history working for the oil and gas industry.
Fort Worth has seen its economy shift drastically from cattle to fossil fuels. Wise County has similarly seen dairies disappear from the blue and green horizons, replaced by compressor stations and condensation tanks.
Mitchell built his large plant off U.S. 380, just west of Bridgeport, at the same time that traditional sources of natural gas were being depleted in the region. He needed more gas to run his new plant. He knew natural gas was trapped in the shale. Wells had gone through the shale and into standard pockets of natural gas. But no one knew how to release the natural gas from the rocky confines of the shale.
So Mitchell gave an order to his engineers. Pressure led to innovation.
“He drilled into the Barnett Shale and stopped,” Ireland said. “He instructed his engineers to figure out how to get gas out of the shale. He told his engineers to find out how to get the gas out of the rock.
“They tried various fracturing techniques … They ended up trying water, and that worked,” he said. “That’s why we refer to it as hydraulic fracturing. It opened up the technique of getting natural gas out of shales. Everywhere there are natural gas deposits there are shales, but the technique to get the gas out wasn’t developed until George Mitchell.”
In recent years, gas development in the county has resulted in record numbers of tax dollars collected by local government entities. New hotels to provide for gas field workers have popped up on the prairies in Wise County like mesquite trees.
“It’s had a tremendous impact on North Texas,” Ireland said. “It’s resulted in billions of dollars of economic stimulus for the area. Lots of mineral rights owners have gotten checks in the mail.”
Searching for compensation
Sharon Wilson, of Greenwood, stands in front of a screeching drilling rig about 600 feet from her property line. As a landowner and mineral rights owner, she looked forward to getting those checks in the mail.
“I wanted to lease my mineral rights and become the next Barnett Shale millionaire,” Wilson said. “So I started researching how to get the best deal for my minerals.”
The more she learned about the possible environmental impact of gas production, the more concerned she got. She now operates a blog called Blue Daze, which has become the go-to for information concerning drilling and fracturing in the Barnett Shale.
“It’s upsetting to me how the industry is so unregulated here in Texas,” Wilson said.
The Texas Railroad Commission (TRC) monitors drilling operations into the shale. Both Ireland and Wilson agree the commission is tremendously understaffed.
“We only have 83 field inspectors,” Wilson said. “Each one is responsible for about 3,300 wells to inspect. A recent audit found that a lot of wells hadn’t been inspected in five years.”
“There have been discussions that they (TRC) don’t have enough (inspectors) and that’s probably true,” Ireland said. “I think in the next Texas legislature that will probably be reviewed. There might be a budget change so the (TRC) can have more inspectors.
“I think that would be a good thing,” she said. “The industry agrees that having more inspectors would help promote the public trust.”
Despite owning mineral rights and receiving monthly checks in the mail, she wants to see serious changes to how the industry is regulated.
“I used to hear nothing but birds and natural sounds,” she said. “Now I hear a compressor … I would give up my royalties, gladly, if we could give it up. I don’t want to profit off another person’s expense.
“They call natural gas a clean energy, but it’s a very dirty extraction process. We’re damaging what our children inherit. The water usage to extract natural gas is not sustainable.”
Just like Sasser helped secure freedom by fighting abroad, Ireland feels reducing dependence on foreign sources of oil is vital to our national security.
“Natural gas has the potential to reduce our import of foreign oil,” Ireland said. “We currently import 70 percent of our petroleum. And a lot of that is from countries that aren’t necessarily friendly toward the United States.”
Ireland doesn’t see production in the Shale ending anytime soon.
“The Barnett Shale is only half drilled up,” Ireland said. “There will be more drilling because in the scheme of things it’s only just begun.”
Since more drilling seems inevitable, Wilson wants to see the industry adopt the plans of “Drill-Right Texas,” a comprehensive clean drilling plan developed by the non-profit Texas Oil and Gas Accountability Project.
As the debate rages in town halls and the state legislature, families like the Sassers continue to be stuck in the middle.