“Water, water, every where,
And all the boards did shrink;
Water, water, every where,
Nor any drop to drink.”
– Samuel Taylor Coleridge, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”
A waning crescent moon hangs like a paper boat in the sky. From a hilltop in Decatur the plain below spreads from midnight blue to plum purple until sinking into a level horizon. Light from houses appears on the dark land like water reflecting stars overhead. And scattered across the flat fields, drilling rigs continue to rise into the night like miniature Eiffel Towers.
The Barnett Shale is in a stretch of both good and bad reports. The bad news is the active rig count in the shale reached its lowest number since the boom began a decade ago. Last month only 27 active rigs rose above the prairie. This is down from 182 at one time in 2008.
The good news is Wise County remains the heart of the boom. Ten of those 27 active rigs were in Wise County, with Devon the most active producer. This is due to the liquid-rich natural gas pockets in Wise County. While most regions of the Barnett yield dry gas, or methane, pockets in Wise County are considered “liquid rich” – which means they contain a host of other hydrocarbons used in all types of industries.
While natural gas prices continue to scrape the bottom, the value of the natural gas liquids keeps Wise County an active player while the rest of the Barnett has gone dry, so to speak.
It’s fitting Wise remains on top in terms of production. The venerable George P. Mitchell perfected the technique of combining horizontal drilling with hydraulic fracturing to free gas from the black rock deep below the rolling prairies right here in Wise County. The contributions of tens of millions of dead organisms, eons ago, transformed into jobs and revenue once Mitchell figured out how to free the trapped fossil fuel.
I got the opportunity to speak to the 93-year-old innovator late last year. His technique that changed the world was as much about determination and luck as anything.
“North Texas was an intriguing prospect,” he said. “We bought 400,000 acres (of mineral rights) for $3 an acre. Everybody thought the area was played out. We drilled a well into the Boonsville Field in Wise County, and it turned into a good well.”
His engineers at Mitchell Energy figured out how to crack the shale – and the rest is both history and the future.
A study released last week by the Bureau of Economic Geology and researchers at University of Texas at Austin predicted the Barnett will continue to be a major provider of natural gas through the year 2030. With about 15,000 gas wells right now, another 13,000 are expected to puncture the shale over the next 17 years.
And though we reap local benefits in job creation and mineral tax revenue for schools and government, why aren’t we taking advantage of the natural gas itself? For example, we could be driving more automobiles run with natural gas since it’s so cheap right now while the high cost of unleaded gasoline continues to punish struggling families.
The average cost for a gallon of compressed natural gas (CNG) as of Monday was $2.11. It was as cheap as 80 cents in some places.
Most major automobile manufacturers make cars that run on CNG. But there’s not enough infrastructure yet to make them a viable option for many drivers.
There are no CNG stations in Wise County, but about a several have popped up across the Metroplex in the past few years. Several have prices below the national average. At a CNG station in Garland it goes for $1.99/gallon, a station on Pipeline Road in Cleburne sells it for $1.89/gallon and the closest CNG station, located at Mark IV Parkway in Fort Worth, sells for $2.10/gallon.
Most of the natural gas produced here gets piped to far-flung regions of the map. It heats homes from Kansas to Chicago and burns on stovetops across the upper Midwest.
In addition to fueling vehicles, it could also fuel more local power plants. Combined with renewables, Wise County should be completely energy independent. Energy windmills casting spinning shadows alongside humming condensate tanks. Solar cells spread across the land surrounding bobbing horse heads. Wise County could come close to self-sufficiency in all types of energy production. We need to make the best of the wealth around us now because 2030 will be here sooner than we think.
And before we know it, there won’t be a drop to drink.
Brandon Evans is a Messenger reporter.