Production of “oil” from the Eagle Ford Shale has now passed one million barrels per day (1 barrel is 159 litres). During the next three years we can expect to see production increase further. Every month, all oil and gas producers in Texas (including producers of conventional oil and gas) must report their production to the Railroad Commission of Texas, RRC. RRC has stated that the Eagle Ford’s average total production per day from January to August 2013 was 636,343 barrels of oil and 176,748 barrels of NGL (natural gas liquids). This means that NGL is 22% of what is discussed as total oil production for Eagle Ford, which is a decrease from last year when it was 28%. The new wells this year must therefore be producing a larger proportion of oil.
The Eagle Ford is a well known geological sedimentary formation that is approximately 90 million years old. The formation slopes downward somewhat. It is exposed west of Dallas but then is found deeper and deeper towards the southeast. It stretches from Louisiana in the east to – and even past – the Mexican border. Oil-bearing sedimentary layers must have a marine origin. That means that the Eagle Ford formation marks the coastline of 90 million years ago. The deeper the formation lies the hotter is the rock and when the temperature reaches 100 degrees Celsius (~200 Fahrenheit) the biological material becomes converted into oil. At the level where the temperature reaches 150 C (~300 F) the organic material breaks down to natural gas and between these levels we see formation of condensate, NGL – Natural Gas Liquid. Above Eagle Ford is another sedimentary layer named the Austin Chalk. Oil and gas that has migrated out of Eagle Ford has collected in the Austin Chalk and has contributed to earlier conventional production in Texas. The various regions for oil, condensate and natural gas production have been described by the USA’s Energy Information Administration (see the figure).
In total there are 24 counties that are reporting production from Eagle Ford. In these, 4476 oil wells and 2193 gas wells were reported on 1 October. RRT also reported that there were 5225 permits to drill new wells. Many of those permits may already be being utilised.
During my visit in Texas I will try to collect material for a documentary film on oil in Texas. One of the reasons for visiting Eagle Ford was to film as much as possible to do with fracking. On Saturday we travelled from Austin on HW183 south to Gonzales in the eastern part of the Eagle Ford where the intensive fracking begins. Gonzales is also interesting from a historical perspective since it was here that the Texas Revolution began in 1835 with a conflict over a cannon (Gonzales, Texas). We were able to examine the famous cannon while there.
Before we arrived in Gonzales we passed a number of oil rusty pumps, remains of the old oil production in Texas. That oil was in the Austin Chalk. The old pumps in Texas still produce, on average, 6 barrels per day. Along the way there was also an old spare parts storage that looked more like a scrap yard.
From Gonzales we drove along HW72 to Three Rivers and despite the fact that, according to the RRC there should be many wells there, we could not see many from the road. All the areas were fenced off so we had to satisfy ourselves with what was visible from the public roads. We stopped at the first place where we saw activity and to my surprise it turned out to be Norway’s Statoil that was there drilling. As a joke we asked the guard if we could get in but, of course, the answer was no. He said that they currently had only one rig drilling but he believed there were four sites where activity was underway. We travelled a few hundred metres farther and saw the drilling platform.
Three Rivers had 1848 inhabitants and lived a quite rural life before 2008 when fracking began in earnest. Now Three Rivers is a Boomtown where everything has changed. When we approached the town along HW72 we saw parking areas for trucks (fracking site in the background), new areas with “Man Camps” (trailer park cities) and more.
At one of the town’s three sets of traffic lights a line of trucks was waiting with the necessary material to produce fracking fluid (see the image). The first had fine sand, the second water and the third had chemicals (or water) for the mix. It was great to be able to capture an image of them all at one traffic light. The goal of the evening’s filming was to capture some of the flaring off of gas that lights up the night sky in Eagle Ford and we succeeded with that!
To capture the greatest activity we realised that we need to be there on a weekday and that we should return on Monday. After the successful filming of the flares we travelled down to the coast and to Corpus Christi, an old oil Boomtown, where we were able to film the oil refineries there.
On Monday coming back to Three Rivers we also filmed the refinery there. Some years ago they had discussed closing down this refineries but now they are experiencing a second wind of activity due to all the oil from Eagle Ford. As we were filming a policeman approached us and wondered what we were doing. He accepted my explanation and said it was quite OK. I took the chance to ask where we could travel to see intensive activity and he was very friendly and explained that we should travel on HW37 in the direction to San Antonio and then turn east onto road 99.
We did as he advised and really found what we were looking for. Along the road there are mainly two companies active. They are Pioneer Natural Resources and Marathon Oil. (Marathon Oil has a very good illustration of fracking on its homepage.) Pioneer had chosen to paint its pumps bright yellow while Marathon had chosen a grey-green camouflage colour.
The types of vehicles that had waited calmly for green lights in Three Rivers now drove very fast on the narrow roads. The dust swirled and we tried to keep our car away from them. Farther along the road some of the vehicles slowed and drove into an area full of activity. With the zoom on the camera we could capture some of it. We drove to the gate and, naturally, were not able to drive in and film but we could do so from the gate itself. It was Marathon Oil that was fracking and the vehicle that drove in was bearing sand. It was a wonderful experience to see this activity on the Eagle Ford.
We left the Eagle Ford with mixed feelings. I had expected that all the thousands of wells would have affected the landscape more than they did. Thousands of wind turbines would be far more visible. Having said that, I don’t want to say that a thousand oil pumps is preferable to a thousand wind turbines. However, being on the ground to study and experience the fracking activity is important when one wants to participate in the debate over our future energy supply.
On the way back to Austin we passed San Antonio during rush hour and having now experienced the intensive traffic of semi-trailer trucks and large cars I can only say that alternative vehicle fuels are still a long way off. Peak Oil, the maximum flow rate of oil production, will force changes.