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Panel discusses boom's community impact

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Posted: Wednesday, August 14, 2013 10:45 am

If you live here, Tuesday night’s forum about the community impact of the oil boom broke little new ground.

What it did do was take a handful of knowledgeable officials and had them distill a variety of issues for a statewide audience, including scarce water, overloaded roadways, a housing crisis and other forms of municipal strain.

StateImpact Texas, a project of  KUT Austin and KUHF Houston that focuses on environmental and energy issues, hosted the panel, along with KXWT West Texas Public Radio. The event, called “Drilling Down: How Oil and Gas Exploration is Affecting Our Land Water and Community,” marked the first of an occasional serious of similar events around the state. It was held at the University of Texas of the Permian Basin.

The panelists were Kirk Edwards, President of Las Colinas Energy Partners; Libby Campbell, Executive Director of the West Texas Food Bank; Gil Van Deventer, Senior Hydrologist at Trident Environmental; W. Hoxie Smith, director of Midland College’s Petroleum Professional Development Center; and Paul Weatherby, District Manager for the Middle Pecos Groundwater District in Fort Stockton. StateImpact’s Terrence Henry moderated.

“We’re past the I-35 corridor and that applies to everything we are going to talk about tonight,” Edwards said, in this case addressing both housing and a lack of state funding for road infrastructure. Others including Weatherby also referred to this “I-35 syndrome.”

Some key takeaways beyond the tremendous economic fruits the area has seen:

  • Water The subject drew much of the panel’s time and attention. Weatherby pointed to two aspects of the water issue: availability and quality. There’s a dearth of ground water districts in the Permian Basin, apart from those in Stanton and Pecos and one coming to Reeves. Where Odessa and Midland lie at the bottom the Ogallala Aquifer is strained. And the oilfield uses a lot, up to 6 million gallons per well. The industry uses some 4.5 percent of the state’s water, which Edwards cited in arguing how the entire state should take a look at usage from high-usage groups like corn farmers and golf courses. Henry pointed out oil operations remove water from the hydrologic system by making it waste. Still, the panelists pointed to encouraging innovation such as water recycling and use of brackish water for hydraulic fracturing. “We just need to look ahead,” Van Deventer said, “and plan better.”
  • Traffic Panelists discussed the troubling rate of fatal accidents; the impact oilfield trucking has on area roadways; and the reticence of state lawmakers to fund infrastructure improvement, particularly from the $12 billion Rainey Day Fund filled with oilfield monies. Locally, the panelists noted how Midland roads will get all $38 million of the money given to the area, leaving out areas like Odessa and Crane. There was some discussion of a more concerted lobby effort, but also an acknowledgement these problems would likely continue.   
  • Electricity Edwards called this a looming crisis. Simply put, there is not enough electricity infrastructure coupled with heavy usage by the oilfield.
  • Housing Man-camps prop up to address the need, as do trailers in county lots. The apartments remain private and Edwards said “They’re just jackin’ ‘em up as quick as they can right now to do whatever they can to make as much money as possible.” Henry characterized the issue as one other cities face, just not with such escalation. There are no price controls, and no one on the panel knew whether that was possible.
  • Services Both police departments and school districts struggle to recruit and retain employees. As Smith noted, Midland schools start in about two weeks with 100 vacant positions. Edwards recalled a friend in the Department of Public Safety who left for an oilfield job — “He’s young, he can drug test and he doesn’t have to get shot at.” The difficulty finding employees for non-oilfield jobs extends from hospitals to restaurants, and while panelists noted some helpful company and philanthropic efforts (such as a stipend for Midland teachers provided by Scarborough-Linebery Foundation of Midland and a plan by Odessa’s school and hospital districts to help house employees), they characterized the difficulties as likely to continue.
  • The struggling “Does the tide lift all boats?” Henry asked. The short answer was no. Campbell said the West Texas Food Bank serves 19 counties across about 34,000 square miles. It serves about 64,000 people who live under the poverty but another 11,000, people Campbell described “mothers that are going to school who can’t feed their kids” and the father who recently cried to them, saying he was forced by a rent increase to choose between buying food for his kids and buying gas to drive to work.
  • The end? Unlike the boom of the 1980s, this boom is driven by new extraction methods in addition to oil prices. But predicting an end is hard. Most see it lasting through 2020.

This event was sponsored by the University of Texas Energy Institute and West Texas Public Radio KXWT 91.3, in association with the John Ben Shepperd Public Leadership Institute, Marfa Public Radio KRTS 93.5, and Austin's KUT News 90.5.

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