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Cover 03/27/2013

The sour side of life in South Texas' Eagle Ford Shale

Photo: Michael Barajas, License: N/A

Michael Barajas

An anti-fracking activist shoots infared video in Karnes County in early March

Photo: , License: N/A

Four albuterol inhalers for the Cernys, a family of three

She was telling the truth, she pointed out the sign to me earlier in the day as we drove around the area.

The Cernys grew more agitated as Marathon reps nodded their heads, dutifully expressing their concern.

“Just follow the smoke, man,” Mike sighed. “Follow the smell. You’ll see what I’m talking about. You’ll see where we live.”


As you drive into Karnes County at night, the sky begins to glow a bright, flickering orange with industrial flares, sign of the shale gas revolution beneath the South Texas dirt.

Many in the industry call the Eagle Ford Shale, a vast oil- and gas-rich geological formation stretching some 400 miles, the crown jewel of U.S. shale plays. Oil and gas companies use a drilling method called hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, in which they pump millions of gallons of water — mixed with sand and some 500 chemicals — thousands of feet below ground to crack the shale and release the goods.

Mike and Myra Cerny moved from the San Antonio suburbs to Karnes County nine years ago wanting a calm country life. Over the past two years, the trappings of oil and gas development have encroached on their small rural home. Drilling for wells in a field across the road from their house shook their walls so hard the ceilings cracked; more wells are now being drilled behind them. Big rigs speed down their rural farm-to-market road at all times of the day and night. Pallets flying off the backs of trucks have twice flattened their mailbox. Mike says he’s reluctant to buy another one.

“That would’ve killed me if I was standing in my yard,” he said.

What irritates the Cernys most, though, is the smell wafting in from nearby facilities.

The activity won’t stop any time soon.

South Texas is now the focal point of Marathon’s business strategy. The day before its Karnes County meeting in December, Marathon executives announced the company would pump $1.9 billion into the Eagle Ford region this year alone, more than a third of its 2013 capital budget.

“Much of that is going to be here in Karnes County,” Spilman, Marathon’s regional asset manager, told me. “This is going to continue for the foreseeable future, quite honestly, because in our opinion this is the best place for our company to invest.”

This month, when the Eagle Ford Shale Consortium gathered at the Grand Hyatt downtown, Marathon CEO Clarence Cazalot called the Eagle Ford the most promising oil and gas find in North America, maybe even the world.

“The fact that I stand here and say that is really sort of amazing,” he said.

Fracking the Eagle Ford, Cazalot told the 800-plus crowd, will not only provide a cheap, steady domestic energy supply, but a greener one, weaning us off coal and cutting down on climate-destabilizing carbon emissions.

As Cazalot and others noted throughout the conference, the boom is green in more ways than one.

The tax windfall from fracking flooded Texas’ now $12 billion Rainy Day Fund, which many hope lawmakers will tap to help pay for our pitifully under-funded State Water Plan. University of Texas at San Antonio’s most recent assessment says that in 2011 alone, the boom generated more than $25 billion in revenue, supported nearly 50,000 full-time jobs, and padded local governments with more than $250 million.

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