The Big Bend of Texas, so named for the way the region hugs a massive bend in the Rio Grande, is renown for its desert landscapes, open spaces and tranquility. But parts of it lie within the oil-rich Permian Basin, the nation’s highest producing oil field thanks to fracking technology.
Now, Mexico is drilling at least 29 exploratory wells across the border from the Big Bend and saying it wants to jumpstart fracking operations there.
Of course, fracking requires water. And in the Big Bend, some landowners are selling water for fracking, pitting some conservationists against private property holders, who also consider themselves to be good stewards of the land.
Though they lie on the edge of an ancient sea bed embedded with hydrocarbons, the west Texas borderlands were once thought to be too remote to sustain oil and gas extraction.
But today fracking technology, meaning fracturing underground formations by blasting water, sand and chemicals into rock to unlock trapped oil and gas, means once inaccessible oil is there for the taking.
All signs point to fracking coming to both sides of the border here.
Juan José Suárez Coppel, an economist and CEO of Mexico’s state-owned oil monopoly PEMEX, said on Bloomberg Televison that “Mexico has huge potential in hydrocarbons.”
PEMEX said the wells on its side of the Texas border are a prelude to what it hopes will be the start to industrial-scale fracking there.
But without water, fracking can't take place.
And for Texas water-rights holders, despite ongoing drought, it’s a sellers market. Customers in both countries want Texas water, and it’s all unfolding in a state that historically cherishes both water and property rights.
At a recent city council meeting in Alpine, Texas, a local resident named Oscar Cobos told the crowd that councillors should ban fracking.
“If they’re ready to sell us out on a silver platter, we don’t need them in office. Thank you," a statement that was met with applause.
No formal action was taken. But even if councillors approved a ban, it would be a non-binding though symbolic gesture.
“We don’t want to change our lifestyle in Alpine, Texas," said resident Jan Woodward.
But in the north Texas town of Denton, a fracking ban will be on the November ballot to let citizens decide. This is all new legal ground. In Texas, the state and not local or county government regulates the oil and gas industry. But if Denton bans fracking, it will be a precedent that fracking opponents hope will allow them to get around existing state law.
Which brings us to a rancher named Howdy Fowler.
“What I know about fracking you could put in a thimble,” he said outside the Alpine Civic Center where the council met.
The voice against fracking may be loud in the the Big Bend, but not everybody’s on the same page. Fowler was the one person at the council meeting who spoke out against a fracking ban.
“I’m not an expert on fracking, but when people start telling you what you can and can’t do with your own property, you’re treading on thin ice,” he said.
Fracking has propelled the economies of cities like Midland and Odessa, two cities in the heart of the Permian Basin.
But it’s a more nuanced argument in border counties. They’re watching the oil and gas play creep closer to an area known for its pristine isolation from industry.
In the past two years, more than fracking wells have been permitted in one Texas border county alone.
Janet Adams has empathy for both sides. She manages the Underground Water Conservation District in Jeff Davis County, Texas.
“We monitor wells and they are not dropping," she said.
Adams is from a ranching family. She described one rancher’s decision to sell water.
“If he overpumps it, it hurts him more than anybody," Adams said. "And west Texas landowners are not going to hurt their own land and property.”
Water levels may fluctuate. But Midland, Texas-based energy trader and geologist Bill Dingus said there’s one critically underreported part of the fracking story.
“We don’t think that fracking especially fracking at great depths is the problem," he began.
"But there is a problem with properly plugging wells.”
Dingus said that one of the things that can come up through old wells is deep brine salt water. And salt water, he said, can create havoc.
“Good operators will plug them properly," Dingus said. "I’m not worried about good operators."
"But companies that go under, wells that get forgotten, we need to make sure we’re going back and plugging all those carefully to preserve our ground water.”
There have been at least 80 local resolutions nationally to forbid fracking. It’s too soon to suggest that there’s mounting momentum for fracking bans in the border region. That could change, though. In a precedent setting decision, New York State’s Court of Appeals recently ruled in favor of two towns that cited water concerns when they banned fracking.
That ruling is expected to be cited by fracking opponents in Texas who favor local rather than state control.