Halfway between San Antonio and Laredo on I-35 is the town of Cotulla. In the middle of the harsh South Texas brush country, the county seat of La Salle County has been struggling for decades – but not these days.
Cotulla is a thriving. Big trucks are everywhere hauling miles of pile, gravel and fracking sand for oil rigs that have popped up to cash in on the Eagle Ford Shale oil and natural gas boom.
“The revenue growth to these areas is just growing exceptionally. These are unheard of growth rates,” said James LaBas, a tax and fiscal consultant for the Texas Oil and Gas Association.
LaBas said that by the year 2020, the Eagle Ford Shale boom will support about 68,000 full time jobs - about the size of the city of Temple. To support these big expectations, LeBas said the state made $176 million more this year than last year in taxes in only four counties on the production of oil and gas; that’s twice what the University of Texas football program brings in every year.
“So the Eagle Ford is proving to just be an amazing jobs producing, revenue generating machine, especially for south Texas, but also for all of Texas,” said LaBas.
Prosperity doesn’t come without a few problems
La Salle County Deputy Sheriff Jose Garcia patrols the 1,400 square miles, with only seven deputies. Right now he’s short-staffed, but on a normal day before the boom, his department would only handle a handful of calls. Now up to 15 come in on a single shift. and many of them are deadly traffic accidents.
According to an open records request from the Texas Department of Transportation, there have been nearly 1,200 accidents involving 18-wheelers since 2011, and 25 deaths in the 19-county region of the Eagle Ford Shale exploration.
It’s not clear which accidents directly involved Eagle Ford Shale trucks, but it shows how the increase in traffic has contributed to growing traffic problems.
“The accidents have also increased in fatalities," said Garcia. "We’ve had our share of traffic accident fatalities involving 18-wheelers and of course, regular motor vehicles.”
Garcia also said the roads are taking a beating, which could also be contributing to accidents.
“Our access roads are constantly being pounded by these 18-wheelers that are waiting on the side of the roadway for their next jobs and picking up loads and dropping off loads,” said Garcia.
Questioning truck safety
One of those accidents involved 45-year-old Guadalupe Quintanilla, who was killed in a fiery crash two years ago. The family’s attorney, Jorge Herrera, settled a multimillion dollar case against a trucking company responsible for the crash.
Herrera said Quintanilla was driving in Jim Hogg County on December 2nd when a truck coming in the opposite direction slammed right into him. Both drivers died at the scene, and Herrera said the crash was caused by the other truck’s bad tires.
“These trucks were being run every day," said Herrera, "long hauls, hauling thousands and thousands of pounds of load, going over highway, going over ranch roads, going into rough debris to get to the oil rigs. And so those tires are getting significantly worn out a lot faster.”
Herrera said the trucking company responsible for the crash did not follow safety regulations and he provided Texas Public Radio with an audio deposition involving the owner of the company that was declassified by the courts for the benefit of the public. In that deposition, Herrera asked the owner about his company's safety manual.
- Herrera: “As the owner of the company, would you agree that you’re the head person in charge?"
- Owner: "Yes."
- Herrera: "The buck stops with you."
- Owner: "Right."
- Herrera: "That you’re responsible for everything that goes on with the company."
- Owner: "Yep."
- Herrera: "Have you ever read it?"
- Owner: "Not every single page."
- Herrera: "You didn’t even read the first paragraph of the first page?"
- Owner: "I might have."
- Herrera: "So even the owner of the company didn’t even know what was in his own safety manual. So if the boss doesn’t know what’s there, how can he even expect for his employees to know?”
Herrera said it’s a profit-over-people attitude that allowed the owner to get away with little to no maintenance or safety inspections of his fleet. Herrera continued the deposition with the owner of the now-defunct company and asked the owner if the company trained its drivers on trucking regulations.
- Owner: "Whatever."
- Herrera: "So I guess that’s a no?"
- Owner: "I guess."
- Herrera: "Is that yes or no sir?"
- Owner: "No.”
“They didn’t do the basic necessities to ensure safety,” said Herrera, adding that there are more companies out there just like this that he wants to stop in their tracks. “These lawsuits will hopefully scare the industry to forcefully regulate itself and create safer companies," he said.
Truck drivers and towns
Truck drivers like Bernard Garcia say they feel governmental regulations on trucking keeps them safe. Garcia is an eight-year veteran of highway hauling. In years’ past, he said drivers like his uncle would put the pedal to the metal to meet demands.
"He’d go to California and be back in three days, God bless his heart, rest his soul. Back then they didn’t have the law on the books," said Garcia, "and he’d just drive and drive and drive.”
Now he gets paid per job so he’s not in a hurry, but everyone else dealing with the Eagle Ford Shale boom is definitely in hurry mode. Drillers are frantic to reach and pump out the oil while the price is still high. Area town mayors are scrambling to provide housing, water and public services. Cotulla Mayor Javier Garcia says a big problem for him right now is unwanted truck traffic where families live.
“We are hoping to reroute them and take them away from the neighborhoods, because they are going in through our neighborhoods right now,” said the mayor.
Local businesses hustle to cash-in, selling bar-b-que, bunks and beer to the migration of oil workers. Grocery stores struggle to keep shelves stocked. State Senator Judith Zaffirini said there are wonderful opportunities – but also serious concerns.
“With an increase in population in the city, you need infrastructure," said Zaffirini. "You need housing, you need retail stores, you need health care, etcetera.”
Pros outweigh the cons?
James LeBas said it seems the positive aspects of Eagle Ford Shale outweigh most of the negatives. Railroad Commissioner David Porter echoed that during a presentation in May on the shale’s economic impact study conducted by the University of Texas at San Antonio.
“The Eagle Ford Shale has the potential to be the single most significant economic development in our state’s history,” said Porter.
Attorney Jorge Herrera just doesn’t think the rush to profit from the boom should be paid for with people’s lives.
“In the oil industry, time is money,” said Herrera.