Hydraulic fracturing – or fracking – is the practice of extracting oil trapped in shale rock. It’s producing large quantities of oil in South Texas in the Eagle Ford Shale. That’s one reason why the price of oil has dropped. But there are questions about the environmental cost of fracking. And one 78-year old nun wants to make sure fracking is done right.
Driving down Texas Highway 72 Sister Elizabeth Riebschlaeger is following a flatbed trailer and calling 9-1-1.
“He has pieces of material tied over the open pipes leading off the inverted tank,” she tells the emergency service operator.
Sister Elizabeth frequently drives throughout the Eagle Ford Shale, notifying authorities when she believes there are environmental violations.
The call with 9-1-1 complete Sister Elizabeth informs the passengers in her rented van, “Ok I called 911 and reported it. Their deputy is several miles away. Now he’s turning right.”
And the pursuit continues of the truck hauling a salvaged oil tank. It’s dripping a thick trail of black runny goo that coats the van front and clouds the windshield.
One van passenger is taking photographs to document the possible environmental crime. “Oh that is really pouring out,” said another van passenger.
Sister Elizabeth came across what may be an environmental violation while leading a fracking tour of the Eagle Ford Shale. The nun belongs to the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word. She offers her fracking area tours to people like Nancy Fullerton who want to learn about the South Texas oil boom.
“I’m here to see for myself. I hear about it on NPR and read about it in the paper. I’m going to start seeing for myself before I form a real opinion,” she said.
Along the tour Sister Elizabeth points out the drilling sites, the man camps, the disposal wells and pipelines springing up in the Eagle Ford. And she cracks the code of the trucks rolling down the highway.
“You see the number code on the back of that truck? He’s got a little flame on the red diamond there? It says 1267. Everybody see that? Yes. So that’s the number code for condensate. The flame means its flammable – combustible - might explode,” she said.
Sister Elizabeth says she’s not against fracking or petroleum development – she has seen first-hand how it’s brought jobs and prosperity to South Texas. But she wants people to know the trade-offs involved.
“I do that because I think it’s very important for people to understand – the average citizen like myself – who walk up to a gasoline pump and fill their car with gasoline – what actually is going on to get that to the pump,” she said.
Sister Elizabeth is a native of Cuero – which is the center of the Eagle Ford. Her family helped settle the area in 1866. That gives her credibility when she talks about fracking with area farmers and ranchers. And that’s key because they don’t open up to outsiders.
“People trust her,” said Tom Smith, director of Public Citizen Texas, an environmental protection organization.
Smith has seen how Sister Elizabeth is able to connect with land owners who are suspicious of outsiders and are concerned about the impact of energy production.
“She listens and assures them that they are not alone. That this is happening all over the Eagle Ford and they’re not crazy,” he said.
And Sister Elizabeth relays those concerns to Texas lawmakers in Austin.
“What’s really at stake here is our democracy. Because I have seen so many little people who have just as much right as a person who represent million dollar industry – to their land and to their way of life getting run over,” she said.
Now here’s an irony - Sister Elizabeth is also getting checks from Eagle Ford Shale production. Her family has land that has oil and she’s entitled to a share in the royalties.
“It’s a blessing that I’m trying to…my congregation gets that because of my vow of poverty. So we try to put it at the service of people.”
She says she wants to make sure the fracking and everything else is done right.
“The majority of the population uses gasoline but only a small population is living in the areas where this is being produced for they are the forgotten people. But they have rights. They have families. They have health concerns.”
Sister Elizabeth says it’s her calling to serve as a watchdog, to monitor energy production and report problems when she sees them.