Oil and Gas

Oil and gas: Eagle Ford fracking, as seen from space

The so-called "shale revolution" has changed the landscape of Texas, and that's plain to see from the sky above.

An image of the Eagle Ford shale mining site captured at night by NASA’s Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS) on the Suomi NPP satellite. Taken on July 15, 2012.
Source: NASA Earth Observatory

NASA's Earth Observatory recently published three photos showing how developed a once sleepy part of the state has become. A nighttime photo taken from high above the Eagle Ford shale formation shows the bright lights from the wells and equipment competing with lights from nearby Austin and San Antonio.

Eagle Ford produces both oil and natural gas; the oil wells are on the northern end of the site, and the natural gas wells are to the south. Oil prices have plunged from highs seen in 2014, and U.S. shale gas production has pushed natural gas prices to their cheapest points in nearly two decades.

Before: 2000

A daytime photo of the quiet, sparsely populated town of Cotulla, Texas, taken by NASA’s Landsat 5 satellite in 2000.
Source: NASA Earth Observatory

The town of Cotulla is in Eagle Ford country, pictured here in this image from NASA's Landsat 5 satellite taken in 2000. At that time, the town had a population of roughly 4,000, and was considered to be at risk of total abandonment — one local councilman named Larry Dovalina would tell NPR in 2014, that before the shale boom, the town had been "dying on the vine."

One of its biggest claims to fame was that President Lyndon B. Johnson did a stint as a local public schoolteacher there between 1928 and 1929.

After: 2015

A daytime image of Cotulla, Texas, taken by Landsat 8 in 2015. The infrastructure from the wells and fracking equipment are visible.
Source: NASA Earth Observatory

Then shale came. The image above was taken by NASA's Landsat 8 satellite in 2015, the place was built up, and the shale drilling infrastructure was visible from space. (See the full NASA report here.)

The breakneck growth is visible in numbers, as well. There were 67 gas-producing wells in 2009, according to the Texas Railroad Commission. By 2013, there were more than 2,400. Likewise, oil leases went from 40 in 2009 to more than 2,500 in 2013.

The Texas Observer reported in 2012 that the town's population had more than doubled to 10,000 people. Dovalina told NPR that revenue from property taxes rose from about $50 million in 2008 to nearly $200 million by 2014.

But if oil and gas prices remain low — as many analysts predict they will — the landscape could empty out once again. A March report from the U.S. Energy Information Association showed oil production at Eagle Ford up by 10 barrels a day over the previous month, and natural gas up 23,000 cubic feet. But production has declined more or less steadily from a peak in 2015.