Spring wildflowers in the hills northwest of Houston are painting roadsides blue, orange, yellow, pink, white and purple, a prolific display borne from heavy fall and winter rains.
The Houston Chronicle reports travelers who spend a night or two out beyond the city limits normally see another show after sundown, as abundant stars cross overhead. But things have not been normal lately.
The night sky is lit up like a sports arena by flares and the glare of massive drilling rigs. The occasional yipping of coyotes down in the draws has been muffled by a house-rattling racket that some compare to the noise of jet engines, audible a mile away. And all night and day, convoys of semis barrel down the narrow county roads hauling pipe, water, sand, tanks and turbines.
The latest news from around North Texas.
An oil and gas boom arrived last year. Washington County has the good fortune, or ill fortune, depending on one's outlook, of lying on the Giddings Field of the Austin Chalk, a layer of naturally fractured limestone above the prolific Eagle Ford Shale that boomerangs along the Gulf Coast, into Louisiana.
Wildcatters have poked around this part of the chalk since the 1920s with mixed success. Now, high-intensity, horizontal drilling technology has put a seven-county swath of Central Texas into intense play. Major patches of once-bucolic pastureland where wildflowers grew turn overnight into industrial-scale fire ant beds.
Once a rig is in place, the fracking typically lasts three or four days, as crews try to force oil and gas out of the ground with small explosions and a high-pressured slurry of sand and water. With multiple wells on a 6-acre pad and the frequent flaring of unwanted gas, work can rumble on, 24/7, for several months -- an eternity to people nearby enduring sleepless nights.
"They've just come up all of a sudden, in the last year," said Joanne Doherty. The ongoing, daily noise from a pad to their west is "triple the decibels of the air conditioner," said her husband, Larry Doherty. "When it quits, the silence is deafening."
Drilling permits in Washington County have mushroomed from three in 2016 to 22 in 2017 and 67 last year, according to texas-drilling.com. As of October, 18 oil and gas producers were operating here, and there were 285 active wells. To transport new natural gas liquids, more than 140 miles of pipelines also are under construction or planned, expanding a system that will jag cross private property all the way to Katy.
State laws give transmission companies the right of eminent domain, so everyone is at the mercy of pipelines. The drilling action, however, is pitting neighbors against neighbors, exposing not just oil and gas reserves but a culture clash that may have been inevitable, as agrarian ways have yielded to more genteel land practices.
Local officials expect Washington County -- where tourism is key to the economy -- to have 100,000 people within 10 or 15 years, nearly triple the current population. Urban retirees have been migrating here for decades, in search of quietude and views. Younger families are yearning for country life, too -- although this country life is nowhere near as remote as it was even 50 years ago.
"Old Three Hundred" colonists who arrived with Stephen F. Austin in 1830 could receive more than 4,400 acres if they promised to become ranchers. But as generations of heirs have divided and sold old spreads, many people can see their neighbors' houses. Today, 200 acres is a big place, and many desirable properties are built on less than 30 acres. Welcome to the Hamptons of Houston.
The Dohertys built 18 years ago atop a hill in the middle of 275 secluded acres. They knew the previous owner of the property had allowed drilling there in the 1980s, but the well had come up dry, "so we never thought it would be an issue," Joanne said. "The value of this land has been its beauty, and that is what they're tearing up."
Since the previous owners' heirs kept the mineral rights, the Dohertys don't know if one of the area's new lateral wells snakes under their home. But when a landman came "nosing around" last year, hoping to lease surface rights, Larry said, "I told him over my dead body or a mandate from the Texas Supreme Court ordering me to let you come through the front gate."
To Bill Neinast, a well-known, 89-year-old character who lives about a mile east of the Dohertys, that sounds like newcomer talk.
A native of Somerville, Neinast and his wife Jeannine came home in 1979 after his final tour of duty with the U.S. Army as a litigator at the Pentagon. The land called him back, he said, and he appreciates bluebonnets and history as much as anyone. He even leaves a pasture unfenced so visitors can take pictures there.
Still, he happily signed a lease last year with WildHorse Resources Development that would allow a pad within 1,000 feet of his home on FM 390 West. "That's why we own land," he said. WildHorse was acquired by Chesapeake Energy, a bigger company based in Oklahoma City, in January, so Neinast doesn't know if the project near him will proceed. A Chesapeake representative said the company was not ready to announce its plans.
Neinast said having an oil rig on his property would be progress. His 175 acres have been in his family since 1856, and they have always evolved. His ancestors plowed everything up to grow cotton and corn. After World War II, the family flirted with dairy farming, decided it was too time-consuming, and switched to a more lucrative cattle operation.
Neinast believes the inconveniences would be temporary. He's experienced drilling before, on additional acreage he owns a few miles due north of his home, closer to Lake Somerville. One well there has paid him royalties for 15 years. He won't say how much WildHorse paid him as a signing bonus, "but if they hit a lot of oil and gas, it'll be a lot of money," he added. Even without a well on his land, he and his heirs would belong to a 600- or 700-acre royalty pool.
Others who are benefiting from the boom aren't so positive.
To the south, across State Highway 290, Sara and Nelson Byman have been getting monthly checks from production at a new well on a neighbor's ranch that goes somewhere under their 155 acres. The Bymans also leased out 30 acres they were cultivating as food for wildlife to GeoSouthern Energy. Ironically, they had acquired that plot after building their house, as a buffer.
Now their porch overlooks a gas-gathering facility with multi-story towers. They hope most of it will be gone by October, as they've been told. Sara said the heavy construction phase brought a pure hell of noise and lights, plus a scary tank fire that erupted late one night. The pad is closer to the house than she thought it would be. Also bigger, taller and louder, with a continuous hum.
It's hard to tell on paper what you're negotiating, she said. "We didn't know we could say no. I just almost wish we could give the money back."
Most of the companies, especially publicly held ones, refer complainers to websites with assurances that they care about communities. GeoSouthern Energy, which built the pad on the Bymans' land, fenced the site with a green screen at the couples' request, because horses graze right next to it. The company also offered to plant an oak tree as a shield. "But I can't have a tree down there," Sara said. "There's no way to water it."
Aspen Midstream, the site's operator now, is also behind the major pipeline expansion and a permanent and controversial 177-acre plant on Old Mill Creek Road. Its cryogenic processing train will handle 200 million cubic square feet of gas a day. The plant became front page news in the Brenham Banner-Press in late February, after Deborah Supernaw, who had signed a lease, appealed to elected officials on Facebook.
Describing herself as a single mother of three who spent nine years improving her 20-acre property, Supernaw wrote, "The noise level. is becoming intolerable, the smell is already offensive, and the traffic on our once paved and quiet country road is now a continuous stream of big rigs, heavy equipment and numerous workforce and personal vehicles. I realize that some of you are likely thrilled with the revenue an operation like this will eventually bring to the county, but you should also be concerned with the toll it is taking... There is no question that our quality of life and property values have been negatively impacted."
Supernaw did not respond to a call from the Chronicle.
George Dillingham, a Washington County Realtor who specializes in farm and ranch properties, believes property values will dip near production sites. "Some of those multistage well sites on 390 look like industrial complexes," he said. "It's really ugly. and much more destructive to property value than the old drilling situations, which are still not good."
When mineral rights are split between dozens of people, Dillingham added, royalty fees may not be enough to offset the difference. Folks with small acreage and no mineral rights are totally out of luck, because there's nothing to stop producers from putting pads right along their property lines.
"It's a perfect storm for aggravation, from a constituent's perspective," said Washington County commissioner Kirk Hanath. He has fielded a lot of calls from people distressed by the pads, but local officials don't have regulatory power over drilling. The county's biggest pain is destruction on roads that weren't designed for oversize loads; so it is monitoring the damage with drones before, during and after construction, hoping to recoup funds from the state to rebuild when the boom cycle ends.
Steve Ralya, who lives near Neinast, won't answer calls from a landman who has been after him for months. "He doesn't understand that this is a unique area," Ralya said. "It's not that I don't need the money, but I'm not happy with the way they've wrecked the land. This is a scenic, historic area, and they've gone too far."
Ralya manages Suzanne Longley Farms, a 25-acre nursery just north of 390 that specializes in native and drought-tolerant trees. Longley has turned much of her acreage into a park-like, living laboratory, and she laments that a gorgeous annual display of native blue bells on FM 390 West was paved this winter, almost underneath the area's shared groundwater well and cylindrical water towers.
She doesn't care that the state will require any driller there to cement casings as far down as the water source, which is about 700 feet deep; or that the target chalk lies far deeper, at about 14,000 feet. "I'm testing my water every day, and they will hear from me if anything unusual shows up," she said.
Neinast still doesn't understand the fuss. "The water towers look just like oil tanks, only taller," he said, "and no one complained when those went in."