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05.28.2014
Comment> The Architecture of Fracking
Brantley Hightower studies the way Texas' tight oil boom is affecting the built environment.
The impact of the Eagle Ford Shale Play from space and on the ground.
Courtesy NASA

At the dawn of the twentieth century Texas was a poor and rural state. Over the course of the next 100 years, the discovery of vast petroleum deposits hidden beneath its expansive landscape fueled the growth of the state’s economy and transformed it into the modern home of three of the nation’s ten largest cities. Wealth from the oil industry has bankrolled the skylines, cultural institutions, and politicians that have come to define the state.

Texas has experienced its fair share of oil booms over the past century and it is currently in the midst of what may prove to be one of the largest. Although oil and natural gas have been known to exist in shale formations for some time, until recently these deposits were too difficult to profitably extract.

Induced hydraulic fracturing—or “fracking” as it has come to be called—is the process by which a mixture of water, sand, and chemicals is injected underground at high pressures, creating a network of small fractures that allows the embedded oil or natural gas to be removed. The technique itself is not new but the advent of directional drilling technologies made thin shale strata accessible to a degree never before possible.

 
Brantley Hightower 
 

The infrastructure required for these operations is large, complex, and proprietary. In order to shield the undertaking from prying eyes, many of the early drilling operations that tapped the Barnett Shale deposit in the Dallas–Fort Worth metropolitan area attempted to conceal themselves behind large privacy screens that resembled the abstract land-art of Christo and Jeanne-Claude.

If the Barnett Shale acted as a proving ground for induced hydraulic fracturing and directional drilling, the Eagle Ford Shale demonstrated that the technique could be adapted for the extraction of oil on a vast scale. The formation itself is a 400-mile-long subterranean rock stratum that has proven to be one of the largest plays in recent memory. Although there is no obvious visible surface delineation of this particular underground formation, the activity occurring above it has made the region clearly visible from space. NASA imagery shows the lights and gas flares associated with drilling operations illuminating a wide swath of land between San Antonio and Laredo.

Even if the mobile drilling rigs and pump jacks directly associated with oil extraction are perhaps the most obvious relics of an oil boom, they are not the most significant. The true architecture of fracking is much more banal.

Brantley Hightower
 

In just a few short years, small towns such as Pleasanton, Three Rivers, and Cotulla have seen their populations explode as drilling operations expanded in the region. Undeveloped tracts of land on the once deserted highways leading into these and other towns are now home to a myriad of structures hastily built to support the wells and those drilling them. In addition to vast quantities of water, sand, and chemicals, drilling for oil requires steel pipe as well as welders to connect it and trucks to transport it. Towns that once had a single stoplight now sport multiple hotels and restaurants that constantly operate at capacity. Billboards now display advertisements for trucking services as well as for attorneys representing those injured in trucking accidents. In just a few short years these small towns have developed sprawling edges of suburban development.

Even if most of this pattern of development is familiar, the boom has given rise to at least one new building typology—the man camp. Filling a need for housing in between a hotel and an apartment, these camps exist as arrays of RVs or low-end mobile home trailers and offer minimal accommodations for subcontractors working far from home. These temporary villages sit empty for most of the day until a shift change occurs and the parking lots fill with dusty pickup trucks returning from the oil field. Rents at these Spartan villages might run as high as $1,200 for a 400-square-foot cabin although this can be reduced if a single bed is shared between a day and night shift worker.

Inflated prices burden local residents and transient workers alike. Gasoline, groceries, and rent have become more expensive and traffic has become considerably worse than it ever was before the boom. Some local residents might benefit by selling land, its mineral rights, or by entering the service industry, but those who rent or are on fixed incomes have a much harder time.

 
Brantley Hightower
 

The Institute for Economic Development at the University of Texas at San Antonio has conducted research on the impact of the Eagle Ford Shale. In 2013, it released a study that reported that drilling in the Eagle Ford added more than $61 billion to the economy of a 20-county region in Central and South Texas in the previous year. The study forecasted that drilling operations would directly or indirectly generate 127,000 jobs in the coming years.

Of course, this prediction is predicated on the notion that the demand for oil remains high and the price of oil remains constant. The profitability of a drilling operation in the Eagle Ford play or anywhere else ends as soon as the price of a barrel of oil drops below the cost of its extraction. And when it falls below that level, companies will begin to pull out of the region. It is thus a race against time to extract as much oil or natural gas as possible before the price drops.

Brantley Hightower
 

The challenge for towns such as Pleasanton, Three Rivers, and Cotulla is to ride the wave of the boom while building a sustainable community that will survive after it has subsided. While these communities now have the funds to invest in schools, parks, and other public amenities, they also are facing infrastructure demands unlike anything they have seen before. Managing this sort of rapid growth is difficult, but planning for a post-boom future is harder still. Making matters worse, the kinds of structures currently going up are not easily repurposed. When the boom ends these small towns will have little need for all the hotels, restaurants, and big box retail stores that are now proliferating across the landscape, and the long-term environmental effects of the chemicals associated with induced hydraulic fracturing are as yet unknown.

 
Brantley Hightower
 

Located in the Permian Basin in west Texas, much of Midland’s surprisingly well-developed skyline sat empty through the oil busts of the 1980s. The recent tapping of the shale deposits of the region has reignited its economy and, in what promises to be one of the more obvious symbols of the manic optimism of a boom mentality, developers have proposed building a 58-story mixed-use tower in this city of 111,000 (“Boom Town” ANSW 01_11.26.2013). Designed by Edmonds International and dubbed the “Energy Tower at City Center,” this structure would be more than twice the height of its tallest neighbor, not to mention the sixth-tallest tower in the state.

Needless to say, this monument to the most recent oil boom would radically transform the skyline of a city that is itself a product of an earlier boom. But the real architecture of fracking is much more mundane. It is the Chili’s restaurant built on what a year ago was an open pasture. It is a cheaply built man camp where oil workers spend their evening alone in their rooms. It is the small south Texas town whose population has ballooned with the boom and, in the process, become unrecognizable to the people who once called it home.

Brantley Hightower

Brantley Hightower is the founder of HiWorks, an architecture office based in San Antonio. In addition to teaching at Trinity University, his forthcoming book on the Courthouses of Central Texas will be released by the University of Texas Press in 2015.