"Our greatest responsibility is to be good ancestors."

-Jonas Salk

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Tex: Post Factoids

Although Luling is much closer into Austin, the first Texas town I encountered which actually smelled of the oilfield it is surrounded by was Post TX, way up in the panhandle.

And you know, I never really felt the scale of the wind industry before driving through all of Boone Pickens's holdings south of Abilene. It was exactly the same way with the oil a couple of years earlier, and the moments when I "got it" were the moment when I saw the Dow plant near the coast, and the moment I smelled Post.

This wasn't even my first time in the Panhandle. There was the earlier trip through Spur and Turkey, with Irene.

Anyway, despite the odor, or arguably because of it, Post appears a relatively prosperous little outpost. (Wikipedia has a better-than-standard bunch of pics of Post, including one of the exact spot depicted here in my photo.)

The corner of the world where New Mexico and Texas meet is a place of amazing scale and purport, where long skeins of pipe carrying water, oil, gas, and even brackish water and CO2 hither and yon are in the process of doing what Texans have always done. What Texans do and have always done, in the short, amazing history of their vast, peculiar territory, always, since the age of the buffalo, is extract value from their surroundings and sell it to the world.

Despite what I now discover from Wikipedia are Post's utopian origins (almost every town in the West has idiosyncratic origins in one way or another), and despite the unusually good repair (particularly for rural Texas) of pretty much everything I saw in Post, Post is no Utopia.

It's not Utopia, it's just noplace. (*)

While Post is well-maintained and is probably a fine little community, there is little overt sign of the vast wealth that has poured through it. That is to say that all the crossed pipes heading every which way are supporting one and only one thing: the extraction of wealth from the landscape. That wealth is destined for delivery as nearly intact as possible to massive property holders with mansions near Houston or Denver or Santa Clara, and to bankers and stockholders everywhere whose great-granddaddy's were barely literate Tennessee mountain small game hunters who came down here once because why the hell not?

But there are two sides to this. Why not extract the wealth if you can manage it?

This land that is currently supporting more people than Australia doesn't look like much. The Mexicans ceded it to the coon hunters and wild men of the Appalachians because it was too hot, the weather too fickle, too far from civilization in Mexico City. They simply couldn't pull together a string of colonies to hold a Mexican society together, and not for want of effort. Except for the Gulf Coast, where a lost, purportedly naked, thermophile culture was obliterated very early on, and until the equestrian Comanche made the some native peoples' last stands in North Texas, the native presence was also rather light, though the locals have little trouble to this day finding arrowheads at likely camping spots near rivers.

How could the industrial civilization make so much of this place when its predecessors could make so little of it? A simple fact of geography explains it all. The land is porous. Skeins of fluid travel vast distances beneath it. So hidden under the harsh, unpromising terrain sit the three fluids of modern life.

Water. Gas. Oil.

(And, I can't help thinking, over the top of it all, now and again, the fourth fluid was spilled. Blood.)

The point is, there is plenty of wealth here. You just have to have the wherewithall to pump it out. And this we have done, or at least countenanced to be done on our behalf. And this we are still doing.

Does it matter that the soils of the panhandle are being used up? You could argue that it matters not a whit. The soils might as well be used up on the day the water runs out. Anything else wouldn't be cost-effective!

In these places where, even if the current droughtiness really isn't a harbinger of the future, it doesn't rain enough to be worth mentioning. But the soil is fertile and sunshine is ample and the growing season is long and water is to be had underground. In consequence one has two choices regarding the water. One can pump up the water and use it to grow lots of things and make a lot of money until the water runs out. Or one can do nothing while one's neighbor does the pumping and profiting.

Fluids are funny that way. They don't actually stay put.

So the ancient water underground is very much like the oil in another way.

The fluids are here because the land is limestone, an uplift of an ancient sea floor, chock-a-block with caves and underground rivers and deep ancient mysteries that haven't just been bulldozed by glaciers. And the person who owns the land above a given puddle or river, should he or she find it, has the right to pump up as much as the pump will reach. And the right to do nothing. But under the laws and traditions of Texas, no person has the right to prevent his neighbor from exploiting his own property.

The state will appropriate property for roads and reservoirs, but otherwise mostly prefers to keep hands off. And federal influence on local affairs has been frowned upon hereabouts from the day Texas entered the Union in 1845, never mind when it was forced to re-enter in 1865.

So the fluids are fated to be pumped. Nobody can imagine anything else happening. There is no mechanism imagined to stop it. And few of the beneficiaries really want anything to happen differently, at least until their own particular well dries out.

Of course, the oil and the gas will recharge even more slowly that the Ogallala Aquifer, but the calculation is the same. There's wealth down there. If I leave it there too long somebody else will get it. So someone who has enough land to matter is likely to suggest that one might as well drill here. Now.

Without understanding that a lot of livelihoods of real human beings are at stake, it is foolish to try to understand the opposition.

Yet, I am seeing the public awareness over climate science turn into a battle over climate policy, and then a battle over party, and now increasingly a really terrifying impulse to refight the civil war. Please, for the love of God, leave the region-baiting the f alone.

Guys, it's a purple country.

Please let's not get screwed up with stereotypes, especially hopelessly clueless ones.

Now the map is really interesting insofar as Texas is concerned. (Non-natives may not recognize it as representing proportion of democratic bluest to republican reddest votes by US county, scaled by population. Specifically this is the 2004 election of Bush II over Kerry.)

You will see that much of the state is not so red as you might presume. Rather, there is a bolt of shocking red through the parts of the state where the extractive industries are pretty much unmitigated by anything else. Leaving aside the remaining genuinely conservative strongholds of Utah and Indiana, not places that appeal to me but cultures worthy of respect, are the red zones really just the places where wealth is extracted as opposed to built up? The brightest red swaths are the open country, where most people work in or for extractive industries. The bright blue blobs are the cores of the cities.

Since our map is population-scaled already, the blue areas, though occasionally flamboyant, use less energy (per area on this map) than comparably sized red populations. (On the other hand, area-scaled the cities are much worse, and this is easier to perceive in real life without the assistance of a peculiar map.)

Anyway, please do us the kindness of thinking about Texas as a whole country, not as a character on a sitcom. Yes, we do have our eccentricities and we don't mind flaunting some of them on occasion. But so what. Do you really want your Texans bland and boring? But there are twenty five million of us. A few of us here and there are bound to have something to say for ourselves.

PS. Of course this is not to justify in any sense the horribly overdrawn, Inhofesque attitudes toward climate science of our esteemed governor, never mind his grand ambitions.

Molly Ivins, who so personified Austin, is sadly no longer with us, but a quotation of hers is being widely quoted. It certainly seems relevant.
Next time I tell you someone from Texas should not be president of the United States, please pay attention.
Everybody knows what Molly would have advised. We are just sad not to know just exactly how she would have said it.

(*) Yes, on purpose of course.


Dol said...

Slightly off-topic, but: question about a possible Perry candidacy (though I guess the point applies for any GOP candidate) -

Will the 2012 campaign finally flush out the democrats into having to actually vocally back climate science and scientists?

Michael Tobis said...

I couldn't say, but I do have another question. When will people stop using the ridiculous abbreviation "GOP"?

Nothing personal you understand. I occasionally have to restrain myself on Twitter since it saves characters. But I refuse to use it.

David B. Benson said...

MT --- Try Repugs instead.

Michael Tobis said...

So, um, does nobody actually like this piece? I really enjoyed writing it.

Michael Tobis said...

Minor amendments for clarification added.

David B. Benson said...

Michael Tobis --- Factoids that maybe I didn't actually want to know about, under the dictum of see no evil.

But the oil & water map of TX was interesting.

Adam said...

So, um, does nobody actually like this piece? I really enjoyed writing it.

Yes, MT, I enjoyed it.

As a native Texan who grew up in the poisonous fumes of Houston, I was reminded of how Texas' extractive economy both supports and kills its citizens.

Cancer clusters are a feature of Texas living. I remember outbreaks of brain cancer around the Monsanto complex in Freeport and pancreatic cancer around a facility I worked at in Galena Park. The intense aromatic hydrocarbon odor at the latter facility was called "the smell of money".

Pangolin said...

What if it is actually the dregs of the Civil War dragging themselves up one more time. Northern Liberals telling Texans what's good for them and cheering on their misery. People with 30 inches or more of rain a year cheering on their drought.

I actually AM cheering on the drought in Texas because I'm hoping it will cook some brains enough that they start trying to think about what went wrong.

Yeah, good people are being hurt. OTOH conservative Texan stubbornness probably means far more good people end up dead because positive action is delayed past the tipping point.

I can do the math.

muoncounter said...

I've just returned from a trip through West and North Texas:

Post still looks like a nice town; places further up the road like Muleshoe and Shallowater, where the oil is played out and there's not been anything else to replace it are dying. Dried up farms and burnt out ranches, gas stations abandoned, car dealerships closed; even the Dairy Queens didn't make it. In some spots, you'd think you were driving on the moon.

But you left out one fluid; the most recent to serve as a source of Texas wealth. The Ft. Stockton plateau is dotted with wind farms; US 84 from Snyder to Sweetwater is thick with them. In places you can see the big white turbines looming over old abandoned oil wells. We should be calling wind energy 'white gold.'

I was in the 'awl bidness' for 25 years; we usually paid mineral owners a royalty of at least 1/8, sometimes up to 1/4 of the value of the oil and gas produced from their land. Fat times for the big ranchers; sad times for the folks who came late to the party and bought land that had minerals owned by someone else. And the state of Texas cashed in on royalties from public lands, building some fine public universities with oil royalties - in the days when government could do some good.

But here terms for a wind project: For the Indian Mesa project of 51 Vestas V47s, the royalty paid to the state was 4% during the first ten years, 6% during the second decade, and 8% in the third decade.

Four percent! Wind or oil are each forms of forms of energy; does the state of Texas somehow think a megawatt produced by a wind turbine is somehow worth that much less than the energy equivalent in barrels of oil? How many universities will be built on 4% royalties? Or should we be asking who was governor when the state signed that deal?

Michael Tobis said...

There's yet another fluid too, referred to in the title of that famous movie about fortunes won and lost in the taverns and brauhauses of anti-slave anti-confederate German-speaking central Texas.

You know the one.

"There Will Be Beer"

It's a complicated world, is all I mean to say, even if Texas manages to put up some awful simple politicians somehow.

Zowish said...

A point of history: Texas reentered the Union in April of 1870 after a Reconstruction that was more arduous than the war had been. Getting back in was not so much forced as high-priced.

Great essay! It's likely that, soon, water will become THE most important fluid of all.

Marion Delgado said...

I was privileged to have lunch with Molly Ivins once (me and 2 women from our web news team and her) and she was as generous and give-people-the-benefit-of-the-doubt-oriented in person as she was in her writing.
Erring on the side of civility and trying to always improve on silence :)

But I actually think she'd be harder on Perry than she typically was on W. He was the governor or Lt. governor for a long time and did a lot of harm. And he's coming out of the gate an extremist where W worked very hard to take moderate stances in a moderate, unthreatening way in 2008.