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STEER: A Business Model That Works

It was great to be able to write this issue’s cover feature on the South Texas Energy & Economic Roundtable (STEER) and its outstanding staff, including President and CEO Omar Garcia. Watching the organization have so much success has been very rewarding, since I played a minor role in its creation back in 2012; and writing the piece provided a chance to reflect on the STEER business model and why the oil and gas industry should try to replicate it in other parts of the country.

By late 2011, it had become obvious to everyone that the Eagle Ford Shale was a world-class resource that represented an unprecedented opportunity for economic development in South Texas. Shortly after a lunch during which I and a group of colleagues talked about how best to go about protecting this opportunity, I got on a conference call with the Haynesville Shale Operators’ Committee (HSOC). This coincidence of timing was what spurred my involvement in the germination of STEER.

HSOC was the brainchild of the Louisiana Oil & Gas Association (LOGA) and its President, Don Briggs. Created during the height of the development of the Haynesville Shale natural gas development, the organization served as an extremely effective voice for the industry in what was at the time the busiest shale development region of the country. The challenge the Haynesville Shale presented to LOGA was its concentration in the northwest corner of the state, hundreds of miles from the state capital of Baton Rouge, where LOGA’s offices were located.

Rather than have its staff constantly travel back and forth between Baton Rouge and Shreveport to help its members address community and regulatory issues, LOGA came up with the model of establishing a committee within its organizational structure that essentially functioned as a separate trade association. To become members of HSOC, companies paid separate dues, and the committee itself had its own separate staff.

To further distinguish HSOC as a separate entity, the HSOC staff seldom became engaged in the single most crucial role of any state trade association — lobbying the state’s legislature. Instead, HSOC focused on helping members with community and media relations, functions that have not traditionally been strong points for the industry’s legacy associations.

The model worked. HSOC was a tremendous asset for producers, the media and communities in the region, all of whom needed an honest-broker intermediary to help understand and communicate with one another.

Seeing no reason why this model wouldn’t work just as well in South Texas — where the sudden, massive growth in oil and gas activity was very predictably creating lots of friction and challenges in the local communities — I took the idea to Rob Looney, then-President of the Texas Oil & Gas Association (TXOGA), one of the industry’s largest trade associations, headquartered in Austin. My involvement ended there, since I had a conflicting role with one of the industry’s national trade associations at that time.

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STEER: A New Kind of Trade Association

A Sleeping Giant Beneath The Chalk

Nestled in a quiet area of suburban Dallas, just off the intersection of Texas State Highway 12 and Interstate 30, lies the neighborhood of Eagle Ford. At one time an incorporated city, Eagle Ford was annexed in the mid-1950s by the city of Dallas, whose city center skyscrapers can be seen just 6 miles away.

Originally settled by the family of Enoch Horton in 1844, the community soon became known as an important crossing of the West Fork of the Trinity River. The Horton family established a grist mill; and within a few years they donated land to establish the town’s first cemetery and for the right of way and depot for the Texas and Pacific Railway. As was the case for hundreds of communities in Texas’ early decades, the establishment of a rail depot led quickly to rapid population growth. By the 1870s, Eagle Ford had become a key shipping point for the cattle industry, and its population had grown to several thousand.

The death of the trail drives led to the collapse of the cattle business, and by the 1890s, Eagle Ford’s population hovered around 50 citizens, where it remained well into the mid-20th century. Memory of the community’s heyday was largely lost to history, where it remained until late 2008.

Not far from the location of the original Horton grist mill, a small cliff face reveals an out-cropping of the Austin Chalk formation, which had become famous during the 1970s and again in the 1990s for the production of prodigious amounts of crude oil. Indeed, the Chalk is experiencing a bit of a third revival today.

Immediately beneath the Chalk outcropping, another formation displays what seems to be a rocky, clay-like profile. This formation is actually a shale formation, one that happens to be the source rock for the Austin Chalk. It was the oil migrating up from the Eagle Ford that made the Chalk such a prodigious formation to begin with.

Like the Austin Chalk, the Eagle Ford Shale extends deep into South Texas and even under the Rio Grande into northern Mexico. Unlike the Chalk, however, this formation had received scant attention until October 2008, when Petrohawk (now a part of BHP Billiton) drilled what is credited as the first commercial horizontal well completed in the formation in La Salle County. The well, completed with a 3,200-foot horizontal lateral involving a 10-stage frac job, produced at an initial flow rate of about 7,600 MMBTU of natural gas per day, and the race was on.

 

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The Eagle Ford Shale Finally Gets A Little Media Love

For most of the past year, the ongoing boom in the Permian Basin has sucked all the oxygen out of the room in terms of media reporting on the oil and gas industry in Texas.  The mergers and acquisitions frenzy of 2016 raised per-acre acquisition costs to $40,000, and that in turn led a rapid rise in the Permian’s rig count and subsequent drilling boom to take advantage of the higher oil prices that came about at the end of the year.  That story, which has resulted in the Permian’s becoming not only the nation’s largest oil producing basin, but also it’s second largest natural gas producing basin (more on that next week), is very compelling and needed to be told.

But the last year has seen another compelling growth story come about in the state’s other major oil play, the Eagle Ford Shale region of South Texas.  It’s a story in which the region’s rig count has more than tripled in a year, from less than 30 to more than 90, in which new-well productivity has more than doubled in less than two years, and in which the economic driver that turned this historically poor region into the nation’s hottest economic development area from 2011 thru mid-2014 has begun to rise again.

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