Just beyond the northern boundaries of all three counties lies the infrastructure of the two most powerful energy industries in the country – fossil fuels and electrical generation. Together they form one of the most formidable engines of land transformation that has ever occurred in this part of Texas and in other open spaces in the western United States.
Until this year, the scale and speed of energy development north of the Big Bend region, in a 17-county drilling zone known as the Permian Basin, was immense, intense, and frantic — and looked it.
By day trucks pounded the two-lane highways, hauling pipe and equipment to drilling sites, and loading up raw petroleum from batteries of storage tanks. Plastic pipes lay on the land to supply billions of gallons of freshwater for fracking. Even the large quantities of water that comes to the surface with oil and gas – so-called produced water – was pumped, piped, or hauled to deep wells where wastewater was injected into the earth.
It’s not only fossil fuels that were booming. Renewable energy developers also moved into the region, displaying the same zeal for constructing big wind and solar generating stations.
Amid the frenzy, oil field workers clambered about dozens of drilling rigs scattered across dry farm fields that a decade ago produced big crops of cotton, alfalfa, and vegetables. Tiny towns like Coyanosa, Mentone, and Orla virtually disappeared in the daylight onslaught and dust of petroleum and natural gas installations and truck traffic. At night, blinding white flames torch the dark as producers flare natural gas that has nowhere to go but into the atmosphere.
Since fracking began in earnest in 2006, some 87,000 oil and gas wells have been permitted in the Texas Permian basin, according to state figures. Reeves County, north of Jeff Davis, was the largest gas producer and 4th largest oil producer in Texas. Next door, Pecos County was in the top 15 for both. The counties north of the Big Bend region, in effect, were the perfect embodiment of the all-of-the-above strategy that has produced an era of fossil energy dominance that has not existed in the United States since the end of World War Two.
It’s not only fossil fuels that were booming. Renewable energy developers also moved into the region, displaying the same zeal for constructing big wind and solar generating stations. They came with high voltage transmission lines that carried the power to Texas cities.
Pecos County is now the largest renewable energy generator in the state. Nearly 700 wind turbines capable of generating 675 megawatts of electricity spin in the county. Six big solar stations, which also have a capacity of 675 megawatts, have been built since 2017.
More solar generation is on the way, say county authorities. Six plants are under construction or proposed. By 2022, Pecos County will have an installed capacity of almost 2,200 megawatts of renewable electricity, equivalent to a nuclear plant with two reactors, and more than all but six other states. The county collects $80,000 to $250,000 annually from each station in taxes and fees.
“We are glad to have them,” said Remie A. Ramos, the executive director of the Economic Development Corporation in Fort Stockton, the Pecos County seat. “Most of the solar plants are in the northeastern part of the county. Out of sight. Out of mind.”
That same assessment does not characterize public sentiment in the three Big Bend counties to the south. It hasn’t for a decade now. In 2010, the first whiff of what locals here have come to call “energy sprawl” blew through the region and then vanished. Tessera Power, a London-based company with American headquarters in Houston, proposed to build a big solar station two miles east of Marfa. The idea prompted pushback from residents who insisted they supported clean energy but hated the expanse of the proposed plant. The developers left town.
Then in 2015, other energy developers showed up at the door. Solaire Holman, a French company, announced plans to level 360 acres of rangeland to build a 50-megawatt solar station in Brewster County, 12 miles south of Alpine. Energy Transfer Partners filed for permission with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to slip its 148-mile Trans Pecos pipeline under the Rio Grande to ship natural gas from the Permian to Mexico. Both installations began service in 2017.
The same year, Helios Operating LLC, a Houston-based wildcatter, gained permits to drill two oil wells in the mountains of northwest Presidio County. Last year the company said the wells produced marketable quantities of oil. In February, the Presidio County Water Conservation Board awarded Helios a permit to draw 10 acre-feet of water from the ground – about 3.3 million gallons – to frack the wells.