Eagle Ford Shale, A Legacy Of Trailer Parks?

Housing is in short supply across much of the Eagle Ford Shale play area of Texas, especially in the “volatile oil window,” where drilling activity is currently the most intense. This fact has not gone unnoticed by real estate investors from across the nation, who are pouring literally millions of dollars into new hotels, RV parks, “man camps” and housing developments in the region. In addition to outside investors, many South Texas landowners with suitable property  are opening up their own “mom and pop” RV parks for oilfield workers, hoping to cash in on the oil boom.

photo of RV park in Eagle Ford shale oilfield area

Above: “Luck Of The Draw” RV Park in the Eagle Ford Shale oilfield area around Dilley Texas. Oil booms such as this one often result in overbuilding in certain sectors.

The massive Eagle Ford Shale oil discovery is creating hundreds of new jobs each month in towns such as Cotulla, Karnes City and Three Rivers. Newly hired workers such as oil truck drivers often find themselves driving long distances just to get to their yard or office, before they even get behind the wheel of their work vehicle. The lack of housing in South Texas has caused some workers to be separated from their families by great distances until a large enough place can be found for the whole family. In the town of Three Rivers, whose newly adopted motto is “Heart Of The Eagle Ford Shale,” I met Clay McHenry, a pipeline worker from Arkansas. Clay shares a small portable cabin, (barely larger than a backyard storage shed,) with three of his coworkers in an Eagle Ford shale “man camp.” His hope is to find a rental home large enough for his family, but his options are limited.   While crisscrossing the core area of the Eagle Ford shale, or the “volatile oil window” (see maps page,) over the past few months, we noticed new RV parks going up with surprising speed. In what had been open fields only a couple of weeks before, we saw hastily constructed RV parks, complete with new meter loops and water hookups, but few shade trees to protect the trailers’ occupants from the hot Texas sun. Unlike fancy trailer parks in the Rio Grande Valley, which cater to retired Winter Texans, most Eagle Ford Shale RV parks that we saw in our travels did not yet have amenities such as pools or community halls. The majority of new RV parks in the Eagle Ford Shale are being built with the sole purpose of acting as an affordable place for workers to spend the night, rather than as a place to stay and enjoy life. Despite the lack of amenities, most of the Eagle Ford shale RV parks we saw were well laid out, neat, and many were nearly full of trailers. There were exceptions to that rule, with some hastily laid out, backyard RV parks in oilfield towns like Cotulla looking like future junkyards in the making. Many town in South Texas do not have any kind of zoning ordinances to deal with improvised trailer parks, and once these parks are in place they can be very hard to get rid of.  In some places we saw row upon row of “FEMA trailers”, or RV’s bought by the parks’ owners at government auction, to be rented out to oilfield workers as cheap lodging. In other, fancier RV parks, the predominance of trailers that we saw were large, late model “fifth-wheels,” complete with multiple slide – out rooms and fresh off the dealers’ lots. The more expensive, larger RV’s are often owned by highly paid oilfield workers such as welders, heavy equipment operators, and plant construction workers. Below is a photo of one of the large South Texas RV parks serving oilfield workers, located near Crystal City.

Below, a “man camp” in the Eagle Ford shale area, near Carrizo Springs. This one features nice, decent sized trailers, unlike some which are made of FEMA trailers or small mobile cabins.

What Will Eagle Ford Shale Trailer Parks Look Like in Ten to Twenty Years, After The Infrastructure Stage?

“If the Eagle Ford Shale were a football game, we are just a couple of minutes into the first quarter.” That’s what a seasoned “company man,” or drilling consultant working for one of the major oil companies, recently told me.  I would also add, that as the game is just beginning, the stadium, refreshment stands and parking lot are all still under construction. New oilfields such as this one, which holds billions of barrels of recoverable oil, and which covers an area roughly four hundred miles long by fifty miles wide, require an incredible amount of new infrastructure to get going. In addition to the thousands of new oil and gas wells that must be drilled, (there are few, if any  “dry holes” in this shale play,) large pipelines must be laid, huge oil tanks and pumping stations must be constructed, as well as roads, and electric lines. Scores of oilfield service companies, construction companies and oil companies must establish sprawling new yards and hire workers. There is no question that housing will continue to be in short supply during the “infrastructure stage,” of this shale play, but what will become of the many new RV parks as the Eagle Ford Shale matures into the production phase and decline stage? Indeed, the decline stage of the Eagle Ford Shale play may be decades away, since nobody really knows how low well spacing will go. Already there is talk coming from some companies of down-spacing EFS wells to fifty acres or fewer. Early studies on the impact of the Eagle Ford shale on the South Texas economy, including on the housing sector, were based on a well spacing of 160 or more acres to the well. Now it’s looking like a lot more wells will be drilled than was originally expected. Even with the current technology of multi-stage frac jobs and long horizontal wells or “laterals” being used, somewhere around 94% of the oil in the Eagle Ford shale remains in the ground forever. That recovery figure will undoubtedly improve, as new “secondary recovery” techniques are developed to squeeze more oil out of the ground.  If you add in the fact that the huge Pearsall Shale formation lies beneath the Eagle Ford (which is chock full of dry natural gas,) there is a good possibility that oil drilling and production activity in South Texas could persist for decades, but the frenzy of construction we are seeing at present will most likely diminish over time. The question is, after the thousands of miles of pipeline networks are in place, along with a multitude of gas plants, pumping stations, and other infrastructure, how many RV spaces will be needed and who if anyone is going to occupy them? Winter Texans may end up occupying some of the sites, such as in new parks near Choke Canyon Lake, near Three Rivers, but what about all of the ones on the outskirts of small towns that offer no tourist attractions, such as Big Wells Texas? In the opinion of the author, we will most likely see many of these parks becoming magnets for low income residents, rather than oilfield workers. That’s all fine and well, everyone needs a place to live, but as the legacy of the Katrina disaster showed us, RV parks and tiny trailers aren’t the best places to live or raise a family for any length of time. My hope is that real, honest to goodness, family friendly neighborhoods, made of “stick built,” on-slab homes, will be the legacy of the Eagle Ford Shale boom in South Texas.

Perhaps local government officials and prospective trailer park owners and investors should look west, at communities such as Andrews, located north of Midland-Odessa, for some clues about how trailer housing in the Eagle Ford Shale could evolve. I mean no disrespect to the fine community of Andrews and its citizens, but it is a prime example of an oilfield town that is now in decline, and which could have benefited from more planning during the boom stage for long term housing in family friendly neighborhoods.

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