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A ‘Black Gold’ Rush in Cotulla

by Published on
PHOTO BY JULIA ROBINSON
Equipment trucks barrel through Cotulla, a sign of the oil boom in the South Texas town.

Ralph Ayala pulls up to the Brush Country Museum, parks his truck, and hops out, leaving the engine running. It’s 100 degrees outside and he doesn’t want to come back to a baking vehicle.

Just inside the museum’s entrance, a black-and-white photograph of an old ranch house hangs on the wall. In front of the house stands Joseph Cotulla, a small, serious man with gray hair and goatee—the founder and namesake of this little Texas town 70 miles north of the Mexican border. In the next room is a photograph of Lyndon Baines Johnson who once taught at the local high school. “He taught my great-grandfather,” Ralph tells me. “He paddled him, too. He paddled a lot of kids.”

Above a case displaying old harnesses, cattle brands, musket balls and Civil War bullets, there’s a picture of Felix de la Santos Ayala, Ralph’s great-uncle who was a sergeant in the U.S. Army. Elsewhere is a school photograph including Robert Ayala, Ralph’s uncle.

Things have changed in Cotulla over the last couple of years, says Ralph, 31 and a fourth-generation Texan. The population has more than doubled to 10,000 as the town experiences an oil boom. Today, Cotulla would be unrecognizable to most of the men and women memorialized in the small museum. Locals have always known there was oil under the ground here, but oil companies had no technology to remove it until recently. Then they refined a horizontal drilling technique that involves fracturing (fracking) the ground to extract the oil. The Eagle Ford Shale, the oil and natural gas field that stretches beneath Cotulla and a 250-mile swath of South Texas, may prove to be the largest recoverable oil deposit ever tapped in the lower 48 states. Some have called Cotulla a modern-day Spindletop. But the oil boom has come at a price.

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Huge dusty fracking trucks
barrel down the town’s main thoroughfare; tankers carrying sand and water destroy the roads and create traffic jams at Cotulla’s only stop light. Ralph and his friends no longer feel comfortable drinking at the handful of downtown bars. He says they’ve become violent, no-go areas.

In July 2011, a transient oil worker named Alfredo Guerrero from Rio Grande City went drinking in one of those bars. The next morning his body was discovered on the railroad tracks. The La Salle County Sheriff’s Office says Guerrero was struck by a train in the early morning and died of his injuries. No foul play was indicated, but a year later locals still think otherwise. Today, a little wooden cross stands at the edge of the tracks where he died, with flowers propped up beside it.

In the days following Guerrero’s death, Internet message boards crackled with murder conspiracies and rumors that Guerrero’s body had been dragged to the tracks after he was killed for bragging about the money he had earned in the oil field. Locals blamed transient workers—pejoratively called “gypsies”—for the death, and said the suspected murder illustrated what an unsavory place Cotulla had become.

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Sheriff Victor Villarreal says Guerrero likely fell asleep on the tracks. “It’s happened more times than you’d imagine. We have illegals come through who think they’re safer on the tracks—that being there will protect them from snakes. They think they’ll hear the train coming but it lulls them to sleep,” he says. “This guy had alcohol in him as he’d been drinking in the bar, and his body was beat up pretty good, which is why the rumors started. But the Texas Rangers investigation and the autopsy report concluded it was nothing more than an accident.”

Regardless, the population explosion that has accompanied the oil boom has contributed to crime in Cotulla, Villarreal says. “We have a bunch of out-of-towners and they bring with them their habits and drugs. So we’ve seen narcotics we don’t normally see, like bath salts and meth. In our small community, it used to be marijuana and cocaine. There’s also been an increase in family violence, but that doesn’t mean oil field workers beat up their spouses more. It just means there are more people here.

“When two people used to get into a fight in a bar, people would quickly tell me who was involved because everybody knew each other. If someone gets into a fight now, they say, ‘It was a white guy in a white pickup,’ and I don’t know who they are. I have 2,000 white pickups in town. But Cotulla has not become the Wild West just yet.”

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Ralph Ayala drives me to a gas station
off Interstate 35. It’s not far from the museum, but he won’t leave the keys in the ignition here; too many transient workers passing through. Inside the station store, oil workers in overalls stock up on candy bars and Gatorade. A moose-hunting video game near the entrance is unoccupied. As recently as a few years ago hunters descended on Cotulla from all over the state for the area’s prized white tail deer hunting. Now, Ralph says, ranch owners make far more money leasing their land to the oil companies, and the hunting economy is all but dead.

We take a short drive around town. Ralph points out various buildings: a former church that now houses oil and gas company EOG Resources, a one-time daycare center and erstwhile feed store replaced by rival oil supply companies. “This all used to be woodland when I was growing up,” Ralph says, pointing to a row of buildings recently developed to house oil supply companies.

A few years ago, Cotulla’s population hovered around 4,000. Now it’s more like 10,000. Lack of accommodations is a problem. The weekend I visited, there was only one room left at the Best Western, and all the other hotels were fully booked. To deal with the demand, enterprising locals have opened dozens of mobile home and RV parks. One is situated next to a cemetery. “One of the cheaper places to stay in town,” Ralph says.

About 15 percent of Cotulla locals own land with oil reserves, Ralph says. Those without reserves don’t resent those who have them, he insists. He shows me a ramshackle house on the outskirts of town where the owners have parked two RVs, which they rent out, in their yard. Other locals bought “belly dump” trucks to haul caliche to make the new roads for the oil traffic; the oil companies lease the trucks and hire their owners to drive them. “Everyone’s cashing in some way,” Ralph says, laughing. “And you can rent your house out for $2,500 a month if you want to.”

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Ralph works for an oil company as well—he won’t say which—and his family owns some 800 acres in and around Cotulla with mineral rights. “My grandfather bought the land in the 1930s with the intention of raising cattle,” he says. “Today, land costs about $3,000 an acre without oil on it, but you’ll never find anything for sale with mineral rights.”

If a barrel of oil is $100 and the average well produces 500 barrels of oil daily, that’s $50,000 a day, Ralph says. Factor in the average producing-life of a well at 20 years and that’s a phenomenal amount of money, even minus taxes and other expenses.

Ralph attended Texas A&M University, but many of his high school friends went straight to work in the oil fields. With a starting salary of around $40,000 a year, he figures they now earn twice that amount annually. “But all the oil field workers and ranch owners here still live a humble lifestyle,” Ralph says. “They all look like poor ranchers. In those shows like ‘Real Housewives’ it’s all about the cars and parties—it’s important to be seen. But here, there’s no one to see you.”

“Then what do they do with their money?” I ask.

“Buy more ranches. They’re a tax write-off,” Ralph says. “They either buy them with mineral rights in other states or here in La Salle County for cattle ranching.”

Ralph takes me to Cotulla’s tiny historic downtown. One beautiful old building set back from the road here used to be a saloon and then a drug store before Ben Ludeman bought it and turned it into a western-wear store in 1946. After Ludeman died three decades ago, the shop was taken over by his nephew, Stewart Martin, and Martin’s wife, Jill. Today, aside from the oil companies, Ben’s Western Wear is one of the most successful businesses in town.

Inside is a maze of boots, hats, cowboy shirts and brush-country camo. In an adjoining room, beneath an old fan that whirs noisily on the ceiling, is a display of hundreds of hats hung from the wall. The names of previous owners are inscribed below them. There are hats belonging to ranch owners and ranch hands as well as governors Dolph Briscoe and Rick Perry, baseball legend Nolan Ryan and country singer George Strait. Ben’s calls this the Texas Hat Museum.

Since the oil companies moved in, attracting thousands of workers, Ben’s has become the go-to store for oilfield couture.

“In the 1980s and 1990s this place was a huge hunting destination,” owner Jill Martin tells me. “We were busy for hunting season, but the rest of the year was so dead that cobwebs were rolling down the street.”

Martin says that all changed around 2008. “There used to be four of us working here. The oil business has meant I’ve been able to hire two more people. I could do a lot more business if I stayed open late at night, but I’m not going to do that.”

She turns to say goodbye to a regular customer from out of town. “Please send some rain,” she says. “We need it.”

“We started out just selling blue jeans and hats to cowboys,” Martin tells me. “Now we sell steel-toe-capped boots and work wear more often. I can tell when another pipeline is going to start up because the shop gets busier.”

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When Ralph was growing up
in Cotulla, he says the best restaurant in town was Dairy Queen. Now, there’s a selection of fast food joints to choose from, but competition for land is tough. Pizza Hut, keen to cash in on the boom, operates out of a trailer in a parking lot off the highway.

I eat lunch with Ralph at the Country Store restaurant, where he introduces me to County Judge Joel Rodriguez Jr., who is keen to tell me about Cotulla’s boom-related challenges.

Rodriguez says he’s particularly concerned about elderly residents living on Social Security income and facing rising property taxes. Food costs, too, have skyrocketed. “This is like a gold rush town,” he says, “and they’re scared to leave their homes because of the traffic.”

Rodriguez says a lawsuit was recently settled over damage to local roads, which were not built to withstand the strain of heavy traffic and heavy trucks. “The roads are full of potholes, so there are more accidents and head-on collisions. We’ve had more fatalities … and [the Texas Department of Transportation] too has not committed the resources necessary to keep up with the Eagle Ford drilling activities.”

A partner in one South Texas law firm, who is not involved in the suit, and who didn’t want to be named, says lawsuits are “flying around across the board.” He says a local official estimated that there is an average of one vehicular death a week due to the high number of oil field vehicles on the roads. “Then there are the mineral interest lawsuits—neighbors arguing over fencing or who owns which tract,” he says. “With horizontal drilling, you can drill under and remove oil from your neighbors’ land, so there have been trespass cases. And we’ve seen people sign other people’s mineral interest deeds over to themselves.”

But not everything related to the boom is negative.

Some of the oil companies are conscientious and contribute to the community, Rodriguez says. He cites Rosetta Resources and Anadarko Petroleum, the latter has donated $2 million toward road improvements. Rodriguez is the first to acknowledge what the oil companies have done for the local economy. “We’re lucky to have so much employment,” he says. “Unemployment in Cotulla is around 4 percent. And some of those [people] are working contract jobs and not reporting it. If you’re not working in Cotulla, it’s because you don’t want to work.”

Rodriguez smiles. “Take the Texas Department of Criminal Justice prison facility in Cotulla. Normally prisoners go as far away from the prison as possible when they’re released. Not here. They stick around because it’s so easy to get a job.”

Back at the Brush Country Museum, I meet one of the volunteers, Elizabeth Sidell, another Cotulla native. She says the good things that have happened to her town since the oil boom have far outweighed the bad. What bad things does she think have happened? “Road conditions, traffic, the problems in the bars, the influx of people,” she says. “The main problem we have is that the highways are not made for the heavy equipment, and the congestion in town has been unpleasant for people. But it’s given us a much-needed boost.”

Sidell says her son owns a small oil company in town that employs 73 locals. “Cotulla was in a state before the oil companies came. It was hard to see any change ever happening here,” she says. “But now there is more business. More land is leased; there’s more exploration for oil. We can put up with a few unpleasant things.”

Ralph is standing in front of a framed movie poster for the 1938 film The Texans, which was filmed at a nearby ranch. In a cabinet in the room is ephemera related to baseball. “The Cotulla Cubs were a semipro team based here in the 1940s,” Ralph says. “And did you know that Billy Cotulla, the great-grandson of the town’s founder and his last living descendant, still lives here?”

Ralph is still fiercely proud of the place he calls home. I ask him what he does for entertainment now, considering that he no longer feels safe in the bars at night. “I’ve turned into an old man,” he says. “I have a kid now and I stay busy with the ranches. I’m used to that, anyway. It’s all I knew growing up.”

As we walk out of the little museum, I notice a small display of barbed wire—no museum in the West would be complete without one—the invention that tamed this once-unruly wilderness. Then I notice a typewritten prayer in a small frame on top of a writing desk. This line stands out: “Give me the ability to see good things in unexpected places.”

Ralph has been talking lately about leaving Cotulla and raising his son elsewhere. He would commute to town for his job in the oil fields. And who knows, maybe he’ll bring his boy back to this museum one day to learn about his heritage. By that time, Cotulla could have changed again.

Alex Hannaford is a magazine writer based in Texas, where he contributes to the UK’s Sunday Telegraph, Sunday Times, Guardian, GQ magazine, and The Texas Observer.

Alex Hannaford writes about the death penalty, crime, prisons, religion and human interest issues for the Telegraph, Times and Guardian in the UK, and to GQ, The Nation and The Texas Observer.

  • Elizabeth RIebschlaeger

    Great article, Alex. Good picture of the social impact on rural Texas towns. Next time, visit the oil well just across the road from the Cotulla Senior High School. Wish you could have seen the rig during the drilling, fracking process. Then there’s the community fair grounds next to it, and the public housing project just next to the school. Lesson: lease holders should be aware that they have control over where rigs can be located on their land when developing the lease. Some persons have ended up with a drilling rig only 50 feet from their home when setbacks could have been demanded in the lease. No Texas law protect them from this kind of abuse, so they have to do so themselves when signing the lease. As a protection for the land surface owner (whether they own the mineral rights owner or not, and/or the ones signing the lease or not), it is suggested that they do not take at face value the lease they are presented with, but hire a savvy oil and gas attorney who knows the potential, toss the one the landman or broker has given them, and use the lease they develop with the advice of their own attorney. The one the landman presents is always in favor of the industry. I know one case where the broker (different than a landman) actually wrote into the lease he was offering that all costs of production would be paid out of the royalties payment. But that’s just business to him, I suppose. Think about that. Needless to say, that lease went into the trash can, and an experienced local and honest family attorney developed one far more favorable to their client.