Jack Z. Smith Special Projects Reporter Fort Worth Business Press
For many decades, Fort Worth has been home to numerous energy companies, despite the fact that little oil and natural gas was produced in Tarrant County in the 20th century. That changed dramatically in the new millenium, with the coming of the epic Barnett Shale drilling boom, the granddaddy of shale-gas plays and a proving ground for horizontal-drilling and hydraulic-fracturing technologies that have triggered a resurgence in the U.S. oil and gas industry. Fort Worth quickly became a hotbed for drilling in the Barnett, which underlies 27 North Texas counties. Natural gas prices soared above $13 per 1,000 cubic feet in 2008, with Barnett drilling activity peaking at 203 active rigs in early September of that year.
Since then, sustained weakness in gas prices has stymied Barnett drilling. There were only 28 rigs drilling Barnett wells as of Dec. 13 – less than one-seventh the peak count of 2008 – and only three active rigs in Tarrant County, according to the Fort Worth-based Powell Shale Digest, citing RigData as its source. Nevertheless, Tarrant County remains the No. 1 natural gas producer among Texas’ 254 counties – and its output far exceeds any other county. A Nov. 26 Texas Railroad Commission report shows that Tarrant County produced nearly 62 billion cubic feet of gas in September, nearly double the yield of 32.6 billion cubic feet from No. 2 Webb County (Laredo). The Barnett Shale also helped account for Johnson County ranking No. 3 in gas production, Wise County No. 5 and Denton County No. 6. The commission said these are preliminary production figures for the month.
The Powell Shale Digest edition of Nov. 19 said its research showed that Barnett gas production had declined from an output of more than six billion cubic feet per day in much of 2011. But figures for September of this year still show substantial Barnett production, with a gas yield of 5.1 billion cubic feet per day and oil output of 22,674 barrels per day, the digest said. Tarrant County is predominantly a gas producer. Some counties farther north, such as Wise and Montague, produce considerable oil, condensate and natural gas liquids. Gene Powell, publisher of the Powell Shale Digest, said its research shows that there were slightly more than 2,000 producing Barnett wells within Fort Worth city limits as of Oct. 1. There were 4,262 producing gas wells in all of Tarrant County as of July 1 and the entire 27-county Barnett region had 19,091 producing wells as of that date, digest research shows. As of Oct. 1, the Barnett has yielded 14.6 trillion cubic feet of gas and 52.4 million barrels of oil and condensate, with most of that production coming since 2005, Powell said. In October, Powell declared Fort Worth to be “the biggest natural gas-producing city in the world,” and since then, “no one has contradicted that,” he said in a telephone interview.
Veteran Fort Worth-based oil and gas producer Mike Moncrief – a former mayor, county judge and state senator – said the Barnett has been a “game-changer” for both the energy industry and the North Texas economy. In Fort Worth, the extensive Barnett drilling not only has enriched the oil and gas industry, but also benefited many thousands of residents who received lease bonuses and production royalties, Moncrief said. “It created new wealth in the city,” he said. “It created tens of thousands of new jobs.”
Moncrief knows firsthand the economic benefits – he has seven Barnett gas wells on his Parker County ranch. As Fort Worth’s mayor, however, he also experienced the challenge of crafting a natural gas ordinance that allowed ample opportunity for drilling, but also put restrictions on the industry. Fort Worth’s ordinance became “a blueprint for other cities,” Moncrief said, but critics complained that he excessively favored the oil and gas industry. In 2011, a study by economist Ray Perryman concluded that the Barnett boom had a beneficial economic impact of $65.4 billion in North Texas over a 10-year period beginning in 2001 and that the shale play had generated 38.5 percent of the area’s economic growth in that period. The Barnett supported, directly and indirectly, 100,268 jobs in 24 counties in 2011, said the study, commissioned by the Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce.
There could be a rebound in Barnett drilling activity if natural gas prices – recently at weak levels moderately above $4 per 1,000 cubic feet – show an appreciable gain, Powell said. Activity could be boosted if prices rise to $6.50 to $7 and sustain that level three months in a row, he said. Some Fort Worth-based energy companies, however, are focused on hot oil plays far removed from the gas-rich Barnett, because crude prices of $90 to $100 a barrel are more alluring. Approach Resources, with a 40-employee corporate headquarters staff in West Fort Worth, is honed in on drilling for oil in the dramatically revived Permian Basin of West Texas, where it plans to spend $400 million in 2014 on drilling centered in Crockett County, south of Midland.
“We’re going to drill about 70 to 75 horizontal wells,” Approach CEO Ross Craft said. The average well will cost $5.3 million to $5.4 million, he said. Craft said, however, that he has no plans to vacate Fort Worth, even though headquarters-based employees often have to fly on leased planes from Meacham Airport to West Texas. “I love Fort Worth,” Craft said. “I think Fort Worth is just a very good city to live in.”