What happens to a sleepy, Texas town when technological advances in oil extraction transform it into the epicenter of an oil boom? To find out, I sat down with freelance writer Alex Hannaford to discuss his most recent Observer article, "A 'Black Gold' Rush in Cotulla." Find out what lengths Pizza Hut will go to in order to serve a hungry army of oil workers. Hear why Cotulla's roughest natives won't head to local watering holes after dark anymore.
A Black Rush in Cotulla
by Alex Hannaford. "Observer"
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.