As Drilling Booms in the Eagle Ford, New Caucus Convenes
The way State Senator Judith Zaffirini tells it, the idea first came from a constituent.
The Laredo Democrat was hosting a legislative summit in her hometown when “somebody just rose from the audience during a Q&A and suggested this.”
And so the Eagle Ford Shale Legislative Caucus was born.
As most Texans know by now, new drilling technology has spurred an unprecedented oil and gas boom across the South Texas Eagle Ford shale formation. Zaffirini’s bi-partisan group of over 20 state Senators and Representatives hopes to guide that transformation.
The group held its first formal event at the old State Supreme Court Chambers Wednesday at the Capitol.
At the meeting, a packed room heard about the economic impact of drilling.
Dr. Tom Tunstall, Research Director for the Institute for Economic Development at UT San Antonio, ran through some of his findings (funded by the industry group American’s Natural Gas Alliance, which has also supported KUT, lead station for StateImpact Texas, in the past). They included positive news about the multiplier effect of the boom in the 20-county area that has seen the most development. He estimates that drilling will have spurred $90 billion dollars in economic activity in that area by 2021.
“And those numbers may be low,” he told StateImpact Texas after the presentation.
A second presentation reported that the state had generated nearly $2.5 Billion in tax revenue in fiscal years 2010-2012. With about 75 percent of that money going to the state’s Rainy Day Fund.
But if the event served as a sort of debut party for the caucus, it was not without party crashers.
Not All Good News
During the question-and-answer period, a group of county judges from the region raised concerns over damage caused by the drilling. They said some of the tax money being raised by the oil and gas industry should go back to pay for repairs.
“If we divert some money from the severance tax collections back to an infrastructure fund or something that actually pays for the damages, that’s a statewide solution.” DeWitt County Judge Daryl Fowler told StateImpact Texas. “There are only 17 counties in the state of Texas that have no mineral values on their tax roll.”
Fowler said he wanted his voice heard while the group was still formulating its approach to the legislative session.
“Obviously the line lining up outside the governor’s mansion to get at [oil and gas tax money] is a lot longer,” Fowler said.
‘To Unite in Supporting Legislation’
Concerns like Folwer’s are just the type of thing the caucus was formed to address, Sen. Zaffirini told StateImpact Texas after the event.
Zaffirini called the benefits of the drilling boom “phenomenal,” but said challenges at the forefront of the agenda for the caucus include “transportation, public safety and the environment.”
The caucus “will bring together senators and representatives who care about these issues, and who want to unite in supporting legislation and securing funding for the programs involved,” she said.
Though it’s still unclear what bills the caucus, comprised of Republicans and Democrats, with some of them from regions outside the shale formation, might unite behind. At the event, caucus member State Rep. Ryan Guillen (D-Rio Grand City) talked about a bill he filed to fund road improvement programs. After the meeting, County Judge Fowler said he and his group had their own ideas on road repairs and planned to push those this session as well.
“We’ve engaged a lobbyist to help usher the legislation that we will eventually propose through the houses here,” he said.
One thing that was clear: the oil and gas boom, and the role of the legislature in guiding it, will be generating a lot of attention this session.
“There is tremendous interest,” Senator Zaffirini said of the standing-room-only crowd at Wednesday’s event.