As a 37-year resident of Odessa and now Ector County’s chief administrative officer, County Judge Debi Hays is proud of the contribution the Permian Basin makes not only to the Lone Star State, but to the nation. In fact, she has the statistics at her fingertips:
“The Permian Basin is the epicenter of energy production in Texas and serves a critical role in literally ‘fueling’ the American economy and our nation’s strategic defense,” Hays shared.
“The Permian Basin accounts for 57 percent of oil production in Texas, 14 percent of oil production in the United States, 17 percent of gas production in Texas and the United States, and over half of the wind and solar power in Texas,” she continued. “From 2011-2018, just over 31 percent of all state severance tax was produced in the Permian Basin.”
There is, however, another side of the coin. As a locally elected official who lives and works in the community she serves, Hays sees more than the success stats. She sees the safety stats, as well.
“I am concerned,” Hays declared. “I need others to be just as concerned as I am. There is a human element to all of this, and we have an obligation to make sure those people in the industry and those outside the industry in the Permian Basin are safe.”
In May, Hays was appointed chairman of the newly formed Permian Basin Regional Freight Plan Advisory Committee by Commissioner Alvin New of the Texas Transportation Commission. Hays will chair her first committee meeting on Sept. 19.
“Commissioner Alvin New recommended Judge Hays as she has participated in every transportation forum concerning the Permian Basin whether in Midland/Odessa or Austin,” said Veronica Beyer, director of TxDOT Media Relations.
Playing Catch-Up No Longer an Option
The roads in the Permian Basin were not designed or architecturally engineered to withstand the heavy loads required by the industry and resulting increase in traffic, Hays observed.
According to the Texas Department of Transportation, every new well generates approximately 1,200 loaded trucks; each existing well results in about 350 loaded trucks annually.
“The easements are deteriorating,” Hays stated. “Pot holes are large enough for a small vehicle to fall into and have to be towed out.” The impact on area roads is not a new problem, but it is a worsening problem.
“We are behind,” Hays said emphatically. “We are a decade behind.” Road repairs and new and expanded roadways were needed years before this most recent boom. Models and plans made within the last 15, 10, or even five years, must be reconsidered because they are no longer in sync with growth.
“We have to forget anything that we used as a model of where we are going to be in five years,” Hays reiterated. “When those plans were written, we didn’t understand the technology in the oil industry.” Repairs and new roads are part of the plan, but they cannot be THE PLAN.
The Heart of the Matter
When all is said and done, the oil and gas industry affects individual lives, Hays emphasized.
Suppose a gentleman staying at the man camp in Orla experiences chest pains or has a heart attack, Hays said. The closest ambulance is Pecos, about a 40-minute drive.
“Put all of the current traffic in the equation, and that drive becomes over an hour and a half. Can his life be saved?” she asked. “He is someone’s son. Perhaps someone’s husband or father.”
Hays pictures sand trucks sharing the road with school busses and the delayed response time should there be an accident involving area children.
“How do we get around all of that traffic that is crawling at a snail’s pace?” Hays asked. “These are the things I think about.”
The Permian Road Safety Coalition (PRSC) thinks about these things, as well.
The spike in industry activity has opened up ranches and brought traffic onto lease roads that have never received first responder service calls in the past, explained Scott Scheffler, executive director of the PRSC.
“If it takes 65 minutes to get a first responder to an incident, we could lose that accident victim, Scheffler stated.
In April, the safety coalition transitioned from an ad-hoc group of stakeholders into a full-time non-profit to help fulfill its mission to “make roads safer and road infrastructure better across Southeast New Mexico and West Texas,” https://www.permianroadsafety.org/.
In 2018, there were 245 traffic fatalities in the Permian Basin, Scheffler reported. This represents 10 percent-11 percent of the 2018 roadway fatalities in the entire State of Texas. While all of these cannot be attributed specifically to oil and gas activity, Scheffler said the PRSC is taking a leadership role to address the overall road safety of the Permian Basin area.
“We can do better,” he emphasized. “We want to get to zero fatalities.”
A New Solution
The PRSC is a member of the Permian Basin Regional Freight Plan Advisory Committee, which conducted its kick-off meeting in May in Odessa with some 50-60 in attendance.
During the development of TxDOT’s 2018 Texas Freight Mobility Plan, numerous transportation issues related to the energy sector were documented, leading to the recommendation of a Permian Basin Regional Freight Plan covering 22 Texas counties (Andrews, Borden, Crane, Crockett, Culberson, Dawson, Ector, Gaines, Glasscock, Howard, Irion, Loving, Martin, Midland, Pecos, Reagan, Reeves, Scurry, Upton, Ward, Winkler, Yoakum) and two New Mexico counties (Lea and Eddy).
The goals and objectives of the Freight Plan, as explained by TxDOT, include:
- Integrate multimodal regional and statewide energy sector transportation considerations into the local and regional transportation planning, programming, and implementation processes.
- Identify the region’s energy sector-related transportation needs and opportunities impacting the Texas Multimodal Freight Network and statewide economic competitiveness.
- Identify and assess the regional freight network, including locally significant energy sector corridors and first/last mile connections.
The Permian Basin Regional Freight Plan Committee includes TxDOT, MOTRAN, The Permian Basin Metropolitan Planning Organization, and the Permian Basin Regional Planning Commission, along with representatives from the energy sector and other affected entities including water haulers, sand mine companies, utility districts and school districts.
“Thinking one step out of the box will not be far enough,” Hays emphasized. “We are going to have to take three and four steps out of the box.”
Hays’ vision includes the expansion of road lanes, restructuring of frontage roads, exits and entrance ramps, and the re-engineering of roadways. However, the Freight Plan will also explore alternate methods of transporting and hauling in order to take the pressure, stress, and congestion off current and future roadways. For example, a new freight airport could allow for mail and other supplies to travel by air versus road. Distribution warehouses could develop around that airport, allowing for a concentration of activity which will be easier to maintain. Rail lines could be used to lighten the load on area roadways.
As Freight Plan committees meet throughout the next year, data will be collected to determine common needs and source sharing.
“Instead of everyone sourcing from all different places, we could have one main location that receives that particular product,” Scheffler said. These roads could be designed for the heavier loads, and plans could be made to support those activities.
“My vision includes where we are going to be in 20-25 years,” Hays said. Part of that vision is broadening the transportation infrastructure to include alternative methods to take volume off of already-stressed roadways.
Once plans are developed, Hays is hopeful state lawmakers and other stakeholders will prioritize funding for the recommended strategies.
By Julie Anderson