From a dusty parking lot along Texas 16 near Tilden, Texas, Jose Rodriguez sees what's not yet obvious in the numbers. The Eagle Ford Shale oil field is a shadow of its former self, fading at the edges as the energy industry slashes spending.
Plenty of trucks rumble past Rodriguez - but not as many as before. Workers pull over to browse the merchandise folded on wooden tables - piles of blue jeans, used coveralls and flame-resistant shirts. But Rodriguez's business is down about 40 percent in three months.
"A lot of this I buy off of people that are getting laid off," said Rodriguez, who lives in southern Bexar County but follows oil field workers to Tilden and Pleasanton a few days each week. "There's a lot of turnover in the oil field."
Across South Texas, about 20 percent of the drilling rigs working at the start of the year have gone idle. Once ubiquitous "No occupancy" signs have been replaced by "vacancy" signs. Plummeting hotel room rates mirror the crash in the cost of a barrel of oil: What was $100 last summer now can be had for around $50.
The vast oil field still hums, but at a lower volume than its previous frenetic roar.
When Brenda Ropp and her husband arrived from Pensacola, Fla., in October, they snagged one of the last two available RV slots at the Tilden Trailer Park.
"Now it's like every day people leave," said Ropp, whose husband, Tim, works as a gate guard at a ranch with oil production.
Karr Ingham, the economist who compiles the Texas Petro Index, which tracks the energy industry's waxing and waning, thinks the state could lose tens of thousands of oil-field workers. He expects two-thirds of the 906 drilling rigs that were working in Texas at Thanksgiving will get stacked, a loss of about 600 drilling rigs.
"The dominoes are falling, and there's no stopping them at this point," Ingham said. "This is going to happen. The cycle is going to play out."
Beyond the rig count and ominous layoff announcements, available data aren't yet showing the slowdown. Sales tax collections were up wildly in some parts of the Eagle Ford in January - 60 percent in Dilley over the same month the previous year - but fell elsewhere, including an 18.6 percent drop in Three Rivers.
And even with a rig count that dropped from 200 to 160 in seven weeks, more Eagle Ford oil keeps flowing as wells set in motion months ago move to sales. The U.S. Energy Information Administration expects the Eagle Ford to produce 1.73 million barrels of crude oil and other liquid hydrocarbons daily in March, up 17,000 barrels daily from this month.
A fast descent
For some, a reversal of fortune came swiftly.
Zia and Zameer Ali's Grand Eagle Ford Lodge in Tilden once ran at 80 percent capacity. Business was so good with rooms priced at $99 per night that they built more, growing from 44 cabins to 80.
But the Grand Eagle Ford Lodge emptied out nearly as soon as crude oil prices fell Thanksgiving weekend. Members of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries decided to maintain their 30-million-barrel-per-day quota rather than cutting production to push up worldwide oil prices.
The U.S. domestic benchmark crude, West Texas Intermediate, immediately fell about 10 percent to $66 a barrel, and it kept falling.
"It was like an instant. It was shocking," Zia Ali said. "It was like a panic."
Only eight to 10 of the hotel's 80 rooms have guests now. Most of those staying at the Grand Eagle Ford Lodge were contractors - what's likely to be a hard-hit group in the oil field.
Like the contract workers who frequent their lodge, Zia Ali watches oil prices and gasoline prices daily.
"We have our hopes up like everybody," she said.
Yet Tilden is the seat of McMullen County, which still has 17 drilling rigs working - down four in a week, but still one of the busiest places for drilling in the state. Some businesses have barely hiccuped.
At The Location, a restaurant whose name is a play on the oil field nickname for a work site, contractor pickup trucks filled the parking lot at lunchtime Thursday.
"We've been very lucky," said owner Ricky Alaniz, who left a career as an emergency room nurse to open the restaurant in 2013. The Location started out the size of a roadside fireworks stand but grew into a 2,100-square-foot new building last year.
Alaniz still gets so many requests for catering - people wanting 25 lunch specials for pickup or delivery - that he has to turn away some of the potential business each morning.
Clothing purchases slip
Most other businesses, though, see the change.
At Peggy Van Cleve's ranch store, Peggy's Circle V in Carrizo Springs in Dimmit County, a year ago employers would walk in and purchase six sets of flame-resistant clothing - required on oil field work sites - for each of their workers.
"They'd have 10 people in here at a time," Van Cleve said. "Now the workers are buying their own, and they're buying one thing at a time." January sales were good, though not as robust as last year.
Van Cleve also has eight RV slots that once had a waiting list.
"That was everyone in town," she said. "Now it's slacked off."
Landmen 'go away'
Landman Kip Killough of La Grange said that at least 10 to 15 landmen have come by his Carrizo Springs office looking for work. Killough estimates 300 to 400 landmen in Texas are out of work, most of them self-employed and working on contract.
"They're not fired," Killough said. "There's just no work, so they go away."
At a Carrizo Springs RV park last week, construction contractor Robert Zamora was getting ready to start a job building metal siding over generators and compressors to help protect them from the elements.
"Other than that, it's all dried up," Zamora said.
He thinks that he may go to North Dakota in April, where big construction projects have kept him busy in the past.
"It's hitting a lot of people. You can really feel it and see it," Zamora said. "You're counting your pennies now."
The phones have fallen quiet at Richard Collier's Concan-based pipe business.
"There can be some awfully lonely moments," said Collier, who has been through four or five oil price drops over the years. "It's not fun for anybody who's in it right now. It tests your fortitude.
"A lot of us are going to have a hard time. It's not going to stop with me in the pipe business."
Collier has noticed less traffic while driving to his Zavala County ranch.
"There's no way to compare unless you saw it two years ago," Collier said. "Two years ago, the gravel trucks were lined up as far as you could see to build pads. Getting to the place was a nightmare. The other day, I saw one gravel truck and one trailer with a backhoe on it."
No one knows if the oil and gas economic engine is conking out or merely sputtering across rough terrain. Forecasts generally call for higher crude oil prices in the second half of the year.
But operators have good reason to pull back quickly. Shale wells come in producing large amounts of oil and gas but plummet more than 60 percent in the first year. Like so many things in the oil patch, the phenomenon has a clever name, the Red Queen, named after the character in Lewis Carroll's "Through the Looking-Glass" who tells Alice she must run "Faster! Faster!"
"Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place, " the Red Queen says.
The Red Queen means operators have to add wells to replace their production. But operators that once ran to make $100 oil may walk to make $50 oil.
"The whole play works when you're selling flush production into high dollars and trying to get your well paid out quickly," San Antonio oilman Harvey Howell said. "The play does not work today because you're selling your most oil into low dollars."
In Tilden on Thursday, Juan Fuentes of Laredo stopped to look at Rodriguez's fire-resistant shirts - $15 for what would cost $50 new.
"The economy's tough, so we've got to get our own things," Fuentes said. His employer would have bought it before, but Fuentes said he's glad to still be working.
"I like the oil field," he said.
source: Houston Chronicle