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What does China want with south Texas? Hint: cleaner energy know-how

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The rush is on, and as the world conducts experiments in retrieving this new resource, one of the most influential laboratories lies in the heart of Texas.

In La Salle County, located halfway between San Antonio and the Mexican border, stars used to be all that illuminated the night. Today, bright orange flames flicker on the black horizon, the result of burn-off from new natural-gas and oil wells that have popped up since 2008. That was when the 400-mile-long Eagle Ford shale, a swath of rock stretching from Laredo northeast toward Houston, was discovered.

Though not nearly as large as other US gas plays – an industry term for exploration areas – Eagle Ford offers cheap land, low population density, and an oil- and gas-friendly state government. These are advantages for energy companies interested in fracking.

Overnight, some area residents have become millionaires after leasing their mineral rights to corporations.

"People [in Texas] are amenable to oil and gas," says David Victor, an energy expert at the University of California, San Diego. But "as you move out of those areas where people aren't familiar with shale gas," fracking operations attract antidrilling interest groups "like flypaper."

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