Life After Oil

Ten years after the bust, Midland’s energy companies are still laying people off. So why is this town booming?

No landscape in Texas is more scenically challenged than the desert north of Midland. Flat and empty as far as the eye can see, it is an inhospitable place where even mesquite grows reluctantly, low and twisted and spaced far apart. When a cold winter wind blows hard from the northwest—as it was doing on an overcast morning in late February—the sand that once lay beneath a Permian sea whips through the air with such force that it adheres to your hair and your clothes, and if your car is parked, the sand will give it a yellowish sheen in a matter of minutes. “God felt such remorse about what he did to the land,” Midlanders like to say, “that he gave it oil.”

But oil isn’t the only thing of value out here: Midland is in the middle of a real estate boom. Along the north-side loop, shopping centers that were virtually empty three years ago are fully leased, and national chain stores—all of them newcomers to the Permian Basin—are opening everywhere you look: Circuit City, Best Buy, PetsMart, Builders Square, Office Depot, Barnes and Noble, Target, Wal-Mart Supercenter, and more. Undeveloped land beyond the edge of town, which was selling for $2,000 or so an acre just a few years ago if anyone cared to buy it, today is worth at least $6,000 an acre. The desert is blooming with houses—big houses, selling for a minimum of $200,000. And far out into the mesquite country, well past the last subdivision, a band of Cree Indians from Montana has bought land for a new development that is the talk of Midland. It will be built around an artificial lake with four finger extensions, and it will be called Desert Shores. When telling about it, Midlanders describe the shape of the lake-to-be by holding up their right hands with fingers spread, as if to take an oath that this improbable story is really true.

What is still more remarkable is that this boom is taking place even though Midland’s most important economic indicator—the price of oil—remains in the doldrums. April 1 marks the tenth anniversary of the dreadful day when the oil bust hit bottom and crude futures on the New York Mercantile Exchange fell below $10 a barrel, a level at which no oil company could afford to drill a well and few could afford to operate one. The price has rebounded somewhat, settling in around $18, but the oil industry in Midland has shrunk in every way possible: in numbers, in expectations, in myth. The exploration era in the Permian Basin is over. Instead, oilmen talk about exploitation—squeezing every last drop of oil from existing fields and wells.

In the eighties, when oil sneezed, Midland caught a cold. But these are the nineties, and Midland has found that there is life after $10 oil. It is a different kind of life, though, from the swaggering, high-rolling days when any loan officer at the old First National Bank could approve an oil loan but it took two to turn one down. The story of Midland today is the story of post-industrial America: corporate layoffs replacing job security, service-sector jobs replacing oil-industry jobs, two-income families replacing one-income families—and dinner at Outback Steakhouse, not the Petroleum Club. People are worse off in some ways yet better off in others. Almost everyone I met had a story about how the building boom of stores, restaurants, and hospitals has made life in Midland more enjoyable. A taxi driver told me how he was able to have his heart bypass surgery in Midland instead of Houston. A woman who runs an employment firm said she used to drive to Dallas every six weeks to buy discount office supplies before Office Depot opened in Midland. There is more to do in Midland these days, but less money to do it with.

Fred Wetendorf remembers what it was like in the spring of 1986. Today he teaches environmental technology at Midland’s community college, but back then he was the vice president for land and exploration for the Texas American Oil Corporation, a large independent with a $20 million annual drilling budget and operations in fourteen states. He watched with a feeling of helplessness as the price of oil plummeted. “We’d already survived one period when oil fell to twenty-eight dollars [a barrel] when we were forecasting forty,” he says. “At least you could still drill marginal wells then. But at ten, the price you could get for your oil was less than the lifting cost to get it out of the ground.”

He spent most of his last three months with the company dealing with a lawsuit in San Antonio—not that he could have done anything to save the situation had he been in Midland. Texas American won the suit, but soon after, the CEO walked into Wetendorf’s office and told him that the company would be sold. “I had the luxury of firing myself and forty people,” he says. He was 46 years old and out of a job.

As he told his story, Wetendorf was sitting in his cramped, windowless office at the college. It is adjacent to his teaching area, which, with its machinery, pipes, and overhead doors, looks more like a garage than a classroom. His gangly frame, tufts of white hair on the sides of his head, and white mustache flecked with gold contribute to a rather dramatic presence. He is a good-humored man, though the humor often has a rueful tone. When he said things like “the luxury of firing myself,” he smiled at his own use of irony, and his eyebrows and the deep lines in his forehead moved up and down for emphasis.

“I looked for employment with larger independents,” he recalled, “but there was lots of competition for every opening. I felt that my age and the title of vice president were working against me, so I wrote letters saying that I had a prior six-figure salary,

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