The wily wildcatters of West Texas seemed to belong to the sepia-toned days of yore. That is until a soft-spoken geologist did the unexpected. He gave Midland one more boom. Executive editor Skip Hollandsworth talked to Midlanders from a bunny suit-wearing ex-cheerleader to bespectacled number crunchers to bring you a true Texas tale twelve years in the making. Here’s the story behind the story.
You originally started reporting this story in 2008 when the boom first hit. How did the focus of your piece shift over two years?
I first went out there in the summer of 2008 because the price of oil was skyrocketing up to $140 a barrel and everyone—absolutely everyone—seemed to be making money. I was dazed by the activity. I also became fascinated with David Arrington (if you read the story, he’s the guy who wears the bunny suit). Initially, I was going to write only about him. You just don’t come across characters like that very often. But I also realized there was a larger story going on—one based in the Permian Basin. Arrington was making his money in natural gas in the Barnett Shale, closer to Fort Worth. So I kept asking around.
How difficult was it for you to understand all the oilman lingo and technical processes involved in your story? Are geologists and petroleum engineers good teachers?
Here’s how stupid I was when I started the story. I asked one oilman if oil companies used one kind of rig to drill for oil and a different kind of rig to drill for gas. There was a long silence. “It’s the same rig,” he said, giving me a look like I was as big an idiot as the world had ever produced. And at least when it came to the oil business, I was. But I just kept smiling pleasantly and kept asking dumb questions. The one thing I’ve learned is that people will take the time to help you get it right if they know you sincerely want to learn what their world is all about. The geologists and petroleum engineers did have trouble initially explaining their part of the oil business to me, but we all stuck with it, for hours upon hours, until we came up with explanations that were understandable.
Was it a challenge to make “slump blocks” and “slicked water fracs” not only understandable, but also glamorous and exciting?
I didn’t try to make it glamorous and exciting. I think what was happening was that my own enthusiasm for the story came out in my writing. I began to realize just how exciting it was to hit on a new oil play.
Before your story, how did you imagine a Midland oilman? How did that image change after meeting men like Arrington or Dennis Johnson?
I still imagined the new generation of West Texas oilmen would be just like the last—tough, leathery, hard-drinking guys. But I realized just the other day that I never had a drink with one of them—not once in my visits there. I also realized that none of them ever talked like old-fashioned Texans. They were all smart as a whip. It takes a lot of brains to be in the oil business today.
Is there an anecdote about eccentric oilmen you wish you could have told in your story?
Well, when I went to see Clayton Williams, I could have stayed in his office all day. He was truly one of the old-school oilmen. He wore cowboy boots (I don’t think any of the other new oilmen I met were wearing boots), and he talked about the days when he used to stay up half the night drinking and still be at work at five in the morning. His office was full of great Western art. Most amazing was that he was still as frisky as a kid, and it was clear after a couple of hours he was ready for the interview to end so he could get back to drilling wells.
How big a role does the oil business play in day-to-day life in Midland?
It’s everything. When the price of oil rises, the trickle-down effect is spectacular. You see it all the way down to the lines at the convenience stores, oilfield workers buying beer or giant cups of soda on their way home.
Do Midlanders have a love-hate relationship with the oil industry and all its ups and downs?
They talk about how they hate the busts, but deep down, the Midland oil crowd loves its life. They love surviving the downturns. They love knowing that they nearly lost everything and yet still rose again. That’s why they are so fascinating. You might drive through Midland and think, “What a boring-looking city.” But wait until you meet the people there.
Did you ever feel like maybe you got into the wrong profession?
One day I watched David Arrington sign royalty checks—the monthly checks that go to everyone who invested in his wells. The stack of checks was about five inches high. He let me look at some of them—a million here, a few hundred thousand there, then one for $50,000, then one for a few thousand, and then here came another one for another million. And that was just the checks for one month. The next month, he did it all again. Someone out there gets a check every month simply because was he was lucky enough—or smart enough—to invest in an Arrington project. Of course I think I’m in the wrong profession.
What is it about oil that captivates Texans?
The oilmen built modern Texas. They gave us our character. No matter what else we do, no matter where we go, there will never be anyone like our oilmen.