Picture the independent oil industry’s version of the Sundance Film Festival—no movie stars, but more alcohol and money—and you’ll have the North American Prospect Expo, known to oilmen worldwide simply as NAPE. Held every winter in Houston’s sprawling George R. Brown Convention Center (a much smaller summer NAPE is also held every year), NAPE is, after eighteen years, the world’s largest exploration and production emporium, a marketplace for the buying, selling, and trading of oil and gas prospects, or, as the NAPE website crows, “Billions of Dollars Looking for Deals.” Yes, the appropriate scenery is all here: the vast hall demarcated with corridor names such as Oil Street and Gas Boulevard; the Pacific-blue, thirteen-miles-per-gallon Ferrari on display; the stunning young “industry experts” in short skirts and stilettos, their bare arms goosefleshed in the subarctic air-conditioning; and, of course, the 16,000 or so beefy guys in sports jackets, Dockers, and open-necked shirts looking to close on anything from shale plays in Canada and oil deals in the Permian to investment opportunities in Turkey and a date with a high-class hooker—in other words, to network and party like it’s, well, 1981.

Oh, sure, there are other oil and gas events (the bacchanal that is the Offshore Technology Conference, for one), but NAPE has a special place on the calendar. For many years, it was attended almost exclusively by independent oil companies, and this gave it a small, chummy, benignly bad-boy atmosphere. Recently it has expanded, becoming something of a must for the likes of ExxonMobil and BP, who now have fancy-pants booths that look as though they were styled by Manhattan interior designers. This corporate presence has given the conference the feel of a teen party where the parents won’t leave the rec room, prompting more than a few people to recall the good old days when, for instance, Noble Royalties—a company that buys oil and gas royalties from cash-hungry recipients—filled a wind tunnel with dollar bills and invited guests to come in and grab all the money they could in a limited amount of time. “It wasn’t very long,” one of Noble’s comely hostesses told me. Another year Noble set up a replica of the Deal or No Deal TV show, complete with briefcase-carrying babes and a host dressed “just like Howie Mandela,” the same woman recalled. Noble may have pushed the edge of the envelope too far a few years back, when it brought in a baby chimp named Joey and an ape named Wilson to cavort beneath a banner that read “Don’t Monkey Around, Sell Us Your Royalties.” It was a good stunt until Joey escaped from the arms of a model dressed as Jane and made a brief run for it on the back of a rolling suitcase.

Oilmen—that is, independent oilmen—have always been friendly, optimistic, and opinionated. Put 16,000 of them in one place and you get a pretty good snapshot of the business, which is why I decided to drop in on the festivities in February. What were the independents thinking about as we closed in on the first anniversary of the BP oil spill, with the Middle East and North Africa in turmoil and oil approaching $100 a barrel? By all accounts, the crowd at this year’s NAPE was better behaved than at previous confabs. The looniest booth (again, Noble) featured a faux beach scene with a white “sandy” carpet, captioned “This could be your view . . . You take the cash, we take the risk.” A bikini-clad model reclined in a deck chair, but because it was so cold in the George R. Brown, she sometimes wrapped herself in a sarong. Still, if the displays were tame, the mood was anything but glum, owing to the fact that at least one expert was predicting that oil would hit $300 a barrel by 2020. “Everyone wants to be an oilman these days,” I heard more than once, though a few old hands noted the lack of doctor, dentist, and lawyer investors, a sure sign that the business was soon to go “toppy,” a nice euphemism for “completely off the rails.”

NAPE is, not too surprisingly, middle-aged-white-guy heaven. The layoffs that occurred during the oil bust started from the bottom, so the youngest people lost their jobs first and have only begun to return to the business. Hence an abundance of gray hair and hefty bellies. Minorities? They were driving the cabs lined up outside. Women? There were about ten for every one thousand guys, and then you had to make allowances for the difference between professional women and hostesses. NAPE-goers are guy’s guys: Ten free drink tickets came with the price of admission. (“You are neither required nor encouraged to use all ten,” one of the organizers cracked. “If you run out of tickets, see me and I’ll try to arrange some counseling for you.”) Nearby steakhouses reported some of their best nights ever.

But first there was homework. The opening day of the expo, Wednesday, was devoted to a conference focused on “hot prospecting in unconventional times.” The dim ballroom was packed, though many people seemed to be listening while simultaneously texting for prospects. A less robust group might have been more concerned when Steve Mueller, the president and CEO of Southwestern Energy, admitted that he wasn’t sure whether or not the business was in the midst of a massive paradigm shift. “Everything we learned in the past doesn’t necessarily help us in the future,” he said. His PowerPoint presentation indicated that there were four ways to make money currently: doing old things in old markets, old things in new markets, new things in old markets, and, the riskiest, new things in new markets. Though Mueller acknowledged that the last choice was “not a good trajectory for small businesses,” it happened to be the best route to success. Or, as he put it, “We are now forced to get in a box we were told to stay out of.” In other words, despite rising oil prices, hidebound independents were going to have to work with new technology and new people in an ever-roiling world economy. The learning curve Mueller displayed on-screen rivaled a NASA launch’s. (On the other hand, change hasn’t been all bad: No one thought oil could be tapped from source rock just a few years ago; now, thanks to technological advancements, there’s more drilling in the continental U.S. than there’s been since 1971.)

People in the gas business had a lot more to worry about. Historically, the price of natural gas has paralleled that of oil, but the global demand for oil has soared, while the gas boom of recent years has produced the inevitable production glut; what had sold for $9 per thousand cubic feet in 2008 was now down to about $4. As the post-NAPE report published by energy investment firm Tudor, Pickering, Holt & Co. put it, “No surprise, the mood for oil is incredible and gas is dead.” One speaker was somewhat more hopeful when he claimed, “There’s a great contrarian opportunity in gas,” though he wasn’t promising a quick return to $12 gas.

Despite so much talk of the new, most of the day’s discussion hied to the usual self-pitying industry complaints, the ones that haven’t changed since, oh, Spindletop. The BP spill was referred to as a black swan event that was killing drilling in the Gulf. “It wasn’t the deepest well, it wasn’t the most complex well, it wasn’t in the deepest water,” said Ron Neal, a co-founder of Houston Energy. “I feel sorry for Tony Hayward,” he added, a remark that could be made without inciting violence only at an oil and gas conference. The Obama administration’s cluelessness was another topic, and Michael Bromwich, the director of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement, took heat from Neal for a comment he made that offshore drillers were “just lucky” for drilling 3,100 wells without incident. “There’s a political agenda to punish the oil industry,” Neal claimed. “They want to take advantage of the crisis to go green.” Some people were already betting on the come: “With a different president, how quickly would you see a shift in the attitudes toward the industry?” one audience member asked.

On Thursday the expo floor opened for deals, and the real fun began. As is so often the case at these sorts of conventions, status could be determined—or asserted—by the size, locale, and decor of a booth: For instance, XTO Energy, recently acquired by ExxonMobil, had a booth smack in the middle of the hall disguised as an open-sided log cabin decorated by Pottery Barn, complete with leather sofas, wood floors, an oriental rug, and a working fireplace. Much was made of Chesapeake Energy’s two-story booth, with the upstairs reserved for dealmaking. Foreign booths were ghettoized at the north end of the convention center—the very broke Irish government was open for business there—and beyond that were some tables and chairs where people too cheap or too poor to rent booths congregated to make secret “suitcase deals.” Scattered about were the gas companies’ venues, which were far less impressive and far less active; a memo writer for Tudor, Pickering described them as “the booths where you could hear crickets chirping.” Freebies were everywhere: By the end of the day my pleather NAPE bag was crammed with lip balms, pens, candy, calculators, tape measures, notepads, lanyards, mini flashlights, and assorted other gewgaws, all bearing corporate logos. Petrophiles scarfed them up; this was, after all, a culture that knew from scarcity.

The mood was somewhat frantic, as if NAPE-goers feared that all the good deals could evaporate by lunchtime. The aisles were crammed with people mostly from Houston, Dallas, Tulsa, and Denver, and the busiest booths were those with operations in the Marcellus Shale (northeastern U.S.), the Bakken Shale (North Dakota, Montana, and Canada), the Haynesville Shale (primarily Louisiana), and, most of all, the Eagle Ford (South Texas). Considered one of the largest onshore oil and gas discoveries of the past fifty years, the Eagle Ford is seen by many independents as nothing short of the Second Coming. In 2010 alone, this shale play generated $2.9 billion and 12,600 full-time jobs across 24 South Texas counties, along with close to $47.6 million in local government revenue. And things are only supposed to get better: By 2020 the Eagle Ford is expected to have generated about $21.5 billion and created 68,000 jobs. This is why a lot of landmen are sleeping on hotel lounge couches in Co­tulla right now. “We’re just here to keep up relationships,” a representative from Pioneer Natural Resources, which has had a banner year in the Eagle Ford, told me smugly. So many people were crowded around, trying to make deals, in fact, that cellular service on Thursday was spotty, and I saw men pinning themselves to the convention center’s porthole windows in hopes of connecting without having to leave the action.

No oilman is too busy to eat, though, and as lunchtime approached, most eschewed the prepaid meal of herb-crusted tilapia or chicken piccata for the $75 American Heroes Luncheon, where pepper steak and LeAnn Rimes, casual in jeans, were on the menu. A theatrically patriotic affair, the Heroes Luncheon is an annual NAPE event that raises money to build homes for disabled vets. (Last year NAPE raised nearly $225,000 in an hour and a half.) Few in this crowd had actually served in the military—the host, NAPE executive vice president Robin Forte’ (who is also the founder of the American Heroes Fund), asked all those who had served to stand, and few did—but the presence of disabled servicemen in wheelchairs was enough to reduce the audience to serious tears, which, in turn, inspired them to open their wallets for the auction that followed Rimes’s concert. Two guitars autographed by Rimes went for about $6,000 each. Evidently, NRA membership indexed high with this group: There was even more enthusiasm for a Bushmaster AR15 .223-caliber rifle that had been “touched and autographed by Ted Nugent.” Driving up the bidding, Forte’ confided that Nugent “had won sniping contests with George W. Bush’s Secret Service guys.” The gun went for around $6,500. Forte’ closed the luncheon with a solemn recitation of “In Flanders Fields.” Then it was back to the floor.

And so it went for most of the afternoon, as people connected and reconnected in a financial frenzy. One oilman told me that NAPE was much calmer than banking conventions—“where they set up the bars at nine a.m.,” he said—but the drink lines here were already substantial before the bars in the convention center opened, at 4:30 p.m. And sometime after happy hour, the bar at the adjacent Hilton was a prostitute’s paradise. The industry blogger Open Choke assured me that it was an only slightly tamer scene than the previous year, when he’d written that the girls came “to see if they could trade beaver pelts for petrobucks from the long-in-the-tooth oilmen.”

Friday had the feel of an afterthought, though the expo was scheduled to continue all day. Judging by the morning’s lackluster attendance, the Thursday night parties with ice sculpture bars had been a huge success. Lots of people had already made their deals and headed home; far fewer people crowded the aisles, and those remaining had the mien of kids left without chairs after the music stopped. But no one was complaining, and no looming paradigm shift seemed too tough to handle. I shared a late lunch with a few oilmen from Midland who were loading up on meat loaf and brownies before heading out. They were cheerful and friendly in the way only Midland oilmen can be: They’d had a great time, run into old friends, made some new ones, and even closed a few deals. That was the point of NAPE: Everyone’s a potential friend/partner/investor until proved otherwise, whether he lives in Midland or the Middle East. “You can do more in two days here than you can in six months anywhere else,” one of them insisted. “Everyone’s in a good mood.” For sure they’d be back next year, they said, and had already reserved rooms at the Hilton. If I intended to come back, they warned, I’d better get on it. “You have to make your reservation now,” they told me.

In the meantime, I’ll catch you in the Eagle Ford.