June 2019

The Permian Basin Is Booming With Oil. But at What Cost to West Texans?

Though some will reap serious profits, the region’s dealing with skyrocketing rents, overcrowded schools, and potholes as big as VW Beetles.

The horizon was thick with iron derricks. All around us, pumpjacks were scattered across the muddy fields like an army of giant iron grasshoppers. They bowed their bulky heads and lifted rich extractions from the earth: a record 3.5 million barrels of crude every day. In fact, half of the U.S. drilling rigs in operation that day were boring holes in the surrounding mesquite-studded pastures. 

I was riding shotgun with Josh Snow, an old friend who’s worked his way up the ranks at his father’s independent oil company. The two of us were driving the thirty-mile stretch from our hometown of Andrews to attend the Permian Basin International Oil Show, in Odessa. Held every other year since 1950, the Oil Show is one of the area’s most anticipated events, a sort of South by Southwest for oilmen (and they are almost all men), where anyone in the business can connect with potential clients and preview the latest tech: drilling rigs that can “walk” from one site to the next, “smart” bits that guide themselves down a wellbore. In 2016, because of a downturn, the show’s organizers were worried about filling all their booths. This time around, in October 2018, more than seven hundred companies had jockeyed for a space, and another three hundred had been placed on a waiting list. Some 30,000 people would attend over three days. Local hotels, already near capacity because of the influx of oil field workers, had hiked their rates: a basic room at the Holiday Inn would set you back $550. When Odessa and neighboring Midland sold out of beds, some attendees wound up staying as far away as Lubbock, more than two hours north. The theme printed across the top of the program felt like an understatement: “We’re Back.”

Inside the Ector County Coliseum, where the show is held, every rung of the oil field ladder was there, from roughnecks wearing grimy overalls and steel-toed boots to executives in starched jeans and North Face jackets. They admired the to-scale models of artificial lift systems and ogled the women giving product demonstrations. The “International” part of the event’s name held true. There were businesses from Japan, Argentina, Canada, China, Taiwan, India, Ukraine, and a friendly cohort from Chihuahua, Mexico. Some companies handed out augmented reality headsets you could strap on to test out products in 3-D. Others played to the attendees’ patriotic sensibilities: one rubber-supply company had even conscripted a bald eagle to perch on the arm of an employee. Near the center of the action was NASCAR champion Joey Logano’s #22 Shell-Pennzoil stock car, glimmering like a polished lemon.

I left West Texas years ago, but I’d returned to witness the biggest oil boom the region has ever seen. Some of the stories I’d heard sounded like tall tales, but everywhere I went in the Permian Basin, I found myself staring in slack-jawed wonder. Just a few days earlier, I’d spent time in Pecos, the boom’s bustling southwestern hub. As a kid, whenever I’d visit to attend the rodeo, the place had seemed like it might dry up and blow away. Now company signs promised six-figure salaries for entry-level positions, plus signing bonuses. There were long lines at the bank, the auto shop, and Pody’s BBQ. The Domino’s, which had opened the month before, broke the chain’s record for grand-opening-week sales: nearly 8,500 pizzas in seven days. A mobile barbershop was parked outside La Tienda, the only grocery store in town. Patrons with more money than patience could pay a premium to skip the line, and the entrepreneurial owner claimed his barbers were clearing as much as $180,000 per year. 

Josh and I wandered outside the coliseum, where the hulking toys of the oil field—cranes, rigs, tractors, huge diesel engines, and other machines designed to help mankind bend the earth to its will—were fired up. A rig crew, each man still wearing his high-impact gloves from the field, gathered under the Ford dealership tent to admire a ruby red Shelby F-150 Super Snake pickup. The price tag: $100,000, or about what one of those roughnecks could clear in a year if he put in OT and kept his piss tests clean. For the company man making real money, there was also a row of five or six private planes for sale, including a twin-engine King Air going for $8 million.

Eventually we made our way to the historic oil field equipment on the far end of the coliseum grounds. There, we ran into a friend from high school who’d settled in Midland. We shook hands, and I asked him what he thought of the boom. He shook his head. “I’ve never seen anything like this.”

Drilling rigs northeast of Midland.

Drilling rigs northeast of Midland.

Photograph by Nick Simonite

My dad grew up on a small ranch near Andrews. Like many of his peers, he started working in the oil field while he was still in high school. But after he graduated, the devastating bust of the eighties forced him to look elsewhere for employment. He went west to Arizona and later to California, drawing a paycheck swinging a sledgehammer and gripping a jackhammer, but shortly after I was born, in 1988, my parents returned to Andrews. My dad took a job with the city, one of the few employers in town with steady work. 

The elementary school I attended was named after the Devonian rock formation, and the other schools in town were similarly named after oil-bearing strata. During the summer, we watched the Midland RockHounds (West Texas slang for the geologists who hunt for crude) play minor-league baseball. The team logo featured a dog wearing a hard hat while derricks squirted oil behind him. I remember on one of our drives home from Midland, Mom and Dad talked quietly about how none of the pumpjacks that lined the highway were moving. Even as a kid, I knew that when those metal heads weren’t bobbing up and down, something was wrong. 

Of course, I had no notion of how geopolitics affected the fortunes of my town—how an attempted coup in Venezuela could make it harder for a local family to put food on the table. But my friends and I grew accustomed to hearing adults discuss the price per barrel of West Texas Intermediate the way folks elsewhere might talk about the weather, and soon what those figures meant was not lost on us. We grew up on stories about former boom times, how the money had flowed like a flash flood in a desert arroyo. We had also heard about the horror of the crash: tales of men killing themselves in the patch after losing it all. 

In 2004, the summer before my sophomore year of high school, the price per barrel of WTI ticked up to more than $40 for the first time since the mid-eighties. Like farmers celebrating the arrival of storm clouds in a drought, West Texans rejoiced. The upward trend continued for the next four years until sweet crude peaked at an all-time high of $145.29. Around this time, there was a paradigm shift in the industry. Because the profit margins were so high, oil companies could afford to use hydraulic fracturing (or fracking) and horizontal drilling techniques to tap into the vast quantities of oil that had been previously locked in porous shale formations. The shale boom was on.

In 2012 stories of the boom reached me while I was attending grad school in Ireland. I had racked up student debt, so I decided to return home and earn some money in the oil patch. I spent 2013 working for Josh’s dad’s oil company in Andrews. My duties included hauling parts to far-flung locations and roughnecking on a pulling unit (essentially a smaller drilling rig used to work on wells that have gone off-line). I made a good dent in my loans that year, but after a few close calls on the rig and a few too many eighty-hour workweeks out in the elements, I eagerly traded in my OSHA-required steel-toes for a pair of civilian cowboy boots. 

A pumpjack in motion just east of Andrews on April 28, 2019.

A pumpjack in motion just east of Andrews on April 28, 2019.

Photograph by Nick Simonite

Louis Cornejo, a roughneck working a job near the community of Welch, an hour north of Midland.

Louis Cornejo, a roughneck working a job near the community of Welch, an hour north of Midland.

Photograph by Nick Simonite

Left:

A pumpjack in motion just east of Andrews on April 28, 2019.

Photograph by Nick Simonite

Right:

Louis Cornejo, a roughneck working a job near the community of Welch, an hour north of Midland.

Photograph by Nick Simonite

In January 2015, the price of oil sank to $44 a barrel, less than half of what it had been a year before. It seemed as if the mighty shale boom had fizzled out. Purse strings across West Texas tightened, and by December 2016 more than one hundred American oil and gas companies, almost half of them based in Texas, had filed for bankruptcy. Some workers who had come to the region seeking their fortune ended up abandoning their vehicles at the Midland airport before they boarded flights back home. It seemed as if the Permian Basin had seen its last big hurrah. Then something happened that hadn’t been seen in the region’s long history of boom-and-bust cycles. 

Despite relatively deflated oil prices, drilling in the Permian began to pick back up. Technological improvements were one reason; fracking and horizontal drilling became more efficient. Today, some experts estimate that oil could drop to as low as $33 per barrel and sinking new wells in the Permian would still be profitable, a scenario that would have been unimaginable a few years ago. Another factor was the end of a forty-year embargo on crude exports, signed by President Obama in December 2015. Permian production has since rocketed from two million barrels a day in 2016 to four million in March of this year. Over the next four years, industry experts expect the output to double again. 

The Permian now has a legitimate claim to being the world’s most productive oil field, outpacing even the Ghawar Field, in Saudi Arabia. As a result, America has neared its long-sought goal of energy independence. Last November marked the first time in 75 years that the country exported more crude oil and other petroleum liquids than it imported, a milestone that’s been lauded by officials from Austin to Washington, D.C. In April, Vice President Mike Pence toured a drilling rig outside Midland and told the small crowd, outfitted in hard hats, “Thank you for setting the pace for American energy dominance.”

The benefit of this boom to actual West Texans, however, is less clear. As I crisscrossed the Permian recently, I heard the same concerns echoed over and over again, at my family’s dining room table, in the halls of county courthouses, at backyard barbecues, and in cafes across the region.

Booms are, by definition, explosive—a sudden blast of activity that can take a community by surprise. Even in the Permian Basin, which has weathered these cycles for nearly a century, a boom of this magnitude is impossible to prepare for. And while it has brought opportunity, it has posed serious challenges. Whether the rewards outweigh the repercussions . . . well, that depends on who you ask.

Most West Texans are grateful for the recent uptick—making a good living in the dusty Permian has never been easy—but even so, locals are faced with a host of new concerns. For one, the cost of living has inflated so quickly that, for many residents, it has outpaced the gains. Those without jobs in the oil patch are especially hard-hit, and industries outside the oil field face severe staffing shortages: Dumpsters overflow without garbage truck drivers to empty them. Students are late to class because there aren’t enough bus drivers to pick them up. Law enforcement is stretched thin while crime rates—drug use, sex trafficking, theft—rise along with the influx of temporary laborers. Hospitals are short on physicians. Schools can’t keep enough teachers in their classrooms. 

And there are other very real concerns: driving on the highways alongside gigantic tankers and equipment haulers can feel like a suicide mission. Even some of those who are fiercely pro-oil have grown worried about the strain on the region’s limited natural resources—especially water—and the environmental toll of the proliferation of sand mining, the flares burning methane and benzene, and all the trash that litters the region.

Though Texas and the U.S. will reap serious profits from the sweat poured into the Permian, what lasting benefit will the region have to show for all of this when the boom ends?

An advertisement in Kermit.

Photograph by Nick Simonite

Traffic congestion in Loving County, which was until recently sparsely populated.

Photograph by Nick Simonite

Left:

An advertisement in Kermit.

Photograph by Nick Simonite

Right:

Traffic congestion in Loving County, which was until recently sparsely populated.

Photograph by Nick Simonite

Shawna Granado was born and raised in Odessa. She was nineteen when she took a job as a waitress at the Pioneer Cafe, a tin shack planted on a desolate stretch of highway some 25 miles northwest of the city. Despite its remote location, everyone who spent time in that part of the patch (mostly men working on wells or at the nearby compressor station) knew the Pioneer Cafe at Turnbaugh Corner. The T-junction got its name from “Ma” Turnbaugh, who opened the Pioneer in 1937 and lived for years in a one-room house behind it. The restaurant was never much to look at, but it was the only place serving hot meals and cold beer for miles. When Ma died, in 1969, one of the waitresses took over the business. Eventually that woman passed it down to one of her longtime servers, and so it went for years until Shawna, having worked there for nearly a decade, continued the tradition and bought out the business with her parents in 2010.

“We were booming when I bought it,” she told me as we sat at a Mexican joint in Odessa, her arms decorated with bright tattoos and her hair dyed a vibrant shade of red. At 6 a.m., when the Pioneer opened, the day crews came in hungry for breakfast, while the graveyard “tower” (a West Texas bastardization of “tour”) stumbled in after their overnight shift. “You can’t legally sell alcohol until 7 a.m. in Texas,” Shawna said, “so the guys would literally sit there and watch the clock. Come 7:45, you’d think there was a party rockin’ and rollin’ in there. Some guys would just be barely waking up, eating their eggs. And others are knocking back a twelve-pack.” 

I witnessed a few of these early mornings during my tour in the patch in 2013. Anytime I had work in the area, I’d go out of my way to stop at the Pioneer, sometimes for a bite and other times just to sit with a mug of coffee, dwelling in the atmosphere of the place. There was always a group of men darkened by the sun plowing through plates of smothered burritos, chili, hash browns, or chicken-fry.

The 2014 oil downturn abruptly deflated the cafe’s bustling business, but Shawna held on. The Pioneer had weathered busts for nearly eight decades, and she wasn’t going to let it fail on her watch. One by one she had to lay off her staff; eventually she had to let her own sister go. It came down to just Shawna and the cook. Shawna began to eat through her savings. “I don’t think I paid myself for the last eight months,” she said. “I made dinner to take home to my family every day. That was one way of surviving, paying myself with food.” In April 2017 the Pioneer Cafe turned eighty years old. Shawna celebrated the milestone by hosting a party at the cafe. The few regulars who were still around came out to reminisce about the late-night jam sessions, the countless card games, and that one time patrons kept tossing back beers while a tornado touched down just outside. (“I guess we’ll all go down together—or up,” Shawna told them.) Six months later, she locked the doors to the Pioneer for the last time. 

Shawna, who’s now 36 and married with a 12-year-old son, is working as a waitress again, at a little cafe outside Midland that serves home-cooked meals. She enjoys seeing some of her old customers who are back to work now. She’s glad that things have picked back up, but she’s also well aware of the negative repercussions. 

“The price of living is outrageous,” she said. “Luckily, we own our house, but I have friends who don’t. I’ve got one friend who’s making, like, twenty-something dollars an hour and struggling, not knowing how he’s going to pay for a one-bedroom apartment.” Practically everyone in the Permian knows someone in a similar situation. In March of this year, the website Apartment List reported that the average monthly rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Odessa was $1,267—higher than in Austin, San Antonio, Houston, and Dallas. And it’s not just rent that’s gone up; groceries and other basic goods have spiked as well. Ironically, a gallon of gas is more expensive in the Permian Basin than at pumps in other parts of the state. “I don’t necessarily see how it balances out,” Shawna said. “People are out there busting their ass and risking their lives on the oil rigs. And, yeah, they’re banking, but unless they’re living in a man camp, they’re just breaking even. It’s all for nothing.”

Like so many West Texans, myself included, Shawna is proud to be from this scrubby, stinky patch of oil-rich dirt. But the whiplash of boom and bust takes its toll. “I feel like everyone’s goal—I mean everyone born and raised here—is to get out of this town,” she said. The latest boom has transformed Odessa into something she doesn’t recognize, with its clogged roads and rising drug abuse. “We’re a small town with big-city problems now,” she said. Shawna and her husband have considered leaving the Permian. He’s thinking about San Antonio. She’s leaning toward Austin.  

Photograph by Nick Simonite

Shawna Granado outside the now-shuttered Pioneer Cafe at Turnbaugh Corner, northwest of Odessa.

Photograph by Nick Simonite

One Friday night a few days after the Oil Show, I drove over to watch the Odessa High Bronchos—the lesser-known sibling of the Permian High Panthers (of Friday Night Lights fame)—take on the Midland Lee Rebels. It was a weird sensation, driving up to Ratliff Stadium, on the outskirts of Odessa. The last time I had been there, I was suited up on the field. That was more than a decade ago. Driving through the parking lot, the long-touted stereotype about Midland being the wealthy white-collar town and Odessa its working-class counterpoint held true: brand-new SUVs filled the Midland side, while Odessa’s half was marked by older work trucks with pipe racks welded to their sides. 

Like many school districts across the Permian Basin, those in Midland and Odessa have struggled to address staff shortages and record-breaking enrollment brought on by the boom. Odessa’s Ector ISD, for example, started the school year with 240 vacant positions. One educator was left with the unenviable mission of teaching precalculus to 63 high schoolers in a single classroom. Permian High, built to accommodate some 2,500 kids, has a current enrollment of 3,600 students and is expected to add hundreds more in the next few years. Some classrooms don’t have enough desks and chairs. One English teacher resorted to buying Home Depot buckets for her students to sit on. Poor test scores have pushed Region 18, which includes most of the Permian Basin, to the bottom of the state rankings. And while teachers leave for higher-paying jobs in the oil field or abandon the patch for more affordable cities, the districts struggle to recruit replacements. Both Ector and Midland ISDs have considered adding virtual classes.

Public schools in Texas get most of their revenue from property taxes, and during a boom, property values tend to increase exponentially—in Midland, average home prices rose by $50,000 from 2017 to 2018. But thanks to the state’s recapture policy (popularly known as Robin Hood), the windfall doesn’t necessarily benefit local schools. This year, Andrews ISD, which serves my home county of 18,000, sent more than $12 million to Austin to be redistributed to other schools.

Yet during the game, these concerns seemed to be on hold. One of the Midland Lee players chased his father’s legacy on the turf. From the bleachers, parents hollered at their boys, “Hit ’em hard, mijo!” The air was cool and smelled of Frito pie. I went to the concession stand at the half for coffee. The cashier handed me a Styrofoam cup with the name of a local oil field company stamped on the side. I remember hearing in high school that Southlake Carroll High, north of Fort Worth, would be serving sushi in its new multimillion-dollar stadium. At the time I’d never seen sushi. There were some folks, including Friday Night Lights author Buzz Bissinger, who decried the new concession as a sign that Texas high school football had “gone soft.” That was one thing we never had to worry about in West Texas. 

In the second half, the Bronchos, nearly always the underdogs in their area matchups, started to fall behind. As the score grew more lopsided late in the third quarter, I decided to file out with some of the dejected Odessa fans. I took one more look at the dark prairies surrounding us from the top of the stadium. Not too far off were tall towers of light, each one shining like some kind of holy pillar—drilling rigs. Out there I knew there were roughnecks working for the money that had built this stadium, that had paid for the logo on my Styrofoam cup. And out there somewhere was a father missing the game. 

A crew pulling a well just north of Welch.

A crew pulling a well just north of Welch.

Photograph by Nick Simonite

According to public records, there are three bodies buried in Loving County. About an hour’s drive west of Odessa, Loving County is 673 square miles of desert sand, home to 106 full-time residents and 1,059 producing oil wells. Despite its wealth of oil, Loving has long held the title of least-populated county in the contiguous United States. There’s no grocery store, hospital, bank, beauty salon, honky-tonk, church, school, or movie theater—not even a cemetery. Historically, if someone died in Loving County, they were likely to be interred in Pecos or Kermit, either an eighty- or one-hundred-mile round-trip for the funeral attendees. That changed recently when one local family, the Carrs, carved out a portion of their land to use as a graveyard. 

“My dad is ninety-one,” Mozelle Carr, who’s 62, told me one October morning. “He picked out a gravesite on his land, and we had it surveyed and sectioned off. It’s in the form of a wagon wheel. My mom and dad are the hub, and there are five children, so we each have a spoke, and then we have one for friends and family. We don’t have anybody but my sister-in-law up there right now.” 

Mozelle has lived in Loving County most of her life. She speaks in the slow, deliberate drawl of rural West Texans, stretching words like “right” into two syllables. As the county clerk, she spends most of her weekdays at the yellow-brick courthouse in Mentone (population 23), the county seat and only semblance of a town in Loving County. The interior of the two-story courthouse—by far the biggest structure in the county—was redone during an oil boom in the seventies, and for forty years the dark pecan paneling and white Georgian marble has stood as the most lavish expression of prosperity in the area. Now the oil fields of Loving County are filled once again with rigs and roughnecks, and from her perch in the courthouse at the center of town, Mozelle watches the transformative power of the boom. 

“Nothing like this has ever happened,” Mozelle told me as we sat in her office. The first signs of the fracking boom appeared in Loving County in 2011. Mozelle wasn’t the clerk then, but she heard about the long line of landmen (workers who secure leases for oil companies) who crammed into the courthouse, waiting their turn to access the county’s property files. In January of this year, Loving was the third most productive county in Texas, with more than six million barrels of oil sucked from the earth that month. Several food trailers have opened up around the courthouse that serve tacos and burgers and Cuban cuisine. There’s also a newly constructed convenience store. A sticker on the door informs patrons that their beer “is colder than a witches [sic] tit in a brass bra.” Inside, the sunglasses and most of the other merchandise is covered in a fine layer of dust, and the coffee, thick as mud, is always free. 

The boom has drawn thousands of out-of-towners to work the rigs and build the infrastructure (pipelines and electric lines) needed to get all that crude to market. Companies had to scramble to build workforce housing (better known as “man camps”) to accommodate their workers. Two of these complexes sprang up just outside Mentone. Eight hundred men bunk at one camp, while another 530 reside at the other. Mozelle, who could once name almost every man, woman, and child in the county, marvels at the number of strangers who now, at least temporarily, live on her doorstep. 

Ocean Front RV Resort, in Kermit.

Photograph by Nick Simonite

In addition to the itinerant residents, some 20,000 vehicles are coming and going through Loving every day, most of them driving on the three main roads that crisscross the county. “Nobody’s ever seen this much traffic,” Mozelle said, gesturing out the window. “If you look around the courthouse, several of our streetlights have been knocked down. None of the signs are up anymore. They hit the light pole across the street at the annex.” On one occasion, she had to run out of the courthouse to flag down a truck driver who had sideswiped an RV. 

Those who perform the most perilous tasks demanded of oil field hands will often say they consider driving to and from work to be the most dangerous part of the job. Even if you don’t make a living by risking your life in the patch, you still have to drive on the roads. 

Virtually none of the state highways and county roads snaking through the Permian were built to withstand the high volume of trucks (a single frack job can require 1,200 truckloads of sand, water, and equipment) or the weight of their cargo (one truck might be hauling 24 tons of frack sand). As the boom continues, the roads deteriorate. Potholes the size of VW Beetles are not uncommon. Neither are blowouts. Mozelle, frustrated by the mounting problems and lack of help, told me she feels that the state treats her county “like a stepchild.”

She’s not alone. West Texans often grumble about how roads in the capital (and even Lubbock) are more likely to get fixed than their highways. Brooks Landgraf, a state representative from Odessa, is the vice chair of the Transportation Committee and has worked to secure more funding for the region’s roads. To sway some of his fellow legislators, he’s resorted to flying them to the Permian to see the critical state of the roads firsthand. But it’s a tough sell. One senior research engineer at the Texas A&M Transportation Institute said that upgrading the rural farm-to-market roads in West Texas to withstand the weight and volume of the traffic would cost between $500,000 and $1 million per mile.

And there are few other means by which to raise local revenue to solve Loving’s problems. With no hotels in the county, it can’t capitalize on the hotel occupancy tax. And with only a single convenience store hawking ice and beer, the community isn’t exactly raking in funds from sales tax either. The same is true for smaller communities across West Texas.

No stretch of Permian asphalt is more notorious than U.S. 285, or as West Texans call it, Death Highway. The day before my visit to Loving County, I had taken 285 north out of Pecos toward the drilling frenzy happening around the ghost town of Orla, near the New Mexico state line. The procession of trucks and big rigs that dwarfed my 1500 GMC pickup grunted its way to Orla bumper-to-bumper, coughing black exhaust and stirring up clouds of caliche dust so thick I had to turn on my wipers. About halfway there, a welder’s truck flew past me and something—a metal rod, best I could tell—came off the truck and struck my windshield, cracking it in half. 

In Loving County, the total number of crashes jumped from 18 in 2016 to 103 last year, while down the road Ector County (Odessa) reported more than 5,000 wrecks, nearly double the amount from two years before. Since 2016, crashes in the Permian Basin are up 67 percent and fatalities have increased 97 percent. According to TxDOT data, although the region constitutes only 1.6 percent of the state’s population, it’s responsible for 12 percent of all traffic fatalities in Texas. Those grim statistics have been on Mozelle’s mind quite a bit lately. When someone dies in Loving County, Mozelle issues the death certificate. She began to tell me about a recent accident, but then she trailed off and grew quiet. In the brief silence, I thought of the Carrs’ wagon-wheel burial site. After a moment, Mozelle continued, “You just worry about anybody that is on the roads.”

Rancher Michael Moore, who leases part of his land in Andrews County to a sand-mining outfit.

Photograph by Nick Simonite

Michael Moore still believes in the Code of the West. I met the fifty-year-old rancher this fall at an annual barbecue held for the friends and clients of an oil field electrical company in Andrews. (The odds of one of these events being teetotaler-dry or dangerously lubricated are about fifty-fifty; this one was sponsored by a snow-haired Baptist, so the hardest drink on hand was sweet tea.) We shook hands while waiting to load our plates with steaks grilled by a crew down from Abilene. After a bit of small talk, I asked Michael how many head of cattle he ran on his spread. He studied me from under the brim of his black felt cowboy hat. “We don’t ask folks that out here,” he said. 

Nonetheless, he politely offered to give me a tour of his corner of the Permian Basin, his ranch in southwestern Andrews County and the sand dunes of northern Winkler County. A few days later I climbed into his F-350, and we bumped down Texas Highway 128, a trash-strewn two-lane road connecting Andrews to Jal, New Mexico. Earlier that morning, three hours before sunrise, Michael and one of his cowhands had saddled their horses, loaded them into a trailer, and driven to a nearby property to help round up another rancher’s cattle. “We still neighbor quite a bit in this part of the country,” Michael told me. “We keep up with each other.” 

He played a role in shaping the industry that has brought workers to this part of the Permian. Starting in the fall of 2016, he and his neighbors were approached by companies asking them to lease or sell their land. Unlike the landmen who’d come knocking before, these people weren’t interested in the oil beneath the ground; they were after the sand sitting on top. (Fracking requires a lot of fine-grade silica sand to blast open the formations.) Up until then, most of the sand had been dug from Central Texas or up in Wisconsin and Minnesota and shipped in by rail. By harvesting the sand right here in the Permian Basin, drilling companies could save a fortune on transportation. Michael and his family decided to lease part of their ranch to one of the sand-mining outfits. It was a pragmatic choice: they knew the sand companies were coming anyway, with or without a piece of their land. Since January 2017, more than twenty mining facilities have been constructed among the rolling dunes that stretch from Crane (30 miles south of Odessa) to Kermit (45 miles west of Odessa). “The New Texas Gold Rush,” the Wall Street Journal dubbed the craze. 

Michael was attuned to the difficult balance between profit and preservation. His grandfather-in-law ranched in the Permian for 99 years before he died 12 years ago. Before he passed, he told Michael, “Take care of your water. One day it will be worth more than all that oil and gas.” 

Michael was also keenly aware of the financial hardships brought on by the boom. When we drove the rut-worn road into Kermit, it seemed like just about every weedy vacant lot in the city had been converted into an RV park. We turned into one of these encampments right off Main Street. Trash littered the grounds. Lawn furniture, such as it was, came in the form of wooden spools from the patch, which were used as stools or tables. A couple of haggard-looking and sun-bronzed men still wearing their greasers pitched washers into Bud Light cans. Their barbecue grills were welded from drilling pipe, and satellite dishes were anchored to the ground with cinder blocks. A tiny pink Barbie bike rested against the side of one mobile home. “That’s what really pulls at me sometimes,” Michael said, eyeing the bike and a few toys lying in the dirt. “That’s that kid’s backyard out there, outside the little trailer in the rocks.” 

Whereas boomtowns were once marked by a flood of workers and families living out of tents, today’s oil patch is overrun with RVs. As long as a landowner can supply electricity and water, she can charge $600 to let a worker park his motor home on a piece of otherwise useless dirt. My parents had gotten in on the action in Andrews. Since the boom began, all thirteen spaces behind their house have been taken. My folks provide Wi-Fi and utilities. They keep their property tidy. It’s safe. The same cannot be said for a lot of these parks. 

Benjamin McKee, a former roughneck, and Floyd Underwood Sr. at a trailer park in Kermit.

Photograph by Nick Simonite

A trailer park in Kermit.

Photograph by Nick Simonite

Left:

Benjamin McKee, a former roughneck, and Floyd Underwood Sr. at a trailer park in Kermit.

Photograph by Nick Simonite

Right:

A trailer park in Kermit.

Photograph by Nick Simonite

And those who can afford to live in the parks are often the lucky ones. “You’ll have some guys who show up with their own RV, and you know they’re good to go,” Michael said. “They weren’t completely broke when they came out here. But then you’ve got some who are eating every other day till they get that first paycheck. Some of ’em are sleeping in their cars or living in a motel room with five other guys working twelve-hour shifts. They’re not keeping much for themselves. They’re sending it back to a wife and kids four states away. They haven’t been home in three months. They’re just trying to survive.”

Of course, those who really profit from a boom—the oil executives and engineers—don’t risk their lives on the rigs or make their homes anywhere near the dust of West Texas. Big oil companies, which once had sizable offices in the Permian, now maintain their headquarters in Dallas and Houston and other urban centers. The men and women who are left to toil in the Permian are essentially the dry-gulch farmers of the industry. And even those jobs are under threat. Big oil has brought automation to the patch, and there are 50,000 fewer jobs in oil and gas than there were during the last boom.

As we headed back toward Andrews County, we passed what was once an oil field camp in the old Dollarhide Field. I asked Michael to pull over so I could walk around. I could see a few sand silos on the horizon. The rest was a flat sea of mesquite and shin oak, still green from the recent rains. A hawk perched on a fencepost. It was quiet, save for the rhythmic groans of a pumpjack. At its peak, some thirty families had called this patch of dust home. Now the only signs that anyone had ever dwelled there were a clump of dead elm trees and a few broken concrete slabs rising from the pale dirt.

This article originally appeared in the June 2019 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “The Price of Oil.” Subscribe today.

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Tags: Business, Environment, Longreads, Oil, Permian Basin

Comments

  • Dude1394

    It could be much worse. They could be on the southern border dealing with overcrowded schools, hospitals, more crime and drugs and no oil to show for it, just open border democrats calling them racist for actually thinking we have a country.

    • Jed

      the racist part is just what you wrote, not what you say you think.

      it’s not that complicated.

      • Dude1394

        Right. Because anyone that doesn’t agree with the open border democrats are racist. Sod off.

        • Jed

          no. that’s precisely my point. i’m not calling you racist for some other thing, i am calling you racist for the things you say right here. i don’t care what your position on border policy is. your description of the border itself is just flat racist.

          in am not calling “anyone” a racist. i am calling YOU a racist.

          • Dude1394

            Bull. I may be wrong about more crime, overcrowded schools and more drugs ( I do not think I am ) but there is nothing racist in the opinion.

          • Jed

            if you ARE wrong, then it certainly is racism for you to think something about an area and the particular race of people who live there that is not supported by facts.

            even if you AREN’T wrong, it is racism for you to imply that the cause of those problems is immigration (legal or otherwise) from a certain ethnic group. which you do when you mention the border and “having a country.”

            the poverty and blight in the rio grande valley – which is part of our country that you seem to care only selectively about – couldn’t possibly be the fault of the white people running texas, or the US, could it?

          • Dude1394

            That I do not have readily available documented proof sir not infer anything. I am quite sure that a mass influx of any very,very poor individuals will increase crime, overcrowd schools and medical facilities.
            That you infer racism is bull****.

            What else but immigration when we have a overwhelming number ( as stated by ALL OBSERVERS ) of.. well illegal immigrants???? I mean duh.

            It is so far from “racsim” that the term has no meaning anymore if used in your context.

            I wouldn’t care if it were 100,000 per month of anyone. Any time you have a million poor, uneducated you are going to get get lists of crime. It’s too many and we should limit them. Using racism is just bull but it’s the only argument you have.

          • Jed

            right. not a racist, we just don’t want so many of “them.”

            i could make several arguments in favor of allowing immigration, even and especially by the poor, having to do with our nation’s founding, (ostensibly) shared values, history, and simple economics.

            i could also refute your specific claims (e.g. numerous studies show that crime rates are lower among immigrant populations than among natives, and *even lower* among undocumented immigrants. for reasons that should be obvious.).

            but really, what would be the point?

          • Kozmo

            Hispanic is not a “race”. I find all the bickering about “racism” on the border so much puffery on both sides. (It’s more like bigotry against Hispanics than anything else, based on language and religion and darker skin color, in that order perhaps; but “racism” is a modern code-word.)

          • Jed

            So … not racist, just bigoted against the Hispanic ethnicity?

            Ok.

          • Dude1394

            It is quite racist of you to assume something about white people since you know so little about the valley. The majority of elected officials, congressmen are Hispanic. The vast majority of the citizens in south Texas are Hispanic. But you know, they do not like increased crime, overcrowding schools and health facilities either.

            So stop being such a racist.

          • Jed

            i am well aware of the demographics of the border. i was talking about the leadership of texas/us.

            certainly the plight of public schools and healthcare in texas is not limited to the valley, as recent news illustrates. and i already addressed your fallacious (and racist) claims about crime.

            pinning systemic failures of the state of texas and the united states on vulnerable immigrant populations is not only misguided, it is intellectually lazy, and historically the sort of practice employed in america by racist demagogues to rile up their racist supporters.

            every post from you further affirms your racism. whether you realize that or not just confirms whether you are a demagogue or willing dupe. either way, it doesn’t make you any less racist. sorry, not sorry.

  • Trey Wyles

    As a West Texan (Permian Class of 85) I enjoyed reading this article and I do agree that there are significant challenges that come with a boom. However, your comment “Of course, those who really profit from a boom—the oil executives and engineers—don’t risk their lives on the rigs or make their homes anywhere near the dust of West Texas.” is ridiculous. First of all, in what industries where dangerous work must be done do the executives risk their lives? And yes, many large organizations have HQ’s in Dallas and Houston but what about the executives and owners of small and medium sized businesses? On a side note – I’m not sure why you care where they live. Additionally, in your own article you mention plenty of people that have profited from the boom – the Domino’s franchise owner (and employees), the barbers making $180K, your parents with additional income from their small RV park, the hotels with no vacancy(and employees), the restaurants with waiting lists(and employees), the landowners that leased their land, the wife and kids four states away quickly come to mind. This doesn’t include the geologists, bankers, safety men, land men, construction workers, salespeople for all kinds of things (uniforms, lubricants, tires, trucks, etc.). And one more thing – I’m sure you’ve noticed the low unemployment rate. Every person doing those dangerous jobs voluntarily chose to do those jobs and make the sacrifices to live in the area to do so. Every person has other options and has chosen to do the jobs for the agreed upon compensation. Sounds like a fair deal to me.

    • j smith

      I totally agree with Trey, and have a few other thoughts to add. I am a land and royalty owner in the Permian, and believe me, the locals are taking their share through property tax valuations of all of the wells, plus severance taxes.
      Look at the majestic Forsan High School and stop the whining! This story reminds me of Edna Ferber’s Giant, based on one week research by an outsider.

      • jules65

        An outsider? He grew up here, worked in the oilfield, and his family all live here. If you had read the article before commenting, you would have known that.

      • Jed

        property owners not the ones getting exploited; film at 11.

    • pedro stee

      what is left behind to the land and the people once the oil is gone?

      • Trey Wyles

        Well Pedro I don’t know and I don’t think anyone else does either. My point is that the article stated that only the executives and engineers profit from the boom. That is far from accurate as I stated in my response.

  • biff

    The old call of American business, privatize the profits, socialize the losses. The Permian Basin is an extraction colony now.

  • Seth Biederman

    So basically the oil companies reap billions of profits from these oil wells but have to put literally no money back into the community.

    • Hugh Everett

      The oil companies pay billions of dollars in taxes, salaries, royalties and lucrative contracts that are the life blood of the Permian Basin. Without oil, the region would be as barren as the surface of the Moon.

      Have you ever been there?

      • Jed

        the moon will still be in business in 100 years, unlike west texas.

    • Brittany

      There is money being put back into the communities! Something Mr. Wallace left out conveniently! He left a lot out of his article!

  • roughman

    LOVED the photography!!

  • Tejasguitarman

    I made the mistake of driving to Santa Fe via 285 from Ft Stockton 1-10 junction & will never go that way again. Very desolate stretch of road I thought to make good time on. Wrong! If they ever build a little village out there in the middle of nowhere then the perfect name for it would be Taft. Truck after f’in truck. Crime must be rampant because when I got up to Carlsbad they had to double check the one dollar bill I gave them for a drink at convenience store. Said there was a lot of funny money being passed. I told them if I was gonna risk imprisonment for counterfeiting I would certainly being using paper of a higher denomination than $1.00. Unbelievable!

  • p espinosa

    Thank you for the article. I always enjoy reading about our West TX especially Pecos, Kermit, Permian Basin,etc.,. How the environment is being affected by the oil boom is my big concern. Air and water quality is being harmed. I’m a native from Pecos. I’m an Eagle and the infrastructure is not keeping up with the demand. Highway 285 is notorious for taking lives. My mom still lives in Pecos and has had to deal with the rise in prices. My mom is elderly. Fracking seems to have caused tremors which I can say never occurred when I was growing up. Balmorhea State park was closed due to structural issues due to fracking. Hope we can make it work because Pecos almost became a ghost town without the oil boom.

  • Paula Adams

    My friend and I had a flat on 285 and were trying hard to change the tire as truck after truck passed by until a nice oilman from Dallas stopped to help. He told us we were on the deadliest road in Texas. Who knew? We just wanted to get to the Guadalupe Mountains.

  • Brittany

    This article is not great! It solely focuses on negative impacts no positive impacts. The part about the elementary school that had children sit on buckets is a true story that happened about 2 years ago so the situation has been remedied. The schools however are very over crowded. What has West Texas done so far to alleviate this problem? They have created more schools, brought in an influx of certified teachers at one point from Spain and elsewhere. There have been charter schools and new private schools. Homeschooling is at an all time high here. There are now homeschooling co-ops for parents and children to get together share ideas and help with learning. The University and local colleges have created STEM academies on their campuses. The school system still needs improving that’s for sure! Next, the roads are horrible so is the traffic. A trip to back and forth to Midland and Odessa used to take 25-30 minutes now with traffic and large trucks from oilfield companies it can take an hour or more. There is constant road repairs and expansions. New roads are being built as well to alleviate traffic congestion. So yes the traffic is bad and some improvements have been made and are still being made to the roads. I have traveled through out West Texas from Stanton to Marfa. I’ve traveled roads with high oilfield traffic and dangerous roads. I have yet to encounter a pot hole as big as VW Beetle. I won’t lie though there are some nice sized potholes but not that big. This has brought different people to West Texas so it is becoming slightly diverse. There is more dedication to the arts, new summer events, more or updated museums. There’s events in the winter time as well and year round farmers markets and seasonal farmers markets. West Texas is bringing in new businesses to help the economy after the boom goes bust. So West Texas isn’t perfect at all but it’s trying to keep up with the change and fix the negative. To those that think you’re better than West Texas GET OVER YOURSELF! Nobody is better than anything, anyone or any place!

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