Although booms and busts have rocked the Permian Basin for nearly a century, most West Texans will tell you that the worst of them all was the eighties bust. After a decade of high times, the price of oil plunged in 1982 and sent the region reeling. The rigs stopped running, and soon after, businesses started shutting down. Banks closed, neighborhoods emptied, and soon the tumbleweeds reached the eaves of the shuttered shopping centers. In 1984, the New York Times claimed “The Great Oil Era Ends in Texas.” And even if the Permian still had some fight left in it in the mid-eighties, another price collapse in 1986 dealt the region a knockout punch.
On this episode of Boomtown, we begin by exploring this devastating bust. We speak with David Arrington, one of Midland’s most colorful oilmen, about trying to break into the industry during the bust. And petroleum historian Dr. Diana Hinton explains the pressures that triggered the crisis and offers her personal recollections of these lean years. “I had never seen anything like this,” she said. “The bumper sticker appeared on cars: ‘Please God, please let there be another oil boom. I promise I won’t piss everything away at this time.’”
But no boom came. I was born in 1988, in a small oil patch town called Andrews. My entire childhood was colored by the bust. Growing up, people were more likely to leave town than to move in, and stories of former boom times seemed like tall tales. The reality was, without the oil business, the region was dying a slow death.
All of that changed with the shale revolution. In the late nineties, a quiet, unassuming oilman named George Mitchell ushered in a new era for the oil and gas industry when his company innovated a drilling technique known as hydraulic fracturing. We speak with business writer and Mitchell biographer Loren Steffy, who explains how fracking, combined with horizontal drilling, revolutionized the oil industry. These new developments allowed drilling companies to access oil that had been previously locked in impermeable shale formations, and by the mid-aughts, the West Texas oil patch was once again busy with drilling rigs. The longest bust had finally come to an end. But few could have imagined that this slow rumble would eventually lead to the biggest boom of all time.