Most of you probably know Midland-Odessa Texas as the location of the popular gridiron television series “Friday Night Lights”. Or perhaps as the home of George W. Bush. A few of you might even watch the TruTV show “Black Gold”.
Unless you are a “Black Gold” viewer, you probably never pondered what Midland-Odessa Texas is all about; they are oil field towns, plain and simple. The level of petroleum craziness ratchets up and down with the oil market. Right now, things are probably about as crazy as they've ever been.
Lately, driving into Midland from Lubbock has become a test of will and nerves. As you traverse highway 349, a small road snaking past churning pump jacks, one lane each way, trucks rumble by at unsafely high speeds laden with oil field equipment, oil or oil workers. Impatient men in gigantic dually pick-up trucks climb up your automotive ass and then pass with a roar, as often as not almost running head-on into a truck going in the opposite direction. It’s not uncommon for an impatient fellow (it’s always a fellow, as far as I can tell) to pass from four or five vehicles back in a sort of automotive blind chicken.
When you spend a little time in Midland-Odessa Texas, you realize immediately why petroleum dependence in the U.S. isn’t going away. The whole town literally runs on oil.
Homes are springing up where dirt patches languished just last year, terribly expensive cars zip past you on the loop as you drive through town. Subway restaurants have signs inside advertising a $1,000 signing bonus for new employees. If you’re willing to work the oil fields, you can make at least $25 or even more an hour with little to no education or training. And there's overtime at time and a half.
Everyone everywhere seems to be in a hurry. Stores are full; apartments go for big-city prices, if you can get one. Tents have sprung up to accommodate workers who can’t find lodging. Name a business and it’s thriving.
Oil is prosperity. Prosperity is oil.
Just about everyone I know who’s a farmer, stretching all the way to Lubbock, where I live, has been approached about drilling on their land. There are currently 400 rigs going full bore in the Permian Basin. That’s a record, beating the last high of 399 rigs in 1981. And there are no signs of a slowdown.
To folks in Midland-Odessa – and to some extent in the rest of West Texas as well – “green” energy is the enemy. Oil is the known quantity; it’s what has supported families here since the 1920’s. Now there are better technological methods to get even more of it out of the ground more quickly.
It’s still a dirty endeavor, and still dangerous. Midland has the raw look of a town unfinished, dirt and dust coating every surface, vehicles literally caked with red mud, trash blowing along highways and roads. Google search for oilfield and Midland or for “roughneck Midland” and you’ll get pages of reports of injuries accompanied by advertisements for personal injury lawyers.
Residents of Midland-Odessa and workers in the oil patch are more than willing to put up with the inconveniences of blowing dust, perpetual construction and the possibility of injury in trade for the oil boom. However, the rest of us in West Texas and in other parts of the state are paying too – and not just at the pump.
Right now, 75% of the oil recovered in the Permian Basin is recovered through fracking. In addition to the usual environmental concerns the practice arouses - usually discussed in the context of natural gas exploration- Texans have to weigh the effects of fracking on the water supply in a drought ridden state. Drilling a well using the process can take between 50,000 and 4,000,000 gallons of water, on average. Only about 25% of that water is ever recovered. With 400 wells in operation, and 75% of them being brought in by fracking, well, you can do the math.
Midland-Odessa is itself affected – that’s partially why it’s so dusty and inhospitable looking right now. A handful of towns throughout Texas are actually out of water completely already, requiring them to find workarounds like hauling water in by truck. How much of that is due to water lost to fracking? There is no way to know.
As a West Texan, I’m happy for my friends, neighbors and acquaintances that are benefitting from the current Permian Basin oil boom. The friend whose dad is leasing fallow cotton fields for drilling, the former co-worker who more than doubled his salary by going to the oil fields, the minimum wage employees in Midland-Odessa who are actually being paid closer to a living wage. I just wish this rush of the good life could come from some endeavor that didn’t cost us all so dearly in the long run.
Somehow, I don’t ever see green energy driving this type of boom, this type of fervor. A solar panel manufacturer might create a few thousand jobs at best, which would have some minor ripple effect through any small city’s economy. But there are few industries left which, like the oil fields, can absorb unskilled labor in huge numbers. That is what is driving the Midland-Odessa boom. That is why new Subway employees are getting $1,000 bonuses. Literally any able-bodied individual who is willing to risk life and limb in pursuit of the black gold can quickly get a really good paying job. That means that those who are less able-bodied or more cautious can have their pick of other employers. And most of those employers are forced to pay a premium.
In West Texas – especially in the Permian Basin -most people don’t understand how the President could not have approved the Keystone XL pipeline. Oil is life; without oil, there is only red dirt, working at Wal-Mart and scraping by.