Blue in Texas is

living Blue in a Red state

Laura Deurmyer

Laura Deurmyer
December 22
Proud mom to a 3rd grade son, wife of an artist/ artisan, liberal, former urban professional marooned in the sands of West TX


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JANUARY 30, 2012 8:44AM

Drilling, Baby, We're Drilling

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Tanker truck rolled on highway 349 outside Midland.

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 pricesif 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.

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Having been born in Lubbock and lived there for 26 years, I know intimately of this situation. Part of the problem is the isolation of the area. They literally know nothing else out there. And indeed, there is a price to pay, and personally, I think it is too high of a price.
desert_rat - It's weird being here during a boom and NOT having anything to do with oil, isn't it? The water situation scares me to death. Once the water in the acquifers is gone, there is no way to get it back. But until something else comes along that's this kind of big money this quick, I don't know how we'll get people focused on non-petroleum alternatives.
I agree too high BUT in Fremont Ca the government invested in a solar panel manufacturer after the former car parts company shut down throwing lots of people out of work.
Now they are bankrupt and the government has told them to destroy all those solar panels that they made. What is worse?
At least these people have income coming in while the others are once more out of work.
Things that do not make sense.
Interesting and informative post. I definitely need to read more about fracking.
Linda - Well, that's just it: it makes perfect sense to me why people here want the status quo (petroleum dependence) only more so. But we've go to look further down the road, somehow. I don't have any idea how.

jl - I had thought of this as something that affected people in PA or VA. It never occurred to me that the oil wells here were drilled with fracking. It's a real problem; I didn't put it in the piece b/c it's not the average number, but some wells take 13,000,000 gallons of water or more to bring in. That's just mind boggling!
After having lived in TX for almost 6 years, I really found this informative. Thanks for posting/sharing! /r
Even if the US began an immediate push for solar and wind energy, and made it the number one priority of the country, we will still need boggling amounts of petroleum for roads, plastics, and most every thing else.

I hope that the drive to green energy continues and grows, but drilling, fracking, and exploration is not going anywhere. Instead of focusing too much on replacing oil we need to focus on safety.

I suppose it's good to see some kind of a boom... anywhere in America, for any reason

BUT sounds hellish... I swear, Texas seems like a different planet to me. Wasn't aware of the fracking down there. Thought that was just in the northeast in certain types of shale formations. Read and learn. Lack of water down there is already a huge issue, and the environmental concerns are very very real... UGLY!
Michelle - Thanks for reading. And you're welcome! It came up for me b/c I had a conversation with my husband about how terrible it was driving to Midland last week. Then we got off on fracking and I started doing research. I was shocked how many wells we're drilling that way.

onislandtime - I hate to admit it, but you're absolutely right. Safety, and I would add, methods that don't totally wreck our environment. The water crisis could get really bad here. We're told we might have to go to Stage 2 or 3 water rationing. Not sure what that is, but I do know it means my yard will be a barren wasteland!

trig - The boom is nice - the side-effects, not so much. I had no idea about this either until I researched. I bet there's stuff like this going on all over the US that people are little aware of. Thanks for reading!
Driving through that area is a challenge. The smell of strong petroleum crude is in the air for miles and miles. It's so strong that not even the best sealed automobile cabin is immune to it. Then there's the trucks. Them boys, they don't know no word for "slow" when it comes to driving. As long as they can make the turn without leaving the pavement, they're flooring it as hard as they can get away with.

I really don't like driving through that part of Texas. Another area that's almost as bad is Luling and Lockhart, which is about 35 minutes from me.

I also worry that folks that make their living from this enterprise look askance at any sort of environmental controls. Regulation would, in the words of their employers, "Take money out of their pockets," in fees, laws to follow and safety regulations that slow down the dirty business of making money from the ground.

And, because they make good money from a dirty, dangerous business, anything that might spoil that is looked upon with suspicion. Let's hope that they can explain all that to their grandkids when the oil is gone, the land won't support their farms, and the support jobs are all gone, too.

I'll light a faucet on fire for them when it's all over.

Right on! Oil is life. The stupid Greens will gradually learn that.
75% is coming from fracking? Ouch! And how much of west Texas will dry up and blow away when they've completely exhausted any nearby aquifers, and there are no other sources that provide enough water? That's a VERY scary prospect.

On Linda's comment - the government has told them to destroy all those solar panels that they made. You're right. That makes absolutely NO sense. It sounds criminally stupid to me.

The idea of so much fracking happening without sufficient safety or environmental regulations is scary, too. How much land will become uninhabitable? How many people will be crippled, killed outright or become terminally due to oilfield accidents,

It seems that no one wants to talk about consuming less energy, which could go a long way towards easing our energy woes. Whenever technology reduces the rate of consumption, people just go out and use that technology more, erasing whatever gains came from developing and using that technology in the first place.

This kind of mess is a big motivator for me in the quest to promote healthier transportation and development practices - less sprawl, different zoning practices, more walking, biking and public transit.

The desperation of the current job market is NOT helping in terms of reducing energy consumption. There's enough of a geographical mismatch between available jobs and suitable workers that too many people have been forced into long driving commutes because relocating isn't feasible, especially if it's only a short-term contract job, and one is in an underwater mortgage in a location where the kids are in good schools they like.

Too many employers moved out to the 'burbs when development was booming out there, but those areas don't have much public transit. Some big employers have started moving back downtown, which would reduce their energy impact. I hope that a lot more employers will follow suit, relocating to places that are easily accessible by public transit from many directions.

The price is too high all around, and the prospects don't look too good right. I hope I'm not still saying that a year or two from now.
dunniteowl - I'm driving that way again tomorrow, and I'm not looking forward to it! We might be setting faucets on fire sooner than we think; or, we might be paying much, much more for water to be trucked in from elsewhere. Of course, that's just that many more tanker trucks with a demand for gas. It's hard to see where it ends until it's too alte.

bike - A total shift in attitude will be needed. Whether we do it now, or whether we wait until there's literally no more cheap oil. Here, we live in a relatively small city, but it's one of the most bike/pedestrian unfriendly places I've ever been. Part of it is probably due to how how it is in summer - no one in their right mind wants to bike or walk in 100+ temps. But a lot of it is just attitude. No matter how poor you are here, you need a car; the buses go to 3 places - the Walmarts, the airport and the hospital -and that's about it. They discussed doing away with bus service completely in city council this year, from what I understand.
Reminds me of a bumper sticker I saw about 20 years ago on a car with Texas plates: "Please, God, give us another oil boom and we promise we won't piss it all away this time."

Any evidence of that? It made me laugh when I saw it then. Not so funny now.
Wind Power

Solyndra alone could have bought 500 megawatts of wind power at $1 million per installed megawatt. Lets just imagine $500,000,000,000 'stimulus' money. Correct my math, but doesn't that come to 500,000 megawatts of wind power?

Should have shipped dump trucks full of $1 bills for mulch on park trails.
"Regulation would, in the words of their employers, "Take money out of their pockets," in fees, laws to follow and safety regulations that slow down the dirty business of making money from the ground."

Spoken like someone who is only repeating the stuff of the left who has never had to deal with all the regulations that they already have to follow.

As for the comment about the ads for lawyers about people being hurt, ambulance chasers. I guess even the scum lawyers have gotten in on the boom. I personally am tired of Sokolove ads.
I was under the impression that not only water is used but also several different chemicals are pumped into the earth to recover the natural gas/ oil. It may be more than your water table at risk here.
Wow. You deserve an EP for this. It explains the greed and mendacity of the Texas oil and gas intererests: they are isolated from the rest of us and do not think of themselves as part of us.

The fracking scares me because no one has thought about the effect on shallow fault lines, nor have they thought about the instabilities that they are creating.

Silicon farms, Solar and wind, plus the infrastructure to distribute it all would make oil and gas look sick as an economy driver, but Texas won't let it happen.
froggy - That's funny! Since I live in Lubbock not Midland, I am not up on what their city government is doing with this boom's windfall. Most of the people I know are just like everyone everywhere - using whatever money they bring in to live in the best possible lifestyle.

ej - I don't agree with that; I think solar is very promising technology for replacing petroleum in home power applications. There isn't any boom money in it, but we shouldn't discount it because of one poorly managed start-up company that went under, which is not at all uncommon for start-ups in any industry. And wind power has serious problems, especially getting power to the grid.

Catnlion - Well, honestly, I hear people say things almost word for word like that. They certainly don't like the regulations that they have, but they really don't like the idea of more regulation, like regulations to keep their chemicals out of my water supply, or to restrict them from taking all of the water farmers need to grow crops. And while I'm not a huge fan of personal injury lawyers as a group, the fact that they are flocking to oil field injuries tells me that there are 1) a large number of injuries and 2) at least some of those injuries were probably due to some stupid thing that could have been prevented. PI lawyers aren't famous for wasting time on possible client populations that don't have any legitimate issues.

Witchy - That is true. I didn't get into it here, but like owl says, can flaming water be far behind?

Zuma - Thanks! One of things I hoped to make people think about here is that it's not just evil oil companies trying to force the nation to be oil-dependent. There are many real middle and working class people whose whole lives depend on oil. Many of us in TX know that we have to move away from petroleum dependence, but how do we go about convincing a huge percentage of our population to give up their very livelihood, and one which their dads and grandads may have been raised in as well? I wish I knew a decent way to make a transition.
Beautifully and evocatively written, Laura. Houston is also oil-centric, but with a focus on refining and shipping. In oil economies, it seems that green (environmentalism) is the new red (communism).
I'd like to commend you for the number and quality of links supporting your argument.
This is very informative for me, thank you. I'm just learning terms like "fracking". But my overall impression after reading this piece is that Texas sounds like the new - or future 1% of America.Am I close?
Daniel - Thank you fellow Texas. I love "Green is the new red". That is really funny. Of course, the right muddied the water a bit making "red" = conservative, didn't they!

Nick - Thank you. I didn't really know that much about fracking when I sat down to look into this. I learned something this time around.

Fusun - You are close. It's had a strong 1% contingent for a very, very long time. What's going on in Midland is that a lot of the 99% there are living out of reach of the economic fear that's gripping the rest of the country. But oil prices will fall again, and this boom will end. Boom town folks are in denial while the boom is on.
I played "The Sands" on University, back in the day. Now that smell has returned. The one you lose after a few days. Greetings from the former uranium capital of America. Uranium - it's a washday miracle.
Stacey - OK, you win. Uranium would be worse. At least we can't be irradiated. That I know of!
As I read your post I kept getting flashes of James Dean in the movie "Giant" overlapping with my oldest brother's excitement over fifteen years ago when he returned from Saudi Arabia. He worked for a Canadian oil company then, and he'd been in the Middle East for a year learning about fracking. I don't think anyone, at least not he, had taken the full measure of the dangers. It was the wonder of it all that had him mesmerized. He saw the technique as a way to improve Canada's energy independence. I think he'd feel very differently about fracking now, but he's disabled by Alzheimer's and presumably unaware of the ramifications of the drilling discovery he help bring to North America. Thank you for your informative post.
beauty - I thought of "Giant" as well. Also, some old black and white film with - I think - a very young John Wayne that I could not find to save my life. And I think a lot of technologies start out that way - exciting in their possibility, but then freighted with problems no one could have foreseen. Thanks for reading!
There's a great article in Fort Worth Weekly this week on the latest horrors of fracking.

I grew up in a Texas oil town and saw the boom/bust cycle. Seems great now but it's sort of like getting drunk only the hangover is permanent and you find yourself asking later, "What was I thinking??" We tend to confuse the fictional economic laws of man with the actual laws of nature. No one is going to give a damn how much money they have if they have no water to drink.

Go ahead and stock up on this bumpersticker. "Dear God, please let there be another oil boom. I promise not to piss it all away this time." My hometown is covered with them.
I am troubled about the amount of unreclaimable water must be used to frack. Especially in Lubbock where it is dry. Where will that water come from? Will there be deals cut with surrounding states to buy their water? Rivers will run dry and dust will fly.
Tiffany - Thank you.

Harry's Ghost - I will read that article - thank you. The analogy to a drunk/ hangover is very apt. Right now, Midland-Odessa has a great buzz on!

Linnn - I don't know - I am worried about it too. We have an acquifer that we pull our water from as well as a fairly large lake. But the lake is very low from lack of rain, and the acquifer is hit hard, not only by the fracking, but also from the cotton fields and the pivot systems that use ridiculous amounts of water to bring in those crops. We are going to have a very real problem soon.
We in NY and PA are caught in the fracking wars, and most interesting and informative of you to guide my focus back down to another geographical source of the conflict. Not only is fracking dangerous (water and air pollution, earthquakes caused by the drilling action lubricating the layers of shale, causing them to shift) but the jobs promised up here are never given to locals. They drag everything from the skilled operators to the flaggers from TX and environs. Tourism and more businesses will be adversely affected, etc. But pockets will be greased, and I fear our own Gov. Cuomo will be leading the way as he eyes the Presidency. And I agree w/Desert Rat--the price is too high.
I live in northern Alberta where we are living the same experience as that you've written about in your article.

It is plunder, and there is no end in sight to it until we effectively get the world off oil. When you consider everything we use oil for, it is perhaps humanity's greatest challenge. And I don't know if it can be done. Indeed we may just run out of all the low-hanging fruit before the true green shift occurs.

Then again, we may already be there. Scary times.
Boom and bust -- been there done that....I don't know if it will bust, but it always has...I remember seeing stores and office buildings vacant for years. Maybe if they would mix in some of the green with the black they could even some of that out. The whole water issue freaks me out's probably the biggest problem we will be facing in Texas and there is not enough being done to deal with the impending problems....You paint a great visual of West Texas.
I laughed out loud reading your post. As a regular traveler to Midland- Odessa, I can confirm your account. I have been telling my husband that the oil boom is back and that the oilfield traffic on that godawful road from Lamesa to Midland is bumper to bumper and is kin to driving on a speedway with monster trucks not only blowing by you, but headed directly at you all at the same time. In fact, I drove from Lubbock to Midland this morning on Hwy 349. Not even darkness and dense fog slowed or reduced the traffic. I have been forced to the shoulder many times during an "automotive blind chicken" game. One would think that the Texas Lege might consider building a 4 lane hwy for the sake of commerce and safety, but I guess they have been too busy making laws that mandate unreasonable and unnecessary invasive medical procedures that are applicable only to Texas women of child bearing age.
I am working out of town today - in Midland - so I won't be able to respond as I usually would. I will say, dds806, that I actually went around the long way, through Big Spring and up I20 to avoid that road. It was the best 30 extra minutes I ever spent! Take care if you are traveling back today.
one of the most bike/pedestrian unfriendly places I've ever been. Part of it is probably due to how how it is in summer - no one in their right mind wants to bike or walk in 100+ temps.

I hear the same thing from my aunt in Phoenix. Yet I have a friend who recently moved from here to Tucson to be able to ride year-round, so temperature isn't a deterrent to everyone.

But a lot of it is just attitude. No matter how poor you are here, you need a car; the buses go to 3 places - the Walmarts, the airport and the hospital -and that's about it.

I had a similar experience in New Hampshire. Bus service covered very limited areas and ran infrequently - every 1/2 hr at rush hour, and every hour in the middle of the day, with no night or weekend service. It didn't connect the destinations I needed and ran so infrequently that it was fairly useless unless I could afford to waste a LOT of time, which I rarely could.
And when there's no water, who will work the fields? Who will inhabit the towns? Who will/what will they FRACK? It is a short time boom, just like the gold rush, and those who participate in it are slitting their own throats. Better find another way to make a living, in another place, because you're making a ghost town. We have a limited amount of fresh water on all of the earth, and you're contaminating it with fracking. Some people say that soon water itself will be the new "oil." You'll be s**t outta luck on that one, Midland-Odessa.
This is a great piece. I'm glad it got attention on Salon's front page.

I have to add, oil is about more than just habits. It's not like Dutch tulips where people paid frivolous amounts of money for something just because it was habitual.

Nothing comes close to oil in terms of the amount of energy you get out (in the form of oil) for the amount of energy you put in (workers, equipment, etc). And those thermodynamics translate directly into cash profits for the investors.

(Especially if you ignore all the long-term costs, like depleted water supplies.)

An equivalent amount of "green" energy would actually involve much more semiskilled labor -- who's going to install all those millions of panels and energy storage systems, and maintain them for 25 years?

That's the problem. More cost on the input end, less profit on the output end. You can't get as rich, as quick. That's no fun.
dirndl - I never thought about Texas workers being attracted to your part of the country. People are flocking to Midland from all over; no matter where the drilling happens, people are going to be unable to resist that big money.

greyman - You make a good point; petroleum is in just about everything. Getting off of our oil addiction may well be mankind's biggest challenge.

Marty's Husband - The water thing totally freaks me out. And it's not just TX. That's going to be a wide-spread problem. My old home state of CA is really going to have an issue too. Mixing green and black is a great concept; maybe we will begin to get there.

bike - I have to confess that I don't think I could ride a bike in 110 degrees. I COULD ride a bus though. But it would take me an extra hour, even if it went anywhere I wanted to go, which it doesn't.

C - Most of us are outta luck if H2O is the new oil! T Boone Pickens has made a big deal of trying to control as much of TX water as possible. He wouldn't be doing that if he didn't' think there was a lot of money in it!

amity - You hit the nail on the head: less effort in, more money out. Oil is king for creating this type of boom atmosphere. I don't know how they'd make that happen with solar or wind or anything else.