Descending from the clouds on the flight back from Boston, I look out across the Permian Basin to watch the sun’s last act to outlive its dwindling light. It sets the clouds closest to the horizon on fire, but to no avail; the rest subside into cooler tones before dying out. Below, the scorched land of the basin is carved up into thousands of plots. Within each plot, there are machines of extraction and refinement: derricks, flares, and “mechanical dinosaurs” or pump jacks. More recently, scattered throughout the basin, a few turbines take advantage of West Texas winds. I try and fail to follow a silver truck lagging like a ghost in the dust of where it should be. Time in the basin takes a while to catch up with the present.
I flew from Boston with others who also won the chance to see their home from a critical distance. When I touch down in Midland, Texas, I notice that the man sitting next to me wears a design of the American flag. It is rare to see this “up there.” The stars and stripes are associated with extremism or the blurred line between patriotism and nationalism. Leaving the gate, I encounter the familiar sight of mesh hats branded with the household names of Chevron, Exxon and Pioneer. Shirts affirm liberty and freedom. Worn boots are cemented with mud-filled cracks. I’m overwhelmed by a small survey of the city that raised me.
Most of the nation’s oil and gas comes from the Permian Basin. The basin holds a contentious reputation in U.S. politics. Some glorify its oil for securing U.S. energy independence while others view it with disdain for building a “carbon bomb” with the same potential to threaten human existence as the atomic one. No matter your awareness or indifference to the basin’s oil, she finds a way into all of our lives. Mention a future without the basin’s resources to an oil worker, and he’ll have a prepared list of all her contributions from clothes to transport. To the locals, the basin represents much more than her products. She is the unknown mother of life’s necessities and pleasures.
Oil is one of the last industries that can be lucrative without a college education. The catch is that workers are under the whim of the market. When demand and costs are high, the basin is “booming.” You never know when the boom will expire. But when the market busts, prices crash. Out-of-use rigs gather in lots lined up in rows like tall tombstones. Mass lay-offs start with those who work the dirtiest jobs. Workers either leave town with their pockets full or remain until the doom clears out.
My family moved to Odessa, Texas, twenty minutes from Midland, on the coattails of a boom. We moved into a neighborhood built to accommodate all the families eager to gain from black gold. The neighborhood has since been under perpetual construction. Each time I return from school, I can count on seeing a new street of houses. Homes come off of the conveyor belt, identical like gingerbread houses, each sanctified with a gifted bible. I can tell which houses are the newest by whose yard still contains remnants of rubble and dust from the now-suburbanized desert.
I used to go without seeing Dad for two to three weeks while he worked as a crew member on the rig’s site. As a directional driller, he’d steer the drill bit for extraction — first vertically then horizontally according to the geologist’s calculations. At home, Mom would be the one to take care of my brother and me while Dad worked in sweltering summers and frigid winters. There were times when I wished he was in the audience at a performance or sitting in his chair, the only one with armrests at the head of the dinner table. I imagine most of the rig’s workers also had families at home too. Growing up, it was difficult to reconcile the little time I saw him and how I ought to feel about him. For the week in between shifts, he would try his best to recover lost time, but the need to provide for the home called him back. I’ve come to realize that an oil-man’s love is shown through his sacrifice on the oilfield.
When the pandemic hit, demand and prices dropped; Dad was laid off. But like most workers, he returned to the oil industry. At home, I see him around 6 o’clock when work trucks arrive in their driveways, maybe in time for dinner on the table. He now works as a production operator. After the drilling rig and fracking crew have their turn on the well and leave for the next one, he monitors the wells’ production and ensures the separation of water, oil and gas. It is well-known that in the oil industry the most secure jobs are closest to the wellhead. A well’s production can last a few months or a year, so even when there’s a bust and lay-offs, Dad will likely continue to closely monitor the wells.
Oil has always been a constant in Odessa. Even though I see more of Dad, he works an exhausting 10-hour shift and another unpaid two for the drive from the site and back. No matter how rough and tiring oil life can be, nothing else can rival its economic benefits. For families, the chance to move into a suburban home and set aside funds for college justifies the return to an unreliable and sometimes unforgiving industry. But at what cost? Will oil be just as faithful to locals in the future? Locals often don’t doubt their faith in the infinitude of oil. There will always be another boom. To doubt could mean a future in which families do not see themselves thriving. Oil supplies hope that there will always be a future in the basin.
How can locals be assured there is a future for them? Slogans or signs that call for the end of fossil fuel production only intensify the town’s faith in oil. The most balanced voice in the debate is to reduce the rate at which we produce fossil fuels while we implement carbon capture. Education is not only essential to inform but also to create the next generation of workers for clean energy. The Permian Basin’s vast and flat land has the potential to usher in the expansion of wind and solar. My town needs certainty that there is a future for them in the new economy, and an incentive to transition to secure and less taxing jobs for families. For there to be a future, the basin must be brought into it.
— Magazine writer Matthew A. Thompson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.