The Dark Side of the Boom: Oil Is Doing Great Things for Some in Texas, but Not for Everyone
It was like landing on the moon. The thought ricocheted through Joleena Malugani's mind as she took in the vast, dusty expanse of the corner of West Texas claimed by Midland and Odessa. Malugani was fresh out of college when she came across an Ector County Independent School District booth at a job fair in Oregon. The recruiter mentioned there was an oil boom going on in the area and the district needed teachers. Malugani was in a state with one of the worst unemployment rates in the country, her student loans would soon be due and she needed a job.
Raised on the West Coast, she'd never been to Texas. It would be an adventure, she thought. In August 2012 she lined up an apartment, packed what she could fit in her car and drove more than 1,600 miles for a teaching job in the middle of West Texas. The blazing lights of oil rigs and the guttering flames of natural-gas flares blotted out the stars long before she pulled into town.
Odessa, Texas, sits on top of the Permian Basin, an oil-rich region 250 miles wide and 300 miles long that stretches across West Texas and up into New Mexico. Odessa and its sister city, Midland, went from being wide spots in the road to actual towns when oil was discovered almost a century ago. The wells came in big, and Permian production was the highest in the country for decades.
In recent years, common wisdom held that the Permian Basin's best days were behind it, along with most of Texas oil. That was before the shale boom erupted. Fracking in the Barnett in north Texas, the Eagle Ford in south Texas, and the Wolfcamp and Spraberry shale formations in the Permian Basin led to an energy renaissance. Now more than half the rigs in the country are in Texas, and 563 of those -- more than half the rigs in the state -- are in the Permian, according to the Baker Hughes rig count. For places like Midland and Odessa, built on oil, dependent on oil and obsessed with the stuff, this was the boom they'd been praying for since the big bust in the 1980s.
But there's always a price. With prosperity comes inflation. Rental costs have soared along with the larger paychecks for some and the billions of dollars invested by oil companies. Odessa is the second-fastest-growing metro area in the country, and Midland is third, according to a U.S. Census Bureau population study. People have been flocking to the region, drawn by the promise of wealth and plenty amid one of the biggest oil booms in memory. Some are finding the modern-day American dream of overnight affluence, but the promise of oil doesn't always pan out. More people means more competition for jobs and places to live and increasing pressure on decaying local infrastructure.
The definition of "American middle class" has always been vague, but it has become increasingly difficult to remain a part of that class on top of the Permian Basin if you aren't in the oil industry. People grasping the bottom rungs of the middle class have found themselves slipping, unable to keep hold.