Big Problems and Big Paychecks in West Texas Oil Country

ames Durbin/Midland Reporter-Telegram via AP

The Permian Basin in West Texas is named for rocks laid down during the Permian geologic period, which include rich gas and oil deposits. The region has experienced many oil booms. The current one is the biggest. For Texas Monthly, West Texas native Christian Wallace spends time among the pumpjacks, documenting the boom times and examining damaging side effects. Like so many locals, Wallace’s life has been intimately linked with the area’s fluctuating oil market, and you get the sense that he cares deeply about the people and place when he asks the hard questions.

Most West Texans are grateful for the recent uptick—making a good living in the dusty Permian has never been easy—but even so, locals are faced with a host of new concerns. For one, the cost of living has inflated so quickly that, for many residents, it has outpaced the gains. Those without jobs in the oil patch are especially hard-hit, and industries outside the oil field face severe staffing shortages: Dumpsters overflow without garbage truck drivers to empty them. Students are late to class because there aren’t enough bus drivers to pick them up. Law enforcement is stretched thin while crime rates—drug use, sex trafficking, theft—rise along with the influx of temporary laborers. Hospitals are short on physicians. Schools can’t keep enough teachers in their classrooms.

And there are other very real concerns: driving on the highways alongside gigantic tankers and equipment haulers can feel like a suicide mission. Even some of those who are fiercely pro-oil have grown worried about the strain on the region’s limited natural resources—especially water—and the environmental toll of the proliferation of sand mining, the flares burning methane and benzene, and all the trash that litters the region.

Though Texas and the U.S. will reap serious profits from the sweat poured into the Permian, what lasting benefit will the region have to show for all of this when the boom ends?

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