SIGHTS OF WEST TEXAS / OIL AND GAS INDUSTRY LIFE – STORY IDEAS
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Describing the Midland-Odessa area of west Texas is a challenge. Midland-Odessa is situated in a region known as the Permian Basin, one of the largest oil and gas deposits in the world.
It is a tough and rugged landscape. Rain is infrequent. Dust storms are more common. Even the vegetation that grows here must be tough and spiny in order to survive.
The inhabitants tend to be rugged and tough as well. Most are directly connected to the oil and gas business. There is this spirit of hard work that permeates wherever you go, and the idea of an 8-hour day is laughable.
People take pride in working hard.
The gap between blue collar and white collar is not very noticeable, as it is possible to come here, work hard and make a very good living without a college education.
If you see a man in dirty coveralls you know he is providing a good life for his family.
Even the white collar money is understated, showing itself with blue jeans, boots, a tucked in shirt, and a Rolex.
The flashiest money tends to be the newest. The old dogs know that a bust can come at any time.
The oldest family money belongs to the ones who owned the land hundreds of years ago and used it for ranching and running cattle. They are now making royalties from the minerals below. These families have seen many boom-bust cycles.
Ranching and competitions involving livestock are still popular for some inhabitants of the area, but they are usually done as more of a hobby these days.
Midland and Odessa are two cities, separated by a few miles of highway. They are one dot on a map of the United States but they are as separate as New York is from New Jersey.
Both cities have a measured population of about 118,000 people but during times of economic boom it is estimated that the two cities will be inhabited by close to 150,000 each.
A quarter of a million people living in the middle of the desert together presents unique challenges when it comes to housing, employment, and infrastructure.
During an oil boom, rent is comparable to rates in San Fransisco or Manhattan. Apartments and neighborhoods are being built as fast as they can be thrown together and are filling immediately.
Even with the constant construction and expansion, there simply aren’t enough apartments or houses for everyone. Realtors can list and sell a home within 24 hours during an oil boom. Bidding wars have been known to occur over a single house.
Traffic is a factor during the typical rush hours but accidents are made worse by the increased level of heavy trucking and commercial vehicles on the roads. Fatal accidents occur weekly.
Road infrastructure crumbles beneath the heavy weight of constant commercial vehicle traffic. Road construction is a constant part of life.
Everywhere you look, the oil and gas industry is present.
There are pumpjacks on golf courses, in cemeteries, in neighborhoods and near schools.
The downtown Midland skyline rises out of the dust like a monument dedicated to man’s ability to get things out of the ground at the cost of blood and sweat.
Businessmen pass on the street and talk to each other about the rig count, the price of oil, and the weather.
Unspoken about by the street walkers is the fact that three of the high rise buildings sit abandoned. Relics of the bust of the 1980’s, they are now condemned or wrapped up in lengthy asbestos abatement projects.
People speak about downtown revitalization while sipping a beverage at a restaurant in a new development on the edge of town.
“Help wanted” or “hiring” signs are in every small business, fast food, and gas station. Because a able-bodied person can get a job in the oil industry making good money, there are very few who will work at low-skilled jobs like fast food. It is not uncommon for a food chain or a gas station chain to offer 401K, tuition reimbursement, and sign-on bonuses to try to entice labor. Even still, they are always running at a minimum staff, and struggle just to stay open.
Even the low-skilled jobs like food service or convenience store clerk pay better than comparable jobs anywhere else in the United States. $12-14/hr is common starting rate for fast food here.
- Pipeline welders
The drilling and completing of wells is a big part of what happens out here, but a interesting development that could make for a great story is to share a glimpse into the lives of the men (and women) who travel the country seeking to work on the pipelines that are necessary to carry the raw crude and natural gas to refineries and storage batteries.
The viewing public should have some recognition of pipelines from the Keystone XL pipeline protests that generated a lot of controversy.
It would be a story of man against steel and fire. Braving the elements and the danger, welding each pipe section together by hand, for the thrill of fast money and fast living.
The “pipeliners” work hard and party hard. They make between $3500-$5000 per week but often find it hard to save any of it due to their spending habits.
Pipeliners drive custom trucks outfitted with welders in the beds, and they live in campers that they tow around the country to sleep in while doing pipeline jobs.
They make a lot of money and spend it on their trucks, partying at bars or at the RV parks they live at, or on flashy clothes and cowboy boots. It is not uncommon to have $100,000 spent on a custom truck.
These guys are away from home for many months out of the year. Many are single and are taking advantage of their youth and the free-flowing money while they can.
For these guys, pipelining is not a job, it is a way of live. It is a brotherhood. They have fierce loyalty to each other and will often walk off the job as a group if they feel they have been mistreated. The need for pipeline labor is so great out here they are guaranteed to have another job by the next day.
2.) Newport Operating / G2 Petroleum – Burkburnett TX
These guys interest me for a story because they are getting oil out of the ground using old methods and equipment that date back to the 1960’s.
They are not operating in the Permian Basin, they are closer to the Dallas-Ft. Worth area in a small town called Burkburnett, which is actually one of the birthplaces of oil and gas exploration.
The oil and gas economy in Burkburnett trickled off since their heyday as a oil production hub because all of the deposits are shallow and the deeper deposits of the Permian Basin were a much more lucrative draw.
Even still, the Newport guys bought up old leases about two years ago, and use battered equipment that is decades past its prime to tap into the shallow wells. They make a profit by keeping a very low overhead.
The draw of this story is that the way they are operating would allow for a camera to capture the sorts of images one thinks of when they think of a gold rush or an oil boom; man vs machine, dirty oil on the face, hard manual labor, etc.
All of that is still alive and well with Newport.
To contrast that with the drilling operations in the Permian Basin, in the interest of safety and increasing production numbers, companies are using state of the art computer controlled mechanical equipment and spending a fortune on safety equipment and training for their employees.
When I was photographing the guys at Newport, they didn’t even have enough hard hats to go around and yet they were operating heavy equipment and drilling live wells.
The roughnecks at Newport Operating are not paid nearly as well as the workers in the Permian Basin, but the cost of living is a lot less in Burkburnett. The employees I photographed seemed to have some knowledge about life in the Permian Basin, and knew that if they went there they could make a lot more money, but it seemed to me like they were stuck in a series of life decisions that would always keep them living paycheck to paycheck doing manual labor.
I witnessed them drink on the job, go for a joyride in the boss’s truck when he was at lunch, and generally goof off if they thought nobody was looking.
I also saw them doing hard physical labor while covered head to toe in grease.
I think I barely scratched the surface of the photographic opportunities.
3.) Midland County Sheriff’s Office – Oilfield Theft Task Force
The final story idea I have (for right now) involves an interesting side effect of the booming oil and gas economy in Midland, which is a booming market for theft.
A lot of the locations where oil and gas equipment is being used are very remote, making them a target of theft. Thieves will syphon hundreds of gallons of diesel fuel. They will steal tools, tires, generators. It can all be taken overnight.
Midland County authorities have partnered with the FBI and surrounding counties and operate a task force that investigates theft of oilfield equipment. They also do sting operations and attempt to catch people in the act of stealing from active locations.
This is something I have not yet been able to photograph but is an idea I have been sitting on for some time.
It could make for decent television if there were ride-alongs and busts that took place on camera.
Other related aspects of the thriving economy include white collar crime, such as bank fraud or mortgage schemes. As a result of this there is an FBI field office as well as a branch of the Secret Service that operate out of Midland full-time.
Border patrol and other government agencies work this area as well and as recently as two years ago there was a major sex trafficking ring that was busted working out of this region.
With a lot of money comes a lot of problems, and this area has plenty of both.
I am just touching the surface of the stories that could be done with cooperation from law enforcement, but I wanted to pass it on as there could be something worth discussing there, given the resurgent popularly of police-related reality television shows like “Live PD.”