The U.S. is on track to become the world’s biggest oil producer by next year, and in West Texas, home to the most active oilfield in the world, the oil boom has resulted in a modern-day gold rush.
The Permian Basin is set to overtake Iran in output in just a few months as oil prices pick up from 2015’s rock bottom. To keep up with production, thousands of workers from every part of the country are heading to the scorching Texas desert, where entry-level oilfield jobs regularly pay over $100,000 a year.
They all want a piece of what people in Midland, the Permian Basin’s major town, are hailing as a new gold rush.
“All the major oil companies and exploration companies are moving out here. They're selling their assets everywhere else,” said Josh Garcia, an operations manager at a company that supplies chemicals for drilling. “At this point, it’s just a matter of numbers: Companies need to fill those spots, and they’ll train you. You can rewrite your story out here if you want to.”
That's exactly what 22-year-old Mike “Snowflake” Smith is counting on. In Austin, he was a high-school dropout. But in the oilfield, he’s a welder-in-training working 14 hours a day in 110-degree heat — for a hefty paycheck. And he has the goods to prove it: new truck, Apple watch, almost-new RV, ostrich-leather work boots, and some very expensive tattoos.
Snowflake’s so in demand that he can pick and choose between jobs. The day we met, he’d just quit over a late overtime request.
“I hire in with another company in the morning. In my phone right now there are 30 or 40 people I can call and get a job in ten minutes,” said Snowflake.
He’s not alone. By some estimates, Midland currently has 20,000 unfilled positions, and the town is in need of as many as 40,000 additional homes to accomodate the influx of people.
In the meantime, thousands of oilfield workers sleep and eat in “man camps” — rows of converted containers or trailers that extend over as much as 40 acres of rocky land that’s useless for drilling or grazing.
The geologists, engineers and executives, on the other hand, have found themselves locked in bidding wars that have caused escalating prices on Midland’s housing market, which was just named the hottest in the country.
Oil is a rollercoaster economy, notorious for its ups and downs, but even so, = things haven’t been this good for a very long time.
In the early 2000s, following a long, slow decline in oil production that began after the last record-breaking years of the late 1960s, analysts started writing obituaries for American oil. In the Permian, where wells had been gushing crude for almost 100 years, the flow was looking more like a trickle. Big companies sold leases and moved on.
Then fracking changed everything.
The technology, which was already over 50 years old when it became commercially viable in the last decade, suddenly meant vast deposits of oil trapped between layers and pores of underground rock were open for business. In April of this year, 22 percent of all the drilling rigs in the world could be found punching holes in the Permian.
Texans, who’ve seen a century of booms and their fair share of busts, hope the good times are here to stay.
Josh Garcia, who remembers the last bust, is cautiously excited. “You would see these guys with $80,000 trucks and sports cars, being sold for half price before they got repossessed. But I'm not worried about the bust. It's just too good right now,” he said.
This segment originally aired August 15, 2018 on VICE News Tonight on HBO.