West Texas oil patch girds for bust as crude price craters toward $20 a barrel

Scott Tong Mar 18, 2020
A crude oil pipeline in Texas. Joe Raedle/Newsmakers

West Texas oil patch girds for bust as crude price craters toward $20 a barrel

Scott Tong Mar 18, 2020
A crude oil pipeline in Texas. Joe Raedle/Newsmakers

As the economy plunges into a potentially prolonged recession, one city projected to feeling the hardest hit is Midland, Texas (population: 172,578). The forecast comes from a Brookings Institution report.

(Brookings Institution)

Midland sits in West Texas, at the heart of the nation’s most critical oil patch, the Permian Basin. And in addition to COVID-19, Midland is dealing with what you might call “WTI 20” (where WTI stands for West Texas Intermediate crude). Crude oil is selling in the market for about $20 a barrel, a level the world hasn’t seen on a prolonged basis since the 1970s.

Life in the oil patch moves fast: drill it, sell it while prices are high. The bust can come just as fast, and layoffs have already come at drill sites and oilfield service companies.

In addition to COVID-19, Midland is dealing with what you might call “WTI $20”

“It’s the type of thing where you’re fine one day, and you wake up in the middle of the night and you don’t have a job the next day,” said West Texas native Christian Wallace, a reporter for Texas Monthly and host of the podcast “Boomtown.”

The Permian Basin region, anchored by the towns of Midland and Odessa, has survived past shakeouts, but Wallace thinks this could resemble the crash of the 1980s. Back then, 6,000 oil companies went away amid a prolonged glut of oil, a bust all others are compared against.

“We heard our grandparents talk about the busts,” Wallace said, “but this is new to my generation and so, yeah, it’s going to be a wild ride.”

“”We heard our grandparents talk about the busts … but this is new to my generation.”

Christian Wallace, host of “Boomtown” podcast

Oil analysts predict bankruptcies. And for unemployed rig workers, engineers and truck drivers looking for work, who is hiring now?

“Now we’re also in the world of viruses,” said Texas oil and mineral law attorney John McFarland of Graves Dougherty Hearon & Moody. “And those people are going to have a hard time finding anything else to do.”

In the past, the people of the Permian Basin have shocked doubters by innovating; finding cheaper ways to find, drill and export oil. Many speak with a surprising optimism.

“We are extremely resilient, sitting on top of the some of the best geology, maybe in the world” said Ben Shepperd, president of the Permian Basin Petroleum Association. “By the end of the year we’ll be well out of the 20s [dollar per barrel] and heading north quickly.”

The hope comes even as residents anticipate the inevitable signs of bust: high-end pickup trucks with “for sale” signs, drill rigs piling up in industrial yards, real estate rental prices cratering.

There is, as always, another type of economic creativity on the part of struggling jobless individuals: crime.

“They’ll just drive through town and grab anything that’s not locked down or chained down: generators, you know smaller, portable things,” said Taylor Crisp, partner at Agile Oilfield Services in Odessa. “And then they’ll run it off to another city and pawn it.”

In downtown Midland, a famous bank sign tracks the price of crude and how many oil rigs are humming: measures of a fossil fuel economy that powers West Texas. Those numbers could stay down awhile.

Correction (March 19, 2020): A previous version of this story misstated the population of Midland, Texas. The text has been corrected.

COVID-19 Economy FAQs

Are states ready to roll out COVID-19 vaccines?

Claire Hannan, executive director of the nonprofit Association of Immunization Managers, which represents state health officials, said states have been making good progress in their preparations. And we could have several vaccines pretty soon. But states still need more funding, she said. Hannan doesn’t think a lack of additional funding would hold up distribution initially, but it could cause problems down the road. “It’s really worrisome that Congress may not pass funding or that there’s information circulating saying that states don’t need additional funding,” she said.

How is the service industry dealing with the return of coronavirus restrictions?

Without another round of something like the Paycheck Protection Program, which kept a lot of businesses afloat during the pandemic’s early stages, the outlook is bleak for places like restaurants. Some in the San Francisco Bay Area, for example, only got one week of indoor dining back before cases rose and restrictions went back into effect. Restaurant owners are revamping their business models in an effort to survive while waiting to see if they’ll be able to get more aid.

How are hospitals handling the nationwide surge in COVID-19 cases?

As the pandemic surges and more medical professionals themselves are coming down with COVID, nearly 1 in 5 hospitals in the country report having a critical shortage of staff, according to data from the Department of Health and Human Services. One of the knock-on effects of staff shortages is that people who have other medical needs are being asked to wait.

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