For years, Midland, Texas, was a quiet corner of the oil patch, in the middle of the desert, hours away from the state’s population centers. It knew oil booms and oil busts, but little changed year-to-year.
Then came fracking, and Midland, the center of a West Texas region known as the Permian Basin, would never be the same again.
The technology of injecting water into the ground to force up oil and gas locked in the shale put huge fossil fuel deposits within reach that had never been economically available before. Production soared, a key to the United States becoming the world’s largest oil producer.
With increased oil production came an explosion in residents. The population of Midland reached 142,000 last year, up nearly 30% since the start of the decade. That’s nearly triple the pace of growth of the previous 10 years. And the new, faster, growth shows no sign of slowing down. A study commissioned by the city forecasts Midland’s population will reach 250,000 by 2030.
Welcome to Boomtown, USA
From the moment you exit the plane at the city’s airport, called Midland International Air and Space Port despite its modest size, know you’re in an oil town. Virtually every advertisement in the terminal is for businesses providing services to the oil industry, not for any of the consumer products that fill most airport concourses.
“Patriot Premium threading services — delivering quality tubular products,” reads one sign.
“Get frack-grade water faster,” reads another.
The same focus on oil is true throughout the downtown. Outside of a bank on the city’s “Wall Street” is an electronic sign that lists not only time and temperature, but also current market prices for oil and gas, as well as oil rig counts both locally and nationwide.
Midland’s unemployment rate is only 2%, nearly half of the near record-low national unemployment rate of 3.6%. Even when oil prices plunged to $30 a barrel in early 2016 and some drilling of new wells ground to a near halt, the unemployment rate never climbed above 5%.
Shortages of labor and resources
But even economic good times come with problems.
The roads in and around Midland are often clogged with traffic. Talk to the average person in town and that’s often what you’ll hear complaints about: A cross-town trip that might have taken 15 minutes a decade ago takes more than twice as long now. Midland Mayor Jerry Morales says the number of vehicles on the streets has increased by 33,000 in just the last five years.
And it is tough for businesses not in the oil and gas industry to find the workers they need.
Restaurants have to leave tables empty because they don’t have enough staff to cook and serve their customers. There’s a shortage of affordable housing because finding construction workers is difficult. A one-bedroom apartment goes for $1,500, more than rents for similarly-sized housing in Dallas and Houston.
Morales has struggled with that shortage of workers, both in his private business, running three restaurants in town, as well as finding workers to fill positions in town government.
Morales said he has about 50 employees at his restaurants when he could use 75. As far as city government and schools, “there are still a lot of positions in City Hall we need to fill because it’s so expensive to move here. We’re short teachers, bus drivers, maintenance. We had to give large pay increase to police and fire to hold on first responders.”
Although people in Midland are happy about the strong economy, there’s a lot of concern about the the pace of growth, the traffic and the teacher shortages and the rising rents and housing prices.
A new mayor in town
Morales said he believes those widespread concerns are the reason he lost his re-election bid this week, although the candidate who beat him wasn’t running on any kind of anti-growth platform.
“I wouldn’t say there’s a backlash against the growth, but it’s a very conservative city,” he said. “All the leadership in place today is being held responsible for the growth happening so quickly.”
This week the school district asked voters for permission to sell $569 million in bonds to build new schools and replace the 134 portable classrooms in use around the district. The money can’t be used to pay teachers, but it can free up money now going to rent the classrooms and maintain buildings to make hiring teachers easier.
Midland’s school district has 144 teacher vacancies, as well as 35 bus driver positions that are unfilled. Some classes, including a chemistry class and an English class at the high school, have 40 students. An AP economics class has 48 students and not enough seats for everyone to sit.
Despite the strong support for the bond issue from the local business community, the vote on the bonds passed by the narrowest of margins — only 12 votes out of 23,108 cast according to the initial vote tally.
A recount lies ahead, if opponents get their way. And so does additional growing pains for what is the oil patch’s ultimate boomtown.