“I just don’t know, man. A lot of us are real worried. Just look out there and tell me how many jacks you see stopped.” Andy pauses to wipe the grease from his hands before continuing. “When the jacks are movin’, the truckers are groovin’.” He flashes a wry smile. “But they’re cappin’ wells out here like you wouldn’t believe.”
Andy, a colorful oil tank truck driver for one of the largest petroleum and natural gas exploration companies in the country, is right to be concerned. The last five years have seen United States crude oil production nearly double, a steady climb from around 5.6 million barrels per day in 2011 to just over 9 million barrels per day in 2016. This is largely due to the adoption of induced hydraulic fracturing, a technique that has allowed previously inaccessible pockets of oil and natural gas to be extracted via new horizontal drilling technologies through shale rock formations.
Texas boasts two of the three largest oil-producing shale regions in the country, and has spent the majority of the unprecedented boom period benefiting from global oil prices hovering around $100 per barrel. Yet over the last 18 months, that average price has collapsed dramatically, bottoming out below $27 at the beginning of 2016. For comparison, the low point during the subprime mortgage financial crisis was $33 per barrel at the beginning of 2009.
The rise in domestic production is still supported by an insatiable global demand, but the plummeting prices have led to mixed fortunes for communities across the state. Drilling companies, desperate to maximize efficiency, have consolidated their drilling on sites that are densely saturated with oil. Meanwhile, low-producing fringe fields have been largely abandoned, which has rapidly led to a complex and varied regional landscape across West and South Texas. In some cases, just a few dozen miles has made the difference between feast and famine for towns with oil-based economies.
Andy’s route takes him through the small town of Smiley, where he was happy to talk on the condition his full name and employer not be disclosed. “They’re real strict with publicity these days. Everyone’s on edge just a little bit.”
Smiley sits at the intersection of U.S. Highway 87 and Farm to Market 108, about 60 miles due east of San Antonio. It has one blinking traffic signal, a population of about 500, and is located in the middle of the Eagle Ford Shale Play. It has suffered substantially from the collapse of oil prices, with new drilling activity ground to a halt as speculators shift their focus to more fertile ground.
But Smiley, like the dozens of other towns confronting similar challenges, is far from deserted. Tankers like Andy’s rumble through the main intersection every few minutes, transporting hundreds of thousands of barrels of oil each day past Smiley’s lone, abandoned gas station.
“All these towns have been through this before, so nobody is really packing up and leaving,” explains Andy. “But people are definitely feeling it. Not as much activity, but it’ll rebound. It’s just a matter of when. That’s what’s got me nervous.”
That sense of pragmatic optimism and resilience is evident throughout Smiley, yielding curious and sometimes contradictory conditions in its built environment. A dilapidated home near the center of town waits patiently for development, its freshly mowed yard and white picket fence hinting at unrealized potential. A barbecue joint, closed at noon on a Saturday, hangs a sign in the front window reading, “Reduced hours due to decline in oil productivity.” A cafe across the street follows suit. There is a sense that the town itself has slowed its metabolic rate in order to survive the winter.
Other effects are less tangible. When asked, many of Smiley’s residents will speak to an emotional connection with the sight of the various machines that dot the landscape, such as pump jacks, derricks, and “Christmas trees” (assemblies of pipes, valves, and spools that control the flow of oil or gas out of a well). Visible in all directions from highways and county roads alike, the infrastructure is a physical representation of the industry that enhances the vitality of both local communities and the state as a whole.
Just as the symbolism of an iconic, silhouetted cowboy riding off into the sunset speaks to a specific regional ethos, so too does a line of pump jacks on the horizon, churning in place with a singular purpose and downright Texan resolve.
Andy is affectionate toward the pump jacks in particular. “You just hate to see those big guys with their heads down and legs up,” he chuckles, referencing the position of a static unit visible over his shoulder. “You gotta know they feel humiliated, right?” It’s an apt comparison, its two giant, revolving counterweights and bowed head vaguely resembling a long-lost prehistoric bird of prey.
But with rig counts dwindling to historic lows both nationally and across the region, these dignified beasts are at risk of becoming an endangered species. While some lay dormant, others are dismantled completely and stored off-site until they are needed again.
Andy is undeterred. “We’ve been through worse,” he assures, “but that doesn’t make it fun.”
While the immediate future of the petroleum and natural gas market remains uncertain, the enduring spirit of the people and infrastructure in communities like Smiley remains steadfast. As if mimicking the cyclical motion of pump jacks themselves, these places are designed to withstand the ebb and flow of an often-turbulent economy. These oil towns’ longevity is well documented, and their character and built environment quintessentially Texan. In that respect, the faith of people like Andy is well placed.
Christopher Ferguson, Assoc. AIA, is a designer at Clickspring Design and co-founder of DO.GROUP DESIGN.