By Mitch Borden
In the Permian Basin, oil prices have crashed and more communities are beginning to see the impacts of the bust. Although staggeringly low prices per barrel are nothing new for the region, the coronavirus pandemic is making the situation even more tenuous.
Christian Wallace understands these cycles too well. He had an intimate look at the industry while growing up in Andrews, TX and he recently covered the history of the Permian Basin for the Texas Monthly podcast Boomtown.
Wallace now lives in San Marcos, TX, and talked to Marfa Public Radio’s Permian Basin Reporter Mitch Borden about what it’s been like to watch the coronavirus spread to his hometown and the historic oil bust that’s currently hitting the region.
Click on the audio player at the top of the page to listen to the full conversation between Marfa Public Radio’s Mitch Borden and Texas Monthly’s Christian Wallace. This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Mitch Borden: Christian, you grew up in Andrews and your family still lives out there. What’s it been like for you to watch the number of COVID-19 cases quickly grow in your hometown while you’re living across the state?
Christian Wallace: We all have our different counties or areas that were checking pretty regularly. And for me, Andrews and the Permian Basin is one that I’ve been keeping an eye on a daily basis. For so long, it was zero in Andrew’s even while Odessa and Midland got a couple of their first cases.
And just over the weekend, you had a case confirmed and then you had six and then eight and now 10. (As of April 15th, according to Andrews County Public Health Department, 17 county residents have tested positive for COVID-19.) One of the most striking things about the cases in Andrews is that [the first identified case] was an employee of Porter’s Thriftway, which is the only grocery store in town. So everybody has to go to that grocery store.
To go back to your original question, yeah, it’s concerning for sure. To see the cases rise and know that there’s really nothing you can do about it and just hope that your family and friends are staying safe the best that they can.
MB: You recently, came out with a podcast for Texas Monthly called Boomtown that was focused on the Permian Basin’s history and the oil industry out here. What’s it been like to see a region you’re so familiar with go through so much change so quickly?
CW: You know, Boomtown was about the historic oil boom playing out in the Permian Basin. Like, it is literally in the title “Boomtown” and people we talked to, and some of them in the industry, [would say,] “Well, we don’t use the B-word anymore. We don’t use boom and we don’t use bust. We’re a very stable mining operation these days.” And I have to say, I always took that with a pretty hard eye-roll.
On the other hand, I couldn’t have even imagined that things could have gone this sideways this quickly. I mean, the oil field has always had booms and busts, ups and downs. That’s a fact of life. Every West Texan knows that. But as far as just overnight? You wake up one day and you have a job and by that night you don’t — that’s unusual. You know, usually, these things take a while to play out and this just happened in a matter of weeks. It’s just a truly incredible catastrophe for the industry.
MB: How are the people you’re talking to in West Texas sounding? Are some people optimistic? Is everyone kind of down in the dumps? What’s the range of messages you’ve been hearing?
CW: It runs the gamut. You know, some people are pretty optimistic, although I wouldn’t say anyone is just like, “Oh, things are completely fine.” Everyone’s pretty clear-eyed about the severity of the situation and we’re all dealing with the pandemic on top of all of that. So, yes, some of the people I’ve talked to have been down.
There’s not a whole lot to rejoice in seeing your colleagues of many years get let go and seeing your salary shrink by 30 percent. Or, being one of the few guys left on a frack crew, but then staying in a man camp and being away from your family, who you’re concerned about during this crisis.
It’s just kind of hard for the human mind to process something as abstract as a global pandemic. And to do that while also dealing with layoffs and watching your lifeblood sink to the same price as like a 30 pack of Coors light — that would drive anyone crazy.
*Editors Note: This interview was recorded in early April, therefore the number of coronavirus cases Wallace quoted is outdated. As of April 15th, according to Andrews County Public Health Department, 17 county residents have tested positive for COVID-19.