Folks in this barren West Texas oil capital have to go out of their way to find something to complain about. Housing is tight, and traffic is just terrible. But all their moaning is dispensed with a satisfied smile. They know there's never been a better time to live here.
Almost 500 oil and gas drilling rigs are at work in the oil fields that stretch west from Midland into New Mexico, and by the end of the year, more than $15 billion will have been invested in the hunt for new oil and gas in the Permian and Delaware basins.
For people who remember the 1960s, when there were only 100 rigs running, the boom of 1981 is nothing but good news.
"I don't apologize for the good times," says Bill Franklin of the Midland National Bank. "We paid our dues."
Midland is not unique: U.S. energy companies, from the majors down to the smallest independents, are expected to break all drilling records this year in their pursuit of oil and gas.
In the first six months, more than 33,000 wells were punched into the ground, according to the American Petroleum Institute, and by the end of the year, more than 75,000 wells are likely to have been drilled. These companies are drilling more developmental wells, more wildcat wells and deeper wells than at any time in history.
From the Williston Basin in Montana and North Dakota to the Anadarko Basin in Oklahoma to the Tuscaloosa Trend in Louisiana, from the Eastern Overthrust Belt in the Appalachians to the Western Overthrust Belt in the Rockies, drilling rigs are being set into place as quickly as they can be built.
The lure, of course, is riches.
"It's just straight old economics," says Phillip Marcum, executive vice president of MGF Oil Co., whose 1980 annual report describes this as "a magnificent period" for the drilling industry. "The gap between price about $32 a barrel and cost $13-$15 a barrel is enough that everyone wants to go out and find oil."
Right now, many people in Midland and nearby Odessa are getting rich. "But probably no more than are basketball or football players or boxers," says Ed Thompson, executive director of the Permian Basin Petroleum Association. "We don't resent them. If they can do it, good for them. We feel it ought to be the same for the oil business."
And for each person getting rich, there are many getting comfortable, as the drilling boom fuels an expansion of the thousands of small companies that supply the oil industry.
In Midland and Odessa, new companies are sprouting to join the search, and newcomers are arriving in droves. "We see new, bright engineers, accountants, attorneys who weren't coming out eight years ago," says Charles Fraser, president of the First National Bank of Midland, whose outstanding loans have nearly doubled in the last year because of the drilling and exploration boom.
"We see a lot of new people off Wall Street, off the East Coast and the West Coast, the fund-raiser types. There are 10 for every one there was five years ago. In the 1960s, you had to go and find them."
Labor for the oil fields is in short supply, despite an influx of northerners with experience on the assembly lines in Detroit or the steel mills in Ohio. The drilling manager for one independent company complains that many of these new roughnecks don't have the skills needed to handle a complex, $8 million drilling rig, and boasts, "We're the only industry hiring people without any experience and giving them on-the-job training at full pay about $10 an hour ."
The diversity of the oil business is apparent here in the Midland-Odessa area, where some of the biggest of the majors reside next to large independents or individual geologists and petroleum engineers. "There's profit to be made at virtually all levels of investment," Fraser says.
Scores of small companies -- rig builders, well-servicing companies, suppliers of pipe or pumps or mud (used to cool and lubricate the drill bits and counterbalance the pressure in the well) -- line the highway between Midland and Odessa, many in newly constructed buildings. The drilling boom has brought an increase in the number of drilling contractors, ranging from the mom-and-pop operators who own a few rigs to the biggest with 100 or more.
There are more than 1,000 drilling companies in the United States. MGF Oil Co., the 15th largest land driller in the world, operates just 36 drilling rigs, 14 in the Permian Basin and the rest from Wyoming "to the bayous of Louisiana," Marcum says. Six more rigs are under construction.
MGF's drilling company is working in behalf of several major companies and many independents. Independents are perhaps the hardiest of the free enterprisers in the American economy, and they give Midland its peculiar atmosphere.
"Midland is the hotbed of free enterprise," said D. K. Davis, senior vice president of the Texas Independent Producers and Royalty Owners Association. "You'll find oil operators in Dallas and Houston willing to bend with the wind. They don't bend in Midland."
You get an indication of how unyielding people here are when they describe the effects of decontrol of oil prices, ordered last January by President Reagan, or the tax-cut bill approved by Congress, which includes about $11 billion in new tax breaks for the industry. Decontrol, they say, has lowered the market price of oil several dollars a barrel, and the tax bill is good mainly for royalty owners (the landowners who lease their property to the oil companies) and the majors.
"The independents may get $5.5 billion of that so-called gusher," Thompson said. "But their costs are well above that, so all this bill will do is pick up some of the costs."
Still, they all rave about the right turn in Washington since Reagan took over. "It makes everybody feel better," Midland National's Franklin said.
People here expect the drilling boom to continue into next year, despite the world oil glut, the decline in world prices and high interest rates. In the Permian Basin alone, more than 700 million barrels of oil will be produced this year, likely to be a record. And while huge new finds have been rare, enough new oil is being discovered -- about 20-25 million barrels here so far this year-- to keep people coming.
"They're not finding gushers that are blowing the tops off the derricks," Franklin says, "but they're getting the bread-and-butter type of production."