The first clear indication that I had entered an area experiencing an oil boom was the Halliburton Co. office with a “Now Hiring” sign out front on the north side of Artesia, New Mexico.
Next came a couple of equipment rental places with some unfamiliar-looking equipment on their lots, then the first of what were to be many billboards advertising personal injury lawyers specializing in oilfield injuries and truck accidents (“$5.2 Million: Oilfield Explosion, Burn Injury” read one that I saw a little later from the Albuquerque law firm of Glasheen, Valles & Inderman).
Tanker car after tanker car after tanker car sat on the railroad tracks to the left of the road, followed by what I eventually realized were lots of cars for hauling sand. Behind the railcars, I began to see the outlines of what appeared to be a giant refinery complex.
Artesia is at the northwestern edge of what is known as the Permian Basin, named for the geologic period that came right before the Triassic and the Jurassic (which, as a childhood dinosaur fanatic, I find useful as context) and left a whole lot of marine organic matter across West Texas and southeastern New Mexico that spent the next 252 million years turning into oil and natural gas.
Humans drilled the first successful oil well in the Texas part of the Permian in 1921, and the first big New Mexico strike came in 1928.
Drilling for oil is nothing new for the region, then. That refinery I saw in Artesia, HollyFrontier Corp.’s Navajo Refinery, has been in operation since 1969. But Permian oil wells had been in decline for decades. Even as advances in mapping, horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing began to bring big gains in oil and gas production in other regions such as the Bakken in Montana and North Dakota and the Eagle Ford in South Texas starting a little over a decade ago, the Permian at first lagged.
During the brief oil bust of 2015 and 2016, though, production grew modestly in the Permian while falling in other regions. Since then, it has taken off. Its production is now second among the world’s oil fields, after Saudi Arabia’s Ghawar Field, and some boosters think it could surpass even that in a few years.