MIDLAND, Texas — When Mike Wilkinson moved to Midland, Texas, in 2017, he hoped the world’s largest oil field would change his life. His marriage was in tatters. He owed tens of thousands in credit card debt. His morale was broken.
He soon began working as a “hot shot” truck driver, carrying loads for drillers who need pipes or drums in a hurry. The United States is the world’s largest producer of oil, having surpassed Saudi Arabia and Russia, and demand for “hot shots” has soared.
The epicenter of the oil boom is the Permian Basin in Texas and New Mexico, a massive layer cake of shale that’s cracked open with a blasting technique known as fracking. The country’s growing energy dominance has created tens of thousands of jobs in this part of the Southwest in recent years, many for people like Wilkinson looking for fresh starts.
Wilkinson has worked as a barber and a hot tub installer but says he can now make at least $1,500 a week driving and sees no reason to do anything else. He has logged roughly 170,000 miles in his Ram truck, which pulls a 40-foot trailer that can carry thousands of pounds of oil field equipment.
But the boom has also brought monotony, with one long day bleeding into the next. He sings country songs as he drives and vapes throughout. “This is the most lonesome job I’ve ever had,” he said.
One reason Wilkinson puts in the long days is Kayla, his 13-year-old daughter, who moved to Midland with him. Wilkinson’s older son stayed behind in North Texas as they got settled.
Midland, a 300-mile drive east of El Paso, was the fastest-growing metro area in the country last year, and housing has been scarce. When they arrived, the Wilkinsons moved into a cramped trailer in an RV park beside a truck depot.
But the location was strategic: The RV park is a short trip to one of the best middle schools in the area. “I would be lost without my kids,” Wilkinson said.
The history in the Permian is a bumpy one. It has been producing oil for a century and was the primary fuel source of the World War II allied effort. But by 2005, production had sharply declined, and ghost towns and abandoned gas stations littered the desert, artifacts of the periodic busts.
Over the last decade, small, innovative companies began experimenting with hydraulic fracturing of shale rock that had previously been considered near worthless. The Permian now accounts for 1 out of every 3 barrels of oil produced in the United States, and more than most other major oil-producing nations.
After attacks on oil facilities in Saudi Arabia over the weekend, the ripple effects in the markets were relatively muted, in part because of the amount of oil the United States supplies.
There are now 55,000 people who work in the Permian. Wilkinson says he has found a certain camaraderie with other transplants: “They are either escaping debt or family issues or poverty.”
That economic lifting is being felt broadly. On Wednesday, officials in New Mexico said they would make tuition at its public colleges and universities free for all state residents, using the revenue from oil production to pay for much of the costs.
Oil is so profitable now that companies would rather burn off excess gas than wait to attach pipelines or try to slow down the flow. But with that comes an environmental cost — one of many that the recent boom has been creating, critics say.
For Wilkinson, the road can be treacherous. He has already been involved in four accidents, one of which was a multiple-vehicle collision that killed two people and sent debris flying at his truck.
“I have to make money, and this is the best way I can make money,” he said. “If you’re not educated and have a good work ethic, you can come out here and still make six figures.”
Several weeks ago, Wilkinson’s 16-year-old son, Jacob, joined the family in Midland. He started high school across the street from Kayla’s school and began taking driving lessons.
Mike Wilkinson is planning to eventually take a test so he can drive a heavy hauler truck, which would allow him to make at least $4,000 a week. Then a house for him and his children will be in reach, he said, as well as college for both.
“Life will be really good,” he said. “It would be nice to go on vacation once a year.”