UT - Permian Basin Students

Life in the Oilfields – A Student’s Perspective

James Clendenen, Jimena Flores, Linda Batchelor, McKenna Wilson
Students of the University of Texas - Permian Basin

We don’t really trust that the water is really safe. – James Clendenen UTPB Student

The following is an excerpt of interviews by Michael Lewis of Environment Texas with students from the University of Texas – Permian Basin. The questions and responses have been edited for brevity and clarity.

This is part of our “Stories from the Oilfields” series of collected interviews from residents of the oil producing areas of Texas and experts on the impacts of the fossil fuel industry. See our full series HERE.

James Clendenen, Jimena Flores, Linda Batchelor, McKenna Wilson

Environment Texas: Do you have any ties to the industry and the Permian? 

James: My family has longer ties. The Adam family, one of the first families to move to Crane, Texas, to help build an oil rig camp to supply the Permian Basin with oil when it was originally hunted, I want to say in the 1940s. 

Jimena: I’ve lived in Midland my whole life, basically. I’ve moved away to Alabama, and I’ve seen very big changes in the environment, and I’ve seen how destructive the fossil fuel companies are to our environment.

McKenna: I was born in Odessa, and it’s sort of just been us switching from Odessa to Midland to Odessa to Midland back again.

Linda:  I moved to Andrews when I was nine and I moved to Odessa when I was around 19ish.

Environment Texas: What have you seen growing up and living in the area? 

James: What I’ve seen growing up is a very strong shift from good to bad, economic wise. I guess when I first moved here around 2010, it was very booming, for lack of a better word, in the sense that oil was on the rise and more people were moving to our town. And Odessa was a very vibrant place because money was being thrown around, and people were very eager to spend money. Not as many people were eager to save it. And once I hit high school, my freshman year, oil bottomed out. The oil field really hasn’t been what it was before. The amount of overproduction created a bottleneck, I guess that made it very difficult for companies to produce oil at a profitable pace, and that created a bust that sent the oil prices down to, I want to say, for a short period of time, it was down to $0, or less than $0 for a barrel of oil.

Linda: I was a Girl Scout from a young age up until 14 or 15. And going camping and seeing things change over the years just because the oil industry is moving in on them. It stinks. Going on site is not fresh air anymore. It stinks when you get headaches. And the sulfur…I just remember going camping a few times and just hating it because it wasn’t clean and fresh and away from the smog and the stink of cars. It sank of sulphur and oil because it was so close. 

James: Yeah, I mean, when you live in this area, you don’t live far from oil production sites or wells. You can usually see them, especially if you’re driving around at night. You can see the methane pipes that burn like little candles in the darkness. 

Environment Texas: Do you have any concerns living and growing up so close to these production sites? 

James: Absolutely. A good example is when I was in middle school, we were going through a very serious drought, and they were trying to figure out ways to get more water into the oil production, like fracking and things like that, to get more oil out of the ground. Problem was that they were mixing chemicals with water supplies and not doing a very good job checking where the pipes were going. And our local water supplier was contaminated by these kinds of chemicals. And everybody in our town received a letter saying that there had been a leak of arsenic into the water and that nobody should drink the water until further notice. And ever since then, my family has refused to drink tap water. We always buy our water, bottled water, juggling water. We don’t really trust that the water is really safe. 

Like, I mean, even now, even ten years, tenish years later, I still don’t trust the water here in Odessa. I’m always a little bit worried that there is some kind of chemical or there is some kind of something that I can’t see in the water that is going to adversely affect me. I think as people get older and they start to age, they’ll start to realize they’ve become a lot more sick or a couple of years down the line. A study might find that there were toxic chemicals in the water all along that the treatment plans were just not able to pull out. 

Linda: Yeah. So I have experience with this because Andrews has terrible water. Talking to dentists, they know who’s from Andrews in the area based on their teeth. That’s how bad Andrews water is. It hasn’t improved very much. Our water is nasty. It’s something in Odessa because it keeps getting, like, infected. Is that the right word? 

Environment Texas: Did they continue to produce throughout that water notice? 

James: Yes. There’s never really a time when oil production stops. People always need oil. And the refinery here in Odessa always needs a constant supply, and if you don’t meet that demand, then prices go up and people get angry. 

Environment Texas: What about environmental concerns in general? 

McKenna: I see all these articles about how it’s causing major, like, methane leaks, and it’s going to cause problems sooner. So the general attitude is it’s not a big deal, it happens all the time. And then when you dig into it, you’re finding the other side of the story. I think it’s cognitive dissonance, like people don’t want to think that the industry that is keeping them alive is harmful to the environment. No one wants to think that because then most people, based on their morality and values, would want to move away from that industry. 

It’s like we’re being told that it’s not a big deal. Mike Conaway. Okay. He was the representative for this district. I think he bowed out the last election. But I remember going to a talk with him where he was taking answers from students, and I was 17 or 18, and I asked him specifically about climate change. And his answer to me was, the climate has been changing since the dawn of man. So he’s being allowed to tell teenagers that, and other conservative sites telling them this is not a big deal. The climate has been changing since the dawn of man. God wants it this way.

Environment Texas: Do you have anything else to say about the fossil fuel industry? 

James: I guess I’d just say how normal and common the oil field is here. I mean, it’s a very important piece of life out here. I knew a lot of people that, even from a young age, knew that they would go to the oil field. The idea that 17, 18, 19 year old kids, if they want to work hard enough to make six figures and that’s a very appealing thing for anybody. That’s a majority of why a lot of people move out here. Because if you have the drive to work really hard, you can be a success and do exactly what you want. A lot of times people don’t take in the kind of career path that the oil field entails. Once you start working for the oil field, it’s very difficult to find another job, at least one that pays as well. The problem is that you get paid very well, but the toll that it takes on you, your mental, physical health, is substantial. And the amount of work that they ask you to do is unreal. I mean, 18 to 20 hour days. And a lot of people don’t realize when they move here from out of state or they move here from places that don’t really understand the oil field industry, like how absolutely grueling the work is because you’re dirty, you don’t shower as often as you probably should, and you’re not eating as well, you’re not sleeping as well. And that really takes a toll on you. So if you’re trying to make a life in this industry and spend your career here 20 plus years that some people have, you’re a very different person than you imagined yourself to see. 

Linda: We see a lot of international students and I tell them it’s okay if you don’t like this place. Most people don’t. And it’s just because aside from the tension socially and the economic disparity, like you are either super wealthy or you’re poor as hell. And it’s usually because of oilfield.

But it sucks because it could be better. But it’s not going to because people need money and that’s usually the case for a lot of things. Oil makes a lot of our stuff, our plastics, our petroleum, everything that needs anything to do with that, it comes from oil. And that’s not something that nuclear or solar or hydro dynamics can do, is make products so that we can’t fully escape the oil industry. The fact is we are desperate. It’s a lot of companies, they grab, they grab, they grab. They try to get as much as they can and it hurts people. It kills people. And their desperation tears things apart. And if we could just lay off of that a little bit, we can make the working environment for old school Rig Hands much safer. It’s one of the most dangerous jobs out there. And that’s scary because it doesn’t have to be. The fact is they’re desperate and tearing apart people’s lives and the environment for money. I think that’s tragic and I think that we should just try something else because it’s going to run out. It’s not going to last forever and I think companies know that. So they just for some reason, their idea is to just make it run out faster. Be the last one to have the very last bit. 

Environment Texas: Is the Permian a better place for being a center of fossil fuel production? 

McKenna: I think that without fossil fuel production, Midland and Odessa would not exist. Probably UTPB would not exist. I know that my mom probably would have had a harder time, because it is easy to find a job here. 

Although I recognize the positives that it has had and I feel like it would be wrong of me to say that I, and my family, pretty much everyone here hasn’t benefited from it. I just disagree with it. I do think with renewable resources such as wind and solar energy, but I don’t think we have enough ability to just switch all the way to that. But I do think that there is not enough of this shift that is happening.

James: That’s difficult, but I want to say yes. Because one day the oil will run out. It has before. I mean, that’s what’s caused a lot of the busts in the past. My mother still remembers the time when there was a Mercedes dealership in the middle of Odessa and a couple of weeks after the bust; just gone. It’s kind of an up and down type of system, but when it’s up, it’s hard to compare it to anywhere else, I guess. And I understand that fossil fuels are a limited resource, and perhaps maybe not in a decade or a millennia, fossil fuels are going to be not as useful. So I understand the desire for companies and people to want to make as much money as possible in the amount of time that they have. Who’s to say that robotics isn’t the next oil field worker or we discover some new form of energy that makes oil seem like kerosene? I think definitely they should focus on some kind of diversity, but into things that will have long term benefits, I guess, which might seem obvious, but if you’re not spending money on things that will help you long term, then you’re essentially just wasting your money. 

Environment Texas: Midland and Odessa are fairly remote and don’t get a lot of visitors who aren’t connected to the area or the fossil fuel industry. What do you want people to know about life here?  

James: I would just say that I think the oil industry has good and bad characteristics about it, and to view it with one particular view or another is somewhat wrong. I think that you have to take the good with the bad and realize that it does a lot of good things, but a lot of bad things happen because of it. And we have to do a better job of making sure that everybody that works in it is as protected as possible, especially people who get hurt, because some people walk away with serious life changing injuries, and a lot of times they’re kind of kicked to the curb because they can’t work anymore. So why would these companies need anybody that isn’t able to do their job anymore? It’s always next man up. And I think that’s a very sad way to look at humans. There’s no rainbow bridge or yellow brick road to walk on once they hit retirement. It’s scars and pain afterwards. I think if we can do something about that, I think perceptions of the oil prices will change greatly. 

Jimena: Well, we’re not just oil and gas out here. We have a lot of interest in other things, and it’s just a really nice community overall. It’s becoming more diverse. The people who are coming to find jobs, they all come from different places, and it’s encouraging to see that that’s a good thing.  I just hope we find more ways to help our environment. I’m really concerned about that, just how seeing the differences between West Texas and East Texas makes sense.

McKenna: I know that we need this. We need the oil and gas industry right now because I don’t think that we have enough resources to currently shift totally towards renewable energy. But I think that there should be an attempt for a more major shift to happen because, of course we don’t have enough resources because people aren’t focusing on it.