Master's Thesis, May 2015

The Certainty of Uncertainty:  Planning Lessons Learned from the  Energy Boomtown Legacy of Midland, TX

 Photo: James Durbin, Midland Reporter Telegram

Photo: James Durbin, Midland Reporter Telegram

With the technological advances in hydrological fracturing (“fracking”), many areas of the United States are seeing a surge in oil and gas production. Although the technology is new, history is repeating itself with the creation of “energy boomtowns” with the standard set of challenges such as housing shortages, increased crime and traffic congestion. But this new activity also brings opportunities such as increased investment, growth in tax base, and low unemployment rates. Much of the research on boomtowns is focused on the initial boomtown transformation from rural to urban. However, there are some towns with a legacy of oil and gas production have seen a consistent rise and fall of their economies but have somehow retained a substantial population. This paper aims to examine the case study of Midland, TX as a unique legacy boomtown, by examining whether Midland’s past and current planning strategies could be useful to transfer for other boomtowns, or made better through additional research.

 Source: US census (Graphic by Sarah Serpas)

Source: US census (Graphic by Sarah Serpas)

In the 1970s and 1980s there was a surge of research surrounding boomtowns. Much of this research focused on the changes that occur within rural communities when there is a sudden influx of investment in energy activities (oil, coal, natural gas, etc.). The research focused primarily on small towns, mainly in Montana and North and South Dakota, that were facing a major surge of investment and attention for the first time causing strain on the social, physical, and civic structure of the towns. However, there has been little research on these communities several years later, that is -- how they withstood the “bust.” Additionally, the studies did not examine what happened when (or if) these cities experienced another boom in the future.

 Graphic by Sarah Serpas

Graphic by Sarah Serpas

 

The sister cities of Midland and Odessa, Texas – or the “Petroplex” as they are sometimes referred to – are located within the Permian Basin oil field. The Permian basin produced almost one fifth of the United State’s total oil production in 2013, and that number is rising. With the highest concentration of wealth and population, Midland has become the capital of West Texas oil production. Midland, or “The Tall City,” is physically and demographically different than the surrounding seventeen counties that comprise the Permian Basin region of Texas. Since petroleum is the primary economy of the area, all of the Permian Basin’s counties have experienced the stresses of oil booms and busts. However, Midland has historically had a high concentration of the oil business management “white collar” professionals in addition to roughnecks (people who work on the drill sites) and other occupations in the industry. 


Midland, TX has experienced several booms (and busts) in the past one-hundred years, but has somehow retained a pretty substantial population. What sorts of strategies allowed this to happen? Through interviews, demographic research, and academic sources about boomtowns, this paper hopes to analyze this unique town’s past plans and identify the strengths and weaknesses of those plans to pinpoint the strategies that could be useful for future planning of both Midland and other boomtowns. This research is especially timely as Midland began the initial steps in starting their next comprehensive plan, The Tall City Tomorrow, in October 2014.