Human Geographies of Boom and Bust

Between 1923 and 2015 over 29 billion barrels of crude oil and 75 trillion cubic feet of natural gas were pulled from beneath the Texas Permian Basin, for a time, making it one of the most important oil-producing regions in the world. The search for oil altered the region’s desert ecology and economy, facilitating the growth of a complex industrial network and connecting the isolated region to a global system of extraction and commerce.

The graph below uses statistical data from the Texas Railroad Commission to compare Permian Basin oil production with Texas state totals. The graph demonstrates that the Permian Basin consistently made up a significant percentage of total Texas oil production. After 1975, the Permian Basin represented the majority of oil production in Texas.



In the early 1920s, oil discovery prompted an immediate population boom, bringing thousands to Texas’ least populous counties. The graph below uses US Census data to illustrate the sudden spikes in county population after oil discovery. The first major oil discovery in the Permian Basin was in Crane County in 1924. Winkler county followed soon after. The subsequent rush on these isolated area is illustrated below. In the late 1940s Scurry and Andrews counties experienced similar population booms. Conversely, all four counties experienced precipitous drops in population once oil dried up.



Oil production, and human migration to West Texas, slowed down in the early 1930s due to a combination of the Great Depression and a sudden drop in oil prices. However, the population boom picked up again in the late 1930’s, continuing – with some exceptions – until the 1970s.


Odessa, Texas circa 1930


Despite the hard economic times, the region’s urban centers, Odessa and Midland, experienced precipitous population expansion from the 1930s until the 1990s. As illustrated in the graph below, in 1940 the population of Midland County was 9,352. In 1950 it rose to 21,713. The population tripled by 1960, rising to 62,625 people.




As this graph demonstrates, in contrast to the wild fluctuations in rural populations, the human population in Permian Basin urban centers continued a steady upward climb throughout the twentieth century.


While these graphs show sharp spikes, it is important to keep these numbers in perspective. although the population of oil-producing counties rose dramatically due to oil, the region remained the most sparsely populated in the state. The graph below demonstrates this disparity.



The pair of maps below tracks state-wide demographic data from the US census. The first map illustrates total Texas county populations in 1940. This map demonstrates the continued population disparities between the western and Eastern halves of the state in 1940.


The second map might be more surprising. The map tracks the percent of county population that lived in urban areas in 1940. While the population of West Texas was low, it was almost entirely urban. Unlike in the Eastern half of the state, which continued to be dominated by agriculture well into the twentieth century, oil production (and extreme aridity) in West Texas promoted urbanization, not sustained rural settlement.

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