Between 1923 and 1990 over 14 billion barrels of crude oil were pulled from reservoirs beneath the Texas Permian Basin, making it one of the most prolific oil-producing regions in the world. The unrelenting search for oil altered the region’s desert ecology, facilitating a wave of human migration to the isolated and harsh region. Oil disrupted established land use patterns and facilitated the growth of a complex industrial network designed to find, extract, transport, and process crude oil. Virtually all human action was precipitated by oil extraction and the regional landscapes reflected the processes of capital accumulation. Oil fueled the creation and maintenance of infrastructure networks, urban planning efforts, and residential construction. However, oil supplies were not infinite and the human population ebbed and flowed with the cycle of boom and bust, leaving behind discarded drilling operations, defunct pipeline projects, and hastily constructed and quickly abandoned oil towns.
I use this story of Permian Basin boom and bust as a case study to articulate the overlap between labor and working class history, the history of capitalism, and environmental history. First I articulate nature’s role in the history of American capitalism and industrialization. I emphasize the movement of people, resources, and energy within interconnected and often unseen webs dictated by market forces and labor scarcity as well as the limits of regional geography and geology. Even as I highlight the pervasive nature of such systems, I seek to acknowledge the agency of individual workers, landowners, bystanders, and organisms that live within them. I examine accounts of daily workplace experience, oil union records, and environmental health and safety data to demonstrate the role that oil’s industrial workforce played in negotiating the changing environmental and social costs of oil industry development.
With this story, I argue that over the course of the regional oil boom the accepted limits of environmental, economic, and social risk were historically contingent and constantly renegotiated. Disparate and potentially isolated events such as worker agitation, economic depression, and environmental activism coincided at different moments with natural disaster, disease, and ecological shift to dictate the historical trajectory of industry policy and technological development. Challenging the assumption that oil workers made a simple tradeoff between environmental degradation and economic stability, I demonstrate that at every step difficult choices were made by industry officials, workers, and residents about the ways in which their community structures and ecological impact would be regulated.
Images: Author, Permian Basin Petroleum Museum, Digital Photograph, November, 2016.