Climate, Aridity, and the Limits of Oil Technology

Growing Environmental Impact 

                 Oilfields outside of Odessa, Texas, Aerial Photograph, mid 1970s

Oil Production and Climate

There is not a direct, causal relationship between regional drought levels and total Texas oil production. After the early 1930s total allowable production rates were set by state officials who made decisions based upon known oil reserves and the global market. However, since most oil was extracted from rural areas, the wealth generated through oil production was even more important in drought years.

Below is a map tracking annual Texas oil production (in millions of barrels) starting in 1935 and ending in 2015. Data is from the Texas Railroad Commission.




A comparison between the Texas Railroad Commission Data and a NOAA map tracking Texas drought conditions reveals some interesting historical context.

During the 1950s, the oil industry underwent massive expansion. That decade also coincides with extended drought in the Permian Basin. Oil expansion kept the region’s cattle ranchers and farmers from bankruptcy.

Also, as oil production increased during the drought-plagued 1950s, the industry put increased strain on the region’s limited potable groundwater. The late 1940s and early 1950s were marked by a regional water crisis only solved through the daming of the Colorado River and the creation of the Colorado River Municipal Water District to provide drinking water for regional settlements.

Oil Refining and Processing in Odessa/Midland

According to the EPA, TCEQ, and other regulatory bodies, oil refining and processing facilities produce a significant amount of air and water pollution. After 1970, these agencies were charged with reducing the environmental footprint of oil production in Texas. Agency records can be used to understand the environmental impact of oil production in West Texas.

This map compares the addresses of Odessa city officials – mayors, business leaders, member of the Chamber of Commerce – in relation to rapid industrialization on the city’s south west side to reveal the migration of city officials out of central Odessa and away from industrial air pollution.

OWA photo storage tanks

Drilling Impact

The above image is a contemporary Google Maps aerial view of Ector county. The impact of brush clearing and road building to access the region’s oil wells is clearly visible.

Below is a series of maps rendered in JMP that document county-level oil drilling and processing efforts in Texas in 1965. Data for these maps comes from the Texas Mid Continent Oil and Gas Association Records, courtesy of the Briscoe Center for American History, Austin, TX.


As these maps indicate, in the mid 1960s, the Permian Basin remained a prolific source oil and natural gas. The region held many of the deepest on-shore wells in the state, making drilling very expensive. The region was the most significant center for natural gas and petrochemical production outside of Houston. Regional importance correlated with the industry’s increased environmental impact. More holes, deeper holes, and the increased use of well injection and well flooding technologies all left their mark.

petrochemical postcard