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, making it one of the most prolific 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 connecting the isolated region to a global system of extraction and commerce.

In the early 1920s, oil discovery prompted an immediate population boom, bringing thousands to Texas’ least populous counties. Oil production, and human migration to West Texas, slowed down in the early 1930s due to a combination of the Great Depression and the discovery of the East Texas field. However, the population boom picked up again in the late 1930’s, continuing – with some exceptions – until the 1970s.

Mapping the impact of these population shifts reveals several interesting trends. The population in the region’s more rural counties, such as Andrews, Yoakum Howard, and Glasscock, rise and fall as much as 90 percent in response to oil production. In contrast region’s urban centers of Odessa and Midland experienced steady population expansion until the 1990s. For example, in 1940 the population of Midland County was 9,352. In 1950 it increased to 21,713. It increased again 1960 to 62,625.

In the two maps below I use US Census data to compare the total population of Texas counties in 1940 with the percentage of that population that lived in urban areas. First, it is clear that the West Texas population remained much lower than the eastern half of the state.

Map of total pop

Map of % urban

However, it is interesting to note the large section’s of red in West Texas. While the population was low, it was almost entirely urban. Unlike in the Eastern half of the state, which was dominated by agriculture, oil production (and extreme aridity) in West Texas promoted urbanization, not sustained rural settlement.

The late 1930s boom continued into World War II. The cities of Midland and Odessa quickly became centers of commerce and industrial development. Increasingly, most people in the region lived in and around these two cities and traveled to temporary job sites in the surrounding counties. Aerial maps of both cities demonstrate population growth, and the expansion of oil exploration.