With oil prices plummeting by more than 50 percent since June, the gleeful mood of recent years has turned glum here in West Texas as the frenzy of shale oil drilling has come to a screeching halt.
Every day, oil companies are decommissioning rigs and announcing layoffs. Small companies that lease equipment have fallen behind in their payments.
In response, businesses and workers are bracing for the worst. A Mexican restaurant has started a Sunday brunch to expand its revenues beyond dinner. A Mercedes dealer, anticipating reduced demand, is prepared to emphasize repairs and sales of used cars. And some well-off oil company managers are cutting back at home, rethinking their vacation plans and cutting the hours of their housemaids and gardeners.
Dexter Allred, the general manager of a local oil field service company, began farming alfalfa hay on the side some years ago in the event that oil prices declined and work dried up. He was taking a cue from his grandfather, Homer Alf Swinson, an oil field mechanic, who opened a coin-operated carwash in 1968 — just in case.
“We all have backup plans,” Mr. Allred said with a laugh. “You can be sure oil will go up and down, the only question is when.”
Indeed, to residents here in the heart of the oil patch, booms and busts go with the territory.
“This is Midland and it’s just a way of life,” said David Cristiani, owner of a downtown jewelry store, who keeps a graph charting oil prices since the late 1990s on his desk to remind him that the good times don’t last forever. “We are always prepared for slowdowns. We just hunker down. They wrote off the Permian Basin in 1984, but the oil will always be here.”
It’s at times like these that Midland residents recall the wild swings of the 1980s, a decade that began with parties where people drank Dom Pérignon out of their cowboy boots. Rolls-Royce opened a dealership, and the local airport had trouble finding space to park all the private jets. By the end of the decade, the Rolls-Royce dealership was shut and replaced by a tortilla factory, and three banks had failed.
There has been nothing like that kind of excess over the past five years, despite the frenzy of drilling across the Permian Basin, the granddaddy of American oil fields. Set in a forsaken desert where tumbleweed drifts through long-forgotten towns, the region has undergone a renaissance in the last four years, with horizontal drilling and fracking reaching through multiple layers of shales stacked one over the other like a birthday cake.
But since the Permian Basin rig count peaked at around 570 last September, it has fallen below 490, and local oil executives say the count will probably go down to as low as 300 by April unless prices rebound.
The last time the rig count declined as rapidly was in late 2008 and early 2009, when the price of oil fell from over $140 to under $40 a barrel because of the financial crisis.