“It’s just a place,” says photographer Benjamin Lowy.
But it is an area of the U.S. experiencing incredible growth. The Permian Basin, a petroleum-rich part of West Texas and southeastern New Mexico, is in the middle of a historic oil boom that is creating both vast new wealth and complicated new problems.
Drawn by the promise of oil riches, people and companies are rushing to get a piece of the Permian. In the middle of it all is Midland, Texas, a city with a population of about 150,000 people.
For the Fortune feature story “Lone Star Rising,” Lowy spent five days in two different time zones photographing the people, the process, the area—and the oil.
One of the first things Lowy noticed was how expensive the hotels in the area are. “The hotels were crazy. It was like $450 a night in like the smallest town of 2,000 people,” says Lowy. “A lot of the bigger oil companies will just buy out all the space for their employees and it ends up driving up the prices of everything including hotel rooms. I also photographed at some trailer parks, and even there the spaces for the trailers are like $2,000 a month just to park your Winnebago. And at one spot I went to there was a two-year waiting list.”
A lot of these places in the Permian feel like they’re in the middle of nowhere, and amenities are lacking. For food, many of the workers rely on gas stations like TA or Pilot. “It’s like a food desert. As a health nut, I am always looking for something healthy to eat,” Lowy says. “You can’t stay healthy and work in this environment. One of the coolest things I didn’t end up photographing was these gas stations that were basically just refrigeration cases full of energy drinks. Like every flavor you could possibly get.”
Traveling the highways within the Permian region, Lowy sometimes came upon the shells of small towns that were completely empty. Between Odessa and Pecos, for instance, Lowy came across a ghost town where huge, unused oil containers had been left to rust.
Lowy also witnessed a major accident on U.S. 285, nicknamed the “Death Highway” by the locals because of the large number of fatalities on the heavily-trafficked artery. “The crazy part is, it wasn’t because the driver was driving crazy or was trying to pass someone,” says Lowy about the accident he witnessed. “The truck just fell apart while he was driving.” There is such a huge demand for trucks delivering water, oil, sand, and other materials, Lowy was told, that sometimes they can’t handle the heavy loads.
As a photojournalist, Lowy takes time to look for interesting details in every location. And there was one thing he had a hard time finding in the Permian: Cows. For a place that used to be grazing land, cows are scarce. “Everybody stopped doing it,” he says of farmers raising cows. “All that water isn’t being used for cows anymore, it’s being used for fracking.” One local told Lowy that he’d made $100 million in a few months from selling water to the oil companies.
That may sound like an extraordinary and isolated event, but many local entrepreneurs and landowners are experiencing a windfall from the boom. A few of the people Lowy talked to had similar stories. One local, a “former bad kid,” says he is on his way to becoming a millionaire. After serving time in prison a few years back, he told Lowy, he now owns a fleet of 15 trucks. “He is living this American Dream,” says Lowy. “He just cleans up oil sites after the oil companies are done.”