Monday, June 24, 2013

A Permian Future

On my way to and from Big Bend, as described in earlier blog entries, I drove through the Texas Permian Basin, in west Texas near Midland and Odessa, which is one of the major oil and gas deposits in North America. It has some of the thickest Permian Period sedimentary deposits in the world. I wonder what creationists think “Permian” means in this case or how so much petroleum got there.

During the recent acceleration of “domestic production,” the Permian Basin has been hopping with activity. I could not drive on any highway other than an interstate without continually encountering oil or infrastructure transport trucks. They were always in a hurry and pulled out in suddenly front of other vehicles; everyone seemed to understand this as an essential part of life in west Texas. The entire economy, aside from cotton, peanuts, and wheat, seemed to be based on fossil fuels. (The irrigation water, like the oil and gas, was extracted from the ground.) From the viewpoint of corporations, the Permian Basin is a vision of America’s productive future.

But if so, it seemed to me to be a bleak future. The corporation executives (most of whom probably lived in Dallas and Ft. Worth) were rich, but nearly every town, house, and person that I saw seemed to be middle class at best, and usually poorer. The people were running around, grateful even for employment that did not seem to pay them much. It was certainly not a cultural renaissance, unless you count the Jackalope field house for one of the high schools. Our economy seems to be racing toward greater dependence upon a limited energy source, a dependence that the local residents celebrate whenever they are not working.

And most of this oil goes to Houston, where it is exported, much of it to China. The surge in domestic production has not made gasoline cheaper or more available to Americans. The people who sing the praises of the Keystone XL pipeline talk endlessly about American energy independence, but much of the oil itself goes outside of America, thus enriching mostly the oil executives.

The Permian Basin is not, however, the complete vision of what Texas is like. On my way from the DFW area to Big Bend, I passed through the city of Sweetwater, which bills itself as the wind power capital of America. And indeed wind generators covered the low hills. Sweetwater looked to me like it was much more prosperous than the Permian Basin. (Of course, DFW was pretty prosperous too.)

Side by side in central and west Texas, there are two visions of the future: Sweetwater vs. the Permian Basin. Clearly the sustainable and prosperous future is the one Sweetwater is betting on. But natural selection, whether applied to culture or to biology, does not choose ultimate sustainability but immediate success, and I fear that the Permian Basin option will win in the short term, leaving us in an economic lurch in the only slightly longer term. I can only hope that we do not end up with our own smaller, economic version of the Permian extinction.

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