Texas Rangers

West Texas County Benefits From Oil Boom, Population Surge

By late afternoon on most weekdays, the orange brick Loving County Courthouse becomes an island in a rising tide of snorting, lurching oil field trucks.

The San Antonio Express-News reports at peak congestion, the wait to make a left turn on Texas 302 toward Kermit can be a half-hour or more.

"Sometimes the traffic on State Highway 302 is backed up 2 miles. It's gotten so bad that sometimes I have to get on a traffic vest and go to the intersection to direct traffic," said Sheriff Chris Busse, 51, who took office in 2015.

"When I was a deputy here in 2008, I was lucky if I saw 20 cars on Texas 302. Now you see 1,000 in half an hour," he added.

Long the answer to a trivia question about the least-populated county in Texas, Loving County in the 2010 census counted just 82 people. Only Kalawao County in Hawaii had fewer.

It's now up to about 140 residents spread over 671 square miles of harsh desert terrain. Even at that density of one person per 5 square miles, it still makes Mongolia -- the world's least densely populated country -- seem like Houston.

But these days, no one here is complaining of being lonely, as a tsunami of thousands of oil field workers swarms daily to this remote corner of the Permian Basin that borders New Mexico. About 1,000 to 1,500 additional workers are temporary residents who live in man-camps and RV parks.

Positioned over the Delaware Basin, a massive shale oil formation, Loving County is part of the hottest oil play on the planet.

"Right now, we're producing somewhere near 4.5 million barrels of oil a day, and a tremendous amount of gas and gas liquids. To put that in perspective, less than 10 years ago, we were producing about a million barrels of oil a day," said Ben Shepperd, president of the Permian Basin Petroleum Association.

"Loving County is an integral part of the phenomenal growth. I believe they have about 33 rigs running currently," he added.

An estimated 100,000 workers have come to West Texas for the boom, which Shepperd said is expected to last for decades.

The basin play, which extends into New Mexico, has about 250,000 producing wells. It also has more than 500 working rigs, about half the national total.

And perhaps no West Texas community has been more dramatically affected than Mentone, which just a few years ago barely had a pulse.

Loving County's only settlement is now rolling in traffic and new tax revenue, but also has parents worried about the kids and taking a simple drive.

A decade ago, before the oil boom hit, then-Sheriff Billy Hopper and Busse, who was a deputy, spent much of their time on traffic enforcement.

Now the department deals with drugs, thefts and other crimes, as well as numerous wrecks. Busse is looking to hire a seventh deputy and a school resource officer to escort the bus to and from Wink, 31 miles to the east.

In 2014, the school bus was hit head-on on Texas 302. The bus driver was injured and the other motorist killed. No children were hurt.

"They (deputies) are out on the road all the time, trying to get these people to slow down and pay attention, and to make sure they are legal," said dispatcher Verta Sparks.

"Half of them don't have Texas driver's licenses. All they have is a passport from Mexico or a lot of other places. They can get jobs and make a good bunch of money right now. These trucking companies are hiring anyone," she added.

A visitor to Mentone also notices odd rows of red traffic cones placed around town to prevent trucks from cutting through residential streets and endangering children.

On a wall in the courthouse is a faded picture of Oliver Loving. the pioneering 19th century cattleman who gave the county its name and also inspired a character in "Lonesome Dove."

In 1867, Loving, who helped blaze the Goodnight-Loving Trail, died from wounds suffered in an Indian attack while driving cattle northward.

In 1921, the first oil well was drilled, and within a decade, more than a million barrels was produced. Since then, the county's fortunes have risen and fallen with the oil and gas booms.

Mentone saw its population hit a peak of 300 or more in the 1930s. Since then, as ranching faded and the kids moved away, it has been in steady decline. Two decades ago, only 67 people lived in the county.

"My family has been here since 1906. In 1958, I was the last high school student in Mentone," said Hopper, 82, who traveled the globe as a Halliburton executive before finally coming home.

"Loving County has been between a boom and a bust for as long as I've been here. We've always had booms, but none in my lifetime like this. It's unbelievable to see," he said. "The other day it took me 47 minutes to get through a four-way stop sign on U.S. 285, going north,"

Hopper's large concrete block house on Harris Street is a block off Texas 302 and right behind the new 24-hour convenience store and gas station.

He is lulled to sleep nightly by a droning lullaby of idling diesels and passing trucks.

"Ever since this new Valero station opened, it's trucks running 24 hours a day, with guys sleeping in them. It's people coming and going all the time," he said.

One thing that everyone agrees has changed for the better is the once bitter local politics. For decades, factions and families fought to control the county government and jobs that came with it.

"When I was a kid out here, we seldom had an election where the Texas Rangers didn't show up," recalled Hopper.

On election day, the population typically swelled with absentee residents coming home to vote. Lawsuits, recounts and election contests were regular events.

One oft-told tale is about the local boy who cried bitter tears on election day when he learned that his dead father had voted but not bothered to visit.

"It's a lot better now that those old soreheads who were mad at each other have died off," Jones, the county judge, said.

In 2005, Hopper helped thwart a bizarre plot in which a group of out-of-town Libertarians hoped to move in suddenly and take over the county government with their votes.

According to a news account, their plan was to rid the county of oppressive regulations including planning, zoning, building codes, and also halt the enforcement of laws against victimless acts including dueling, gambling, incest, price-gouging, cannibalism and drug handling.

But after the Texas Rangers were called in and misdemeanor charges were filed, the group packed up and went back to California.

About 40 people live in Mentone, which despite the frenzied boom, still has an abandoned, broken-down look. The only green patch in town is the courthouse lawn, regularly watered under sturdy mulberry trees and Afghan pines. The latter, after 9/11, were renamed as "Desert Pines."

The school closed in the 1970s, and the little white church with a double outhouse out back has long sat idle. It was last used about three years ago for a wedding, Jones said.

Until 2007, when a municipal water system was installed, folks here had to truck in their drinking water.

Until recently, the county had no retail businesses, and locals drove to 33 miles to Kermit or 77 miles to Odessa to do their shopping.

Now there are about five businesses in town, including three food trucks, a Mexican restaurant and the Horseshoe Convenience store, which sells gas, groceries and beer. Lots of beer.

"It's a madhouse. We sell about 1,200 cases a week. Bud Light is the favorite. Modelo second. And also we sell about 2,400 bags of ice a week," said Downey Burns, 54, who manages the store for his son.

"Our biggest problem is trash. If the dumpster is full, they don't have any problem with throwing it right on the ground. I guess that's the polite way to put it," he added.

Oddly, none of the beer in the coolers has a price tag. The simple reason, according to a clerk, is "They don't care."

An energy boom always attracts workers and fortune-seekers from near and far.

In Loving County, a while back, some Libyan truckers were briefly around. Now, a water trucking company owned by Cubans from Florida is part of the mix.

"My father was a truck driver, and while in Texas he heard about the boom and hauling water," recalled Alex Guillama, 19, of Miami, who spent a few months in Mentone last year.

One thing led to another, and the family now runs a fleet of seven tank trucks here, delivering water for fracking operations for two large energy companies.

"I'd never seen a place so small. When I was in Cuba, I lived in Havana. Here, I live in Miami. It was very different," Alex said by telephone from Florida.

Waiting for his meal at the Super Pollo Food Truck, Richard Stott, 52, a truck driver from Mississippi, unsurprisingly groused about the "idiot drivers" he regularly encounters.

"It's like a war zone. The other day, I was waiting to turn left on 285 and I had a guy come around me on the left, and turn into the southbound lane," he said as two other truck drivers somberly nodded in agreement.

Stott says he sleeps in his truck, showers in the yard, and once a week goes to Lubbock, where he and his wife are staying.

As he stood up to leave, bagged lunch in hand, the CO2 monitor on his belt started chirping.

"There is no global warning," he remarked while shutting it off, adding, "God says he will destroy this place by fire. That's global warming."

For county officials, the lean times are only a fading memory. The boom and related investments have raised the tax base from $809 million in 2010 to $8.2 billion this year, a nine-fold increase.

"We've had tremendous development; Numerous oil and gas wells, gas plants, pipelines, man camps, and RV parks. It's been huge for the county," said Jones, 68, now in his fourth term.

The county's annual spending is also climbing rapidly, even as the tax rate goes down. The proposed 2020 budget is just under $20 million, double that of last year, and three times the 2017 budget.

Jones said the county will use some of the windfall for long-needed improvements, including a bypass around Mentone, a truck weigh station, improving the municipal water system and town roads, and replacing the crumbling school building with a new community center.

One of the perks for local people are the free meals available just north of town at Anadarko's "Wolf Camp," which houses about 500 workers.

On a recent weekday, Jones sat down with two of his grandnephews and two others for a hearty lunch of pulled pork or patty melts. The kitchen also offers a salad bar and freshly squeezed orange juice. The dining room seats about 200 workers.

"I come every day. The food is good," said Jonathan Alvarado, 20, who works cattle on the Jones ranch.

"I love the animals. I could do anything else and make more money, but I wouldn't enjoy it," he added.

But Alvarado's passion is quickly becoming Loving County's past. It takes about 120 acres to sustain one cow here, and the cattle are few and far.

Where a century ago, 10,000 or more head grazed on the meager forage, fewer than 1,000 remain, Jones said.

"A hundred years ago, it was a different climate and it was all grass," he said. "A lot of the ranchers have opened their gates and sold their cattle. They are making more money selling water and getting surface damages than selling cattle."

Besides being the least populated county in Texas, Loving has long enjoyed having the highest per capita income.

Those who have mineral rights here are getting richer, everyone else is eating well and no one is thinking of leaving.

Alan Sparks, 61, who came to Mentone in 1991 and works for a land trust, said locals are used to the dramatic changes that come with a boom.

"We're complaining about the traffic, but not about the boom. Everyone has a little money in their pockets now. It's good for West Texas," said.

"Everyone is going to ride it out. It takes a special person to live out here. You can't run us off."

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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