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Pumpjacks Represent Symbol Of Life In American Oil Fields


In recent years, the boom in shale drilling has put thousands more pumpjacks in the field from south Texas to North Dakota. Pumpjacks nod up and down day and night, sucking hydrocarbons out of the earth, like solitary prehistoric birds dipping for a drink. But they're more than oilfield equipment. They're an American symbol of life in the oil patch. NPR's John Burnett sent us this story.

JAMES WHITE: You want to kick the pumpjacks on?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Through walkie-talkie) You want them one at a time, or you want them all at once?

WHITE: Just kick 'em on.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Through walkie-talkie) Will do.


WHITE: My name is James White. I am facilities manager of the Permian Basin Petroleum Museum. I have worked around pumpjacks for 30 years.

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: James White used to roughneck on drilling rigs in West Texas. Today, he takes care of the impressive collection of historic pumpjacks at the Petroleum Museum in Midland, Texas. Three operating pumpjacks are installed in front of the museum. What does it make you think of when you hear that sound?

WHITE: That's the sound of making money. Every time that wellhead is being pulled up, oil is going into a tank.

BURNETT: A pumpjack is like a windmill. It brings liquid to the surface in a low-pressure well. The bobbing horsehead, it's called, assisted by counterweights and an electric motor raises and lowers a sucker rod that extends thousands of feet into the earth where it operates a downhole pump. The oil well can make three barrels a day or 3,000 barrels a day, depending on its age. Pumpjacks are such a fixture in the Permian Basin of West Texas that they're a rite of passage for some daredevil adolescents. White remembers back in the day.

WHITE: One a nice, warm summer night, we were liable to pop a few tops on some beers and get the machismo going. You know, the testosterone between teenage boys and having a good time, somebody would always get brave and feel like they could climb the ladder and get on the walking beam and sit up there and go up and down with it for a little bit.

BURNETT: The Petroleum Museum is adamant. Do not try this. The Midland County EMS chief confirms that every few years, they respond to a horrible accident with a young man and a pumpjack. It never seems to go out of style because pumpjacks never go out of style, which explains why two years ago General Electric paid $3.3 billion for Lufkin Industries, the largest and oldest pumpjack manufacturer in America. GE made a big bet on the continued expansion of shale drilling in places like the Eagle Ford in South Texas and the Bakken in North Dakota.

ANDY CORDOVA: Fracking has opened up more wells. It needs larger pumping units.

BURNETT: Andy Cordova, downhole product leader for Lufkin Industries, stands inside their huge Buck Creek plant in the city of Lufkin, located in the piney woods of deep east Texas. There are more than 600,000 producing oil wells in the United States, and he says more than 80 percent of them require pumpjacks.

CORDOVA: We're using up to 40 to 60 trucks a day getting this equipment to the well site, to the customer.

BURNETT: Lufkin Industries has weathered a century of oil price gyrations. Executives like Andy Cordova were more bullish a year ago when crude was selling for twice as much as it does today.

CORDOVA: Well, we know this is going to be a tougher environment going forward for us. We're sure there will be a slowdown. The good thing for us - we have such a large install base, we will continue to do the maintenance because they have to keep the wells running.

BURNETT: In other words, as long as we're addicted to oil, we'll need pumpjacks. John Burnett, NPR News, Lufkin, Texas. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As NPR's Southwest correspondent based in Austin, Texas, John Burnett covers immigration, border affairs, Texas news and other national assignments. In 2018, 2019 and again in 2020, he won national Edward R. Murrow Awards from the Radio-Television News Directors Association for continuing coverage of the immigration beat. In 2020, Burnett along with other NPR journalists, were finalists for a duPont-Columbia Award for their coverage of the Trump Administration's Remain in Mexico program. In December 2018, Burnett was invited to participate in a workshop on Refugees, Immigration and Border Security in Western Europe, sponsored by the RIAS Berlin Commission.

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