Oil industry worker hat with American flag in Permian Basin

There, the messages on billboards, trucks, and the sides of rest stops suggest that supporting the industry that’s one of the largest contributors to the climate crisis is a matter of American pride.

Welcome sign in Carlsbad, NM
Welcome sign in Carlsbad, New Mexico, in the Permian Basin.

Sign glorifying the American West at gas station in Pecos, Texas
Sign at a gas station in Pecos, Texas, in the Permian Basin.

Some American politicians have celebrated the fracking boom of the past decade for contributing to both the notion of U.S. energy independence and the nation’s transformation into a dominant player in the world’s oil and gas market. However, Russia and Saudi Arabia have shaken those ideas and global markets by waging an oil price war in the shadow of the COVID-19 pandemic. The result is a drop in the price of a barrel of oil to less than $30.

Once President Trump acknowledged the pandemic would not spare the United States, he vowed to protect America’s industries, and oil and gas is no exception.

Ad glorifying American West at truck stop in Pecos, TX
Advertisement glorifying the American West on the side of a truck stop in Pecos, Texas.

Horses by oil and gas industry site in Pecos
Pecos, Texas, where livestock share the landscape with the oil and gas industry.

On March 13, Trump proclaimed the federal government would buy oil “at the right price” from domestic producers to top off the country’s Strategic Petroleum Reserve.

According to Reuters, the Department of Energy has put the reserve’s additional capacity at 77 million barrels of crude. Where the money will come from to make the purchase has not been specified.

The Washington Post reported that Trump’s decision will allow a potential purchase of up to “92 million barrels, enough to buy the entire output of Texas in approximately 18 days.”

American flag on oil and gas industry truck in Permian Basin
American flag on an oil and gas industry truck in the Permian Basin.

Dead cow on side of road with oil and gas industry truck in Permian
An oil and gas industry truck passing a dead cow in the Permian Basin, where roadkill is plentiful.

This move to prop up financially shaky U.S. drillersdeep in debt, amid collapsing oil prices may be the first of many government efforts to bail out the oil and gas industry. And the government is already in talks to bail out other carbon-intensive industries, including the cruise and airline industries.

Long before the COVID-19 outbreak, fracking firms in the Permian Basin were experiencing a downturn. Now the dramatic devaluation of oil prices will likely bring the already declining drilling boom in the country’s shale regions to a near halt.

American flag painted on oil industry truck in Loco Hills, NM
An American flag painted on an oil and gas industry truck passing through Loco Hills, New Mexico, in the Permian Basin.

Welcome sign in Andrews, Texas, reading 'Andrews loves God, country, and supports free enterprise'
Welcome sign in Andrews, Texas, in the Permian Basin.

With the price of crude oil teetering under $30 per barrel, most shale operators are unable to cover their costs, reports Reuters, and drilling projects are likely “to be put on hold relatively quickly,” says Rystad Energy shale researcher Artem Abramov.

Lee Morton, a former oil and gas industry worker who lives in Pecos, Texas, said in early March that the layoffs have been plentiful and some of the temporary housing areas known as man camps are quickly clearing out.

He noted that some of the recently unemployed will be stuck in the area, as they won’t have enough money to relocate.

Oil and gas production site shared with cattle in Loco Hill, NM
Oil and gas production site shared by cattle in Loco Hills, New Mexico, in the Permian Basin.

'Oil Patch Motel' in Eunice, New Mexico
Hotel in Eunice, New Mexico, one of many hotels in the Permian Basin which already had slashed prices before worries of COVID-19 arrived.

Oil companies are already announcing major cuts in spending in response to the rapid devaluation of stock prices. The Dallas Morning News reported that Pioneer Natural Resources, one of the largest operators in the region, is halving its oil rig count and work crews within the next two months.

On March 17, both the White House and Congress were working on potentially trillion-dollar economic stimulus packages and keeping in mind the negative perceptions that followed the 2008 bank bailouts. According to Politico, “Senior White House officials know that direct aid to airlines in particular may be necessary to avoid crippling bankruptcies, but they are leery of being seen as handing out bailouts and want to be sure that any such aid is dwarfed by proposals that would direct cash to consumers.”

The Trump administration has yet to issue a plan to bail out oil and gas industry workers or others in shale regions battered simultaneously by the pandemic and the fracking bust.

Mural in Artesia, New Mexico, showing pride with pumpjacks
Mural in Artesia, New Mexico, at the edge of the Permian Basin.

American flags on top of Navajo Refinery in Artesia, NM
American flags on top of the Navajo Refinery in Artesia, New Mexico, an industrial site recently identified as a top U.S. emitter of a cancer-causing air pollutant.

Presidential hopeful Sen. Bernie Sanders, who says corporate bailouts are “socialism” for the richemphasized at the last Democratic debate that the climate crisis, which he’s called an existential threat, should be taken as seriously as the current pandemic.

President Trump, who touts his patriotism with showy gestures like hugging the American flag, has been criticized for downplaying or contradicting his federal science and health experts on coronavirus threats to the U.S. He repeatedly has proclaimed that the pandemic was an “unforeseeable” event, despite repeated warnings from global health experts that the “world is at acute risk for devastating … global disease epidemics or pandemics that not only cause loss of life but upend economies and create social chaos.”

Some of the same organizations pushing climate science denial have also recently downplayed the risks of the coronavirus, sharing misinformation and conspiracy theories about the virus. Several of these groups have received funding directly or indirectly from the oil and gas industry.

The oil and gas industry has long made appeals to patriotism in its public relations efforts in America, and the current administration has echoed that.

Patriotism means making our nation stronger. In our climate crisis, fossil fuels make our nation weaker,” Sharon Wilson, Texas coordinator for Earthworks, told me by email. “Anyone telling you differently is gaslighting you just as Exxon gaslit the world about the reality of climate change. Going forward, every dollar spent to perpetuate fossil fuels instead of renewables is a dollar stolen from a sustainable future to benefit the Exxons of the world.”

These photos were taken between March 4 and March 9, in the Permian Basin region of New Mexico and Texas, an area where oil and gas workers and executives travel from all over, before cases of COVID-19 were reported.

The view of flares at an oil and gas site en route to Carlsbad Caverns National Park in New Mexico
The view greeting tourists as they make their way to the Carlsbad Caverns National Park in New Mexico, where the landscape is now populated with flaring from oil and gas industry sites.

Main image: Worker’s hat left behind in Eddy County, New Mexico, in the Permian Basin. Credit: All photos by Julie Dermansky for DeSmog