Good Times in Texas

High oil and natural gas prices are keeping Texas business humming along, despite economic problems elsewhere. Companies are hiring, real estate is selling and the state budget is on track for a huge surplus.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

This is Day to Day from NPR News. I'm Alex Chadwick.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

I'm Madeleine Brand. While much of the nation is suffering through the beginnings of a recession, Texas is doing just fine, thank you. Business is booming, real estate is holding its own, and the state is forecasting a budget surplus of more than 10 billion dollars. NPR's Wade Goodwyn reports from Dallas.

WADE GOODWYN: Remember back when you were in elementary school and learning your U.S. states in geography class? Each state would have a little drawing inside of it of the commodities that state produced. Inside the outline of Texas, there was always an oil derrick with oil spouting out the top and a long-horn steer with a bovine look on its face. It seems quaint now. America used up most of Texas' oil in the last century. The long horns, well, they're a college football team, right? But surprisingly, in the world economy of 2008, those little drawings have made a comeback.

Mr. ALLEN SPELCE (Director, Communications, Office of Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts): You have a 10.7 billion surplus because Texas has actually been doing better than the rest of the nation economically. And one of the biggest economic drivers is oil and gas.

GOODWYN: Allen Spelce is with the Texas comptroller's office. And the fact is, all the reasons that are causing much of the nation to suffer economically, energy costs headed to Mars, a housing market that popped like a soap bubble in the west Texas wind, and food prices that make dieting look attractive, these are the same reasons the Texas economy is doing so well.

For the first time in decades, farmers and ranchers are making real money. They, in turn, are buying new tractors and combines and hay bailers, spreading the wealth further. But the main force driving the Texas economy is the same one that's making Saudi princes rich, oil and gas. Just take a look in the help-wanted section of Texas newspapers. Allen Spelce says they're filled with ads for roughnecks and engineers.

Mr. SPELCE: We've got areas, for example, out in West Texas, that are booming, you know, the Midland-Odessa, the Fort Stockton. In fact, we even heard that there's a new Wal-Mart going up in Ft. Stockton.

GOODWYN: It turns out that not all the oil was pumped out of the Texas earth, just the easiest to get at. At 30 dollars a barrel, it just wasn't worth the effort to get what was left. But at 130 dollars a barrel, that's a different story. And it's not just oil. The largest natural-gas field in North America, the Barnett Shale, is located under Fort Worth and covers hundreds of square miles.

Mr. TERRY FULKERSON (Drilling Crew Leader, Barnett Shale): And these are all different well sites. There's one right there. There's another one right there. There's - connect these wells with pipelines to transport the natural gas.

GOODWYN: Terry Fulkerson (ph) oversees a crew laying hundreds of miles of pipeline in the Barnett Shale. The United States Geological Survey estimates this field contains 27 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, and the estimates just keep going up. As Fulkerson and his crew bore into the Earth, passenger jets roar overhead.

Who knew Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport was sitting on top of a giant natural-gas field? But it is. There will eventually be 300 rigs in or around the airport alone. They just announced a plan to drill directly under downtown Fort Worth. They'll go in sideways. Drilling has come a long way in the last 25 years.

Mr. FULKERSON: There's a huge demand for equipment. There's a huge demand for natural gas now that the price has gone up, you know, from four dollars up to 14. It's gone up 50 percent in the past four weeks.

Mr. MARSHALL MOUNDS (Drilling Crew Member, Barnett Shale): I bought a brand-new RV since I been here. I'm buying a new truck in September. It's a great time for us.

GOODWYN: Marshall Mounds (ph), a roughneck from Oklahoma, is buying his truck and his RV and maybe a fishing boat in Dallas, helping the state surplus by contributing to Texas sales taxes. He lives in the Sandy Lake RV Park, north of town.

His wife stays in Oklahoma and visits from time to time. Not all the good-paying, working-class jobs are gone from America. If you're willing to dig in the dirt 12 hours a day for natural gas, even when it's 100 degrees out, you can afford that fishing boat and the new pickup to haul it down to the lake with.

Mr. MOUNDS: Supply and demand. The northeast needs it more than we do. That's where most of it's going.

GOODWYN: With a nation hungry for energy, Marshall Mounds knows he'll be in the Barnett Shale until he retires. Business is booming. He and Texas are doing fine. Wade Goodwyn, NPR News, Dallas.

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