America's Oil Boom Is Fueled By A Tech Boom The U.S. is on track to become the world's biggest oil producer. Technology advances and automation mean this can happen with fewer workers than during the last boom.

America's Oil Boom Is Fueled By A Tech Boom

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

It's expected that the U.S. will be producing more oil than any other country by next year. That's thanks in big part to advances in technology. Mose Buchele of member station KUT looks at what those advances mean for the oil industry and its workers.

MOSE BUCHELE, BYLINE: To understand what's changed, we're going to start with a trip to the past.

JAMES WHITE: We have the Wichtex model 66.

BUCHELE: I'm at the Permian Basin Petroleum Museum in Midland, Texas, with James White. He's showing me how workers used to get oil from the ground.

WHITE: So I'm going to try to get this thing to start for you.

BUCHELE: He's at a waist-high steel engine with two huge wheels attached. It's called a Johnny Popper. He grabs onto a wheel and spins it to get the machine working. This was used to move pump jacks. The Johnny Popper was outdated by the time White started work in the oil fields. He says since then, things have changed even more.

WHITE: Guys don't have to get in pickups and drive out to their pump jacks every day like they used to have. It's done with a lot of modern technology. And, you know, that's cool. It just puts people out of work.

BUCHELE: Next stop, a lab at UT Austin where Professor Eric van Oort shows me that modern technology.

ERIC VAN OORT: So we're in the Real-Time Operating Center or remote collaboration room.

BUCHELE: Students are sitting at computers where they can monitor information streaming in from oil wells hundreds of miles away.

VAN OORT: More and more we see operators willing to share data with us. We analyze it, and we give advice back to them.

BUCHELE: To help them get the most oil possible out of the ground. Another big change is automation. It's always taken brawn and skill to do the dangerous work of drilling wells and putting pipe down them. And those workers are called roughnecks. But more and more of them are being replaced by a robot called an iron roughneck. Companies are also turning to drones, smart drill bits, even autonomous rigs that can drill oil wells on their own.

VAN OORT: And if you see those in operation, that is definitely an oh-wow moment.

BUCHELE: A lot of these advances took off after oil prices cratered a few years ago and companies tried to cut cost. It worked. These days, the U.S. is producing more oil than ever but at a cost. The Labor Department finds 50,000 fewer people working in oil and gas extraction than at the height of the last boom. Van Oort does see an upside.

VAN OORT: The good side is that we are creating more sophisticated higher-end jobs in the process.

BUCHELE: And, he says, it's making the traditionally dangerous oil field a lot safer. But it's not just roughnecks in the oil field who worry about their jobs. I met R.T. Hale at a diner back in Midland.

R T HALE: I've got a machine shop down here, and I've been there 47 year.

BUCHELE: He repairs old oilfield equipment. But he says it's getting harder.

HALE: My machines were made in the United States. They've all went out of business. Things I used to repair, they just throw it away and stick a new one on it.

BUCHELE: These days, he says, it feels like his old shop belongs in a museum. For NPR News, I'm Mose Buchele in Midland, Texas.

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