ERIC WESTERVELT, HOST:
In recent years, the boom in shale drilling has put thousands more pumpjacks in the field from South Texas to North Dakota. They nod up-and-down day and night sucking hydrocarbons out of the Earth. 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: You want them one at a time? Or you want them all at once?
WHITE: Just kick them on.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Will do.
(SOUNDBITE OF PUMPJACKS STARTING)
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 well head is being pulled up, oil is going into a tank.
BURNETT: A pumpjack is like a windmill that 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: On a nice warm summer night, we're 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 set 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 in 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 dollars 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 that need 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 are 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.