Just last week, when crude oil prices fell to $46 a barrel, the mayor of the biggest city in the world's largest shale oil patch seemed oddly calm, almost relieved.

Midland, in the heart of the Permian Basin in Texas, could use something of a slowdown, Patrick Payton figured, after breakneck growth had stretched services so thin that the police force could barely keep cops on the beat. Then a couple of days passed and the digital sign downtown that flashes the current oil price suddenly read $30. Payton could hardly take it in.

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