An oil drilling boom across the American West is creating a wealth of job opportunities at a time when most segments of the economy remain sluggish. The boom is the result of new and updated technologies allowing companies to go after oil reserves that until recently were trapped in shale formations, making them too expensive and difficult to tap even five or ten years ago.
“This is solid rock, so it's not like a conventional resource where you just drill a well and the oil starts to flow,” Kathleen Sgamma, Director of Government and Public Affairs for The Western Energy Alliance, explained. “We have to crack that rock through a process that we call hydraulic fracturing where we pump high pressure water and a mixture, and sand down into the formation to crack the rock and create micro-fissures in the rock and prop it open with sand.”
The process involves drilling down a mile or more and then turning horizontally. From a single vertical shaft, as many as 20 horizontal wells can be drilled for a distance of up to two miles. Hydraulic fracking, as it’s called, is admittedly controversial since the high pressure water used in the process is mixed with chemicals. But there is no denying that the technique has made vast new reserves available for drilling, and that means jobs.
“We're increasing in Montana by thousands of jobs in drilling in what's called the Bakken (Shale Formation) in eastern Montana,’ the state’s Governor Brian Schweitzer told Fox News. “It is the richest geologic structure in all of the United States. Recent estimates are that there's about 25 billion barrels of recoverable oil in the Bakken in North Dakota and Montana. To put that in perspective we import about 4 billion barrels a year. We use about 6 billon barrels a year. So this one structure in North Dakota and Montana could be one of the keys to energy independence in the short term.”
It’s no coincidence that Montana and North Dakota are the only two states in the Union with budget surpluses at a time when others are slashing spending just to stay afloat. At a time when most states are dealing with an unemployment crisis, North Dakota boasted a 3.9 percent unemployment rate in 2010, the lowest in the nation for the third straight year. Many open positions remain unfilled.
Increased drilling in the Niobrara Shale Formation in eastern Wyoming and Colorado is also creating job opportunities. “Currently, Noble Energy has over 60 jobs that are available in this area,” according to Stephen Flaherty, Director of Government Relations for Noble Energy. “The opportunities range from field pumpers, which just require a high school degree and no oil field service all the way up to petroleum engineers and everything in between; information technology services and accounting, just about every discipline.”
Falherty said positions available in today’s energy industry not only pay well, but are a lot different from the stereotypical roughneck jobs of the past.
“We’re very much a high tech industry and we really need people to use their minds more than anything else. The range of pay can begin at $22.00 an hour all the way up to over $100,000 a year,” Flaherty said.
Like many oil companies, Noble is expanding quickly in the area, planning to add 300 new employees in next year or two, and house most of them a brand new facility in Greeley, Colorado.
And when oil companies like Noble expand, so do the many smaller businesses they contract work to.
Ensign Energy, which does the actual drilling for big players like Noble, has hired 1,200 people over the last year. Will Matthews, Ensign’s Vice President of Marketing, told Fox News, “We have two full time recruiters right now looking to fill positions for people brand new to the industry as well as some veterans that have been in the oil and gas industry for quite awhile. The nature of these jobs is you can be working two weeks on the rig and then have two weeks where you're completely off the rig so people sometimes, even here in the Rocky Mountain region might live in Texas or even on the East Coast and come here to work and then go back home.”
For every new drilling job, several others are created in communities nearby where local businesses supply oil workers and companies with everything from groceries and gas, to vehicles and housing.
Sgamma said this promising picture could be even better than it is. Much of the lands in production in the Niobrara and Bakken formations are privately owned, which greatly decreases permitting red tape for companies wanting to drill. On federal and tribal lands, she said the process is much more difficult and therefore far longer.
“Because of certain regulatory efforts by this administration, particularly on the Department of the Interior and the EPA, western producers were prevented from investing about 3.9-billion dollars in 2010 and that translates roughly into 16,200 jobs,” she said.
Perhaps in response to that kind of criticism, Interior Secretary and Colorado native Ken Salazar on Wednesday announced a 44 percent increase in permit approvals for oil and gas drilling on public lands in 2011.
“We’re leaning into the production side onshore,” Salazar told a media roundtable in Oklahoma City while projecting approval of 7,200 drilling permits this year, a jump from the 5,000 approved in 2010.
Salazar also pointed out that 41 million acres have already been leased out to oil and gas companies, yet only 12 million of those have actually been developed. In a press release responding to similar comments by President Obama last week, Western Energy Alliance’s Sgamma pointed out that, “a lease is not a green light to drill—it’s the first step in a long, expensive process that is fraught with bureaucratic red tape and lawsuits by environmental groups determined to stop domestic energy development.”
“It‘s a paradoxical situation in which the government has created a cumbersome process that takes years to complete, environmental groups throw up legal roadblocks at every stage, and then the government and environmental lobby turn around and blame the industry for not ‘diligently developing,’” she continued.
With spreading turmoil in the Middle East and increased concerns about the viability of nuclear power after the disaster in Japan, the debate about when, where and how fast to drill in the American West will only increase.
(NOTE: Job seekers wanting to contact Noble Energy or Ensign Energy about job prospects can get that information on their respective websites: http://www.nobleenergyinc.com/fw/main/iRecruitment-101.html, http://www.ensignenergy.com/careers/)