Welcome to boom town
January 18, 2005
They roll into western Colorado like ’49ers chasing the promise of gold in California, or wild-eyed prospectors hightailing it to budding silver camps like Aspen in the 1880s.This time it’s a natural gas boom that has brought workers to the region from near and far.Some of them are content following the booms from place to place, migrating to the next great strike, wherever that may be, once the current field is played out.Others hope to settle into a new life in Rifle, Parachute or Grand Junction. They want to ride the boom long enough to line their pockets with cash so they can stay put once the inevitable bust comes. Whatever their aims, they are all attracted by plentiful jobs and good pay, part of a burgeoning work force directly employed by oil and gas producers. The state of Colorado, using gas and oil company payroll records, estimated there were 900 gas and oil field workers living in Garfield County in 2004 and 817 in Mesa County.The massive Mamm Creek Field south of Rifle has attracted everyone from a drill operator who fled the oil patches of Texas to build a better life for his family to a veteran drilling rig boss who endures two-week shifts and then commutes home 900 miles to be with his family in North Dakota for less than a week.Some roughnecks, the general name applied to floor hands on a drilling rig, toil in back-breaking jobs to raise enough money to go to college. Others simply see the $22 per hour starting pay as a lucrative alternative to flipping burgers or other low-paying service industry jobs in western Colorado’s tourism-based economy.Opposite ends of the spectrumScott Stiffler drove up to a drilling rig operated by a firm called Caza in September and knocked on the door of the adjacent trailer where rig manager James Barclay lives round the clock during his two-week shifts.Stiffler has worked in the oil and gas industry since 1980 in the Plains states of Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas. For the last 14 years he’s been a driller, the person who operates the controls of the machinery that drills the wells. It’s essentially second in command on a drilling rig.He said he wanted to get his family out of the Fort Worth area, where traffic and crime are mushrooming. So he and his wife packed up their two daughters, ages 12 and 14, and came to the Rifle area, where Stiffler heard there was plenty of work. Word of a big strike travels faster than a roughneck fleeing the gas field in his pickup truck at the end of a Saturday shift.He picked the right door to knock on. Barclay was short a couple of drillers at the time.”James asked me a bunch of questions. I guess I answered them to his satisfaction,” Stiffler said in a soft-spoken Texas drawl during a break on his rig recently.He got the job. His family sold their home in Fort Worth and now they’re enjoying the small-town living in Silt. Stiffler said they are renting a home but hope to find a house with a few acres to buy in the country. He’s hopeful that the drilling will continue long enough in the Rifle area to allow his family to relocate there permanently.
On the other end of the spectrum is Barclay. He’s tied to the Caza drilling rig that he has managed since 1998 and not the town of Rifle. If EnCana Oil and Gas USA, the company that Caza is drilling for, ordered that rig to a new location – in Wyoming, for example – Barclay said he would gladly go with it.For the last six years, Barclay has worked away from his home state of North Dakota. He worked for four years in Wyoming, then EnCana set its sights on the Piceance Basin of Colorado and called in all available drilling rigs. Barclay and his rig have been working south of Rifle for two years.Barclay works for 14 consecutive days, then gets seven days off. When his last shift ends he aims the pickup for Williston, N.D., a commute of about 15 hours.The 45-year-old Barclay was willing to take on the brutal schedule six years ago because work was so steady out West, but he didn’t want to uproot his family.”Sometimes it’s been hard, especially when the kids were younger,” said Sherry, James’ wife, from North Dakota. “I go down there once a year.”She would visit more often, she said, but she doesn’t like winter driving. The long commute limits James’ time at home to five days. The better part of two of his days off are spent on the road.Sherry said they have considered moving west. “It would make things a lot easier,” she said. But their friends and family, including a new grandson, are in North Dakota.Then there’s the issue of home prices in Colorado. James looked at homes around Grand Junction. They were “majorly expensive” compared to what the Barclays are used to in North Dakota.Calling all handsBarclay said his rig is always short of workers. The Mamm Creek Field isn’t the only place that’s booming. The high demand and skyrocketing prices for natural gas have spurred record activity in fields throughout the West.Jobs are plentiful just about everywhere in the gas and oil industry so a place where the boom was relatively recent, like Mamm Creek, has trouble luring workers out of the established fields. “Rifle is probably the big activity center right now,” Barclay said.A lot of people pass through. Newcomers to the industry might sign on one day, discover that roughnecking isn’t for them, and not show up again.A drilling rig operates 24 hours a day, seven days per week. There are five people to a crew, and each crew works 12-hour shifts. Crews work seven days straight, then have seven days off, when they are replaced by two other crews.So when fully staffed, each rig employs at least four crews of five workers or a minimum of 20 people. EnCana has 10 drilling rigs working the ground in the Mamm Creek Field, which includes the Grass Mesa, Hunter Mesa and Divide Creek areas. That’s down from 14 last year.Filling the 200 positions isn’t easy. “It’s pretty green here now,” Barclay said.Benjamin Garner of Denver is one of those greenhorns. He is the low man on the totem pole, working in a position known as the “worm.”
He does a lot of the dirty work, and it shows. Garner’s blue jeans will never be blue again. The jeans and his winter work coat are stained with oil and grease. While working with two other floor hands to connect a 30-foot section of drilling pipe at a well that’s being dug, Garner is doused time and again with gray, muddy water that splurts out of the drilling equipment.The 18-year-old doesn’t complain. “It’s damn good pay,” he said. It’s also hard. He said he lost 50 pounds, dropping from 255 to 205 in three months.After tasting the work and money for the last three months, he’s determined not to return to the painting and texturing jobs he worked in Denver for significantly less money.Garner, who commutes about 50 miles to the field south of Rifle from an apartment he rents in Clifton, said a big advantage for him is working with two cousins on the same crew. “They’re patient with me,” he said.One of his cousins is Derek Thompson, 21, a native of Tucson, Ariz., who has been working in the Rifle gas fields for 18 months. With their custom-cut goatees and muscular jaws, he and his older brother, Chris, 23, look more like athletes in the Winter X Games than roughnecks.Derek said Garner is like any other novice, regardless of family ties – he must catch on to the work fast or he’ll get the boot. Over 18 months in the Mamm Creek Field, Thompson estimated he’s seen 80 workers come and go from his rig.”Usually they don’t leave. The decision is made for them,” he said.Sure beats Burger KingThompson said there is a stereotype of a roughneck as a “toothless hillbilly” who only works to support an alcohol or drug habit. “It’s just not that way anymore,” he said.The work is dangerous and complicated enough on a drilling rig that a high level of concentration is necessary, Thompson said. Anyone who isn’t dependable will be run off.As a derrick man, he makes sure the proper mixture of bentonite, water and chemicals is applied to the well during drilling. The resulting drilling mud lubricates the drill bit and exports cuttings out of the drill hole.Thompson is clearly proud of the professional standards on his rig. He views the job as a career.He pulls in $65,000 per year for a midlevel position on the rig. “It’s not a Burger King job,” said Thompson, who recently bought a house with his wife in Grand Junction.Derek alerted his older brother, Chris, when a job came open on his rig six months ago. Chris had been working for a year in the fields of Wyoming but wanted to get closer to his family in Grand Junction.Chris wants to establish a recording studio, like he ran in Tucson before getting back into the oil and gas industry, on the side. He and his wife are expecting their first baby this winter. He saw working in the gas fields as the best way to get established.”It’s tough work,” he said, quickly adding that the money and the time off make it worthwhile.”You get two weeks of vacation per month. Most people get that much time of in a whole year,” said Thompson. As a motor hand he is responsible for the maintenance of six diesel engines that power the rig’s machinery. “You make more money out here than most people who graduated from college.”Veterans bank on work in RifleIt’s not just newcomers to the industry that are rolling into Rifle. Mark Balderston, a 25-year veteran of the industry, toughed out some lean times so his family could stay in Colorado.Balderston spent 19 years in the industry moving from job to job but maintaining his base in Denver. “I figured the Rockies were the place to be,” said the graduate of the School of Mines in Golden.Six years ago he relocated his family to Craig, gambling that he could find steady enough work in southwest Wyoming and Colorado to avoid moving his family again.Balderston said he first started working in the Rifle area in 1994 when a former employer started exploring for gas in the area. His decision to root his family in Craig paid off. Now as a consultant for EnCana, he supervises a crew that pumps sand and water at high velocity into the wells to fracture the rock surrounding the drill holes so the natural gas is more easily extracted. That process is the key to tapping the prolific gas reserves in the Mamm Creek Field, so his position seems secure.Balderston is thankful his gamble on steady employment in western Colorado paid off, for the sake of his kids, now ages 9 and 13.”I had to starve for a while, but I didn’t want to go to the Gulf Coast or overseas,” he said.Mike Richens, another industry veteran who said he has “done it all” in the gas and oil industry for 34 years, was willing to leave his longtime home in Durango for the promise of steady work in Rifle. He relocated with his wife 14 months ago. As a supervisor of crews that prepare wells for production, Richens said there could be enough work to last several years in the Mamm Creek Field.Richens, like Balderston, works as an independent consultant for EnCana – as do most of the upper managers in the field. It makes it easier for the company to adjust the size of the work force as conditions warrant.While Richens loves living in Colorado, he is experienced enough to know he might have to follow the boom elsewhere. And with his level of experience, he’s confident there will always be a job for him.”If this ends tomorrow I’ll be working somewhere else the next day,” Richens said.Scott Condon’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.orgEditor’s note: Encana Oil and Gas USA and other natural gas providers have invested millions of dollars to search out and extract natural gas from the prolific gas fields scattered around the Piceance Basin, which extends from Carbondale at the south to Maybell at the north. Pitkin County residents recently learned that the drilling boom could extend into the Thompson Creek drainage, just a few miles southwest of Carbondale. Most news coverage has focused on the politics and environmental impacts of extracting natural gas. Last month, reporter Scott Condon and photographer Paul Conrad spent a day on a rig to find out what happens at ground level. Today’s story is a profile of a handful of men who work 12-hour shifts, sometimes far from home, to drill the wells that supply gas for cooking, heating and electricity generation. It is the first in a four-part series that examines this drilling boom under way just a few miles down the road.