Under Polis, And Now Biden, Weld County Oilfield Workers See A Fading Way Of Life
When his manager cut his hours last fall - for what seemed like the tenth time since the pandemic started - Colby Edgington pledged to never step foot in the oilfield again.
For two decades, he’d regularly earned six figures driving moving trucks for various oil companies in Weld County and across the west. But then, in the beginning of 2020, oil prices tanked. Fewer rigs needed to be moved.
Edgington’s income trickled to less than half of his regular pay. Family pressures built up. He sold his house because he couldn’t afford the mortgage. He got a divorce.
Then, Donald Trump, a staunch oil and gas ally, lost the election. Around the same time, Colorado passed another major set of sweeping regulatory changes.
The whirlwind all brought Edgington to a life-changing realization: He needed to jump ship.
“I took a job hauling construction equipment,” he said. “I already lost a lot of personal stuff because of the stress (of oil and gas). It wasn't really something that I wanted to hang on to any longer.”
The oil industry is still reeling from a historic bust brought on by the coronavirus pandemic.
In Weld County, where most of the state’s oil is produced, the skyline is no longer dotted with drill rigs. Local tax revenues have dwindled. Many drivers, electricians, welders and rig hands, previously in demand, are finding themselves out of work.
The shifting political and economic winds are forcing many in the state’s oil and gas industry to reckon with their future career prospects. Some are finding work in different fields. Others are staying put, hoping for another boom.
Edgington, who has seen multiple booms and busts during his career, said he’s “done-done” with oil and gas.
“The rollercoaster ride is over with,” Edgington said. “You know, I don’t think Colorado will come back drilling like it ever was.”
KUNC spoke with half a dozen oilfield workers about their thoughts on the new Biden administration, Colorado’s shifting regulatory environment and their future job prospects. The sentiment toward current state and federal political agendas was mostly negative. But many still felt fierce pride in their work, even if they planned to leave the field in search of more steady employment.
Jack Hamlin, a co-founder of the Facebook community Energy Strong Colorado, said he’s seen his group’s tone shift over the past several months. The group has several thousand members and focuses on advocating for the industry at the local and state level.
Hamlin said recent regulatory changes on the state level, combined with Biden’s recent executive orders aimed at tackling climate change, have made people more worried about the future.
“We get messages for people looking for help, what they can do, voicing their frustrations,” Hamlin said. “It’s been a tough year from a morale standpoint.”
Hamlin, a petroleum engineer based in Denver, saw his company’s backlog of work vanish in a matter of weeks. His employer went through several rounds of layoffs. Many of his colleagues have either retired or moved on to other careers, he said.
Still, he’s not planning on changing careers any time soon. Oil is “in people’s blood,” he said.
“I’ll stay until I realistically can’t. I got into this industry because I believed in its intrinsic goodness,” Hamlin said. “It does good for people. It helps people travel and it heats your homes and helps you drive to work. That’s all fossil fuels, man.”
Hamlin feels like the full economic impact of Biden’s first executive orders won’t be felt in Colorado for some time. But he does see them as harbinger of where the energy industry is headed long-term.
“If I was graduating college right now with a petroleum engineering degree, I would probably not be planning to have my entire career in oil,” he said.
Over the past decade, Colorado has grown to become the country’s fifth largest oil-producing state. Past estimates have found drilling and maintaining Colorado’s wells employs as many as 90,000 people when prices are good.
The exact scale of job loss due to the most recent bust is still unclear. State data shows at least 7,500 energy workers filed unemployment claims between March and mid-December 2020. But that number doesn’t include jobs in other industries, such as food service and transportation, that support drilling.
The speed of recovery is uncertain. Even if the pandemic gets under control by the end of 2021, the state likely won’t recover the damage for years, economists say.
“It’s been a tumultuous, tumultuous year to say the least,” said Richard Wobbekind, senior economist at the University of Colorado Boulder’s Business Research Division. “We’re anticipating a continued drop off (in total oil production) in 2021 and very, very few new wells and rigs in the state.”
Today, oil is selling for slightly above $50 per barrel, which is right around the break even point for most Colorado drillers. Despite that, most companies are waiting for prices to come back up - and stay there - before they start drilling new wells, said Bernadette Johnson, vice president of energy analytics at the market research company Enverus.
“We’re kind of running a skeleton crew,” Johnson said. “I think it’s good news that hopefully the painful period and bulk of the job loss is mostly over.”
Even in light of the new administration's pivot towards cleaner energy, Johnson said she expects drilling activity - and jobs - in the oilfield to pick back up once COVID-19 vaccines are widely distributed and consumer confidence spikes.
“There’s absolutely a need for us to continue to keep the lights on, keep vehicles moving, keep planes in the air, plastics, so all of those things are still true,” Johnson said. “For us in Weld County, it means a lot of the industry that’s focused on oil and gas drilling, it’s going to be needed going forward.”
Until then, the uncertainty is weighing heavily on those who make a living from drilling.
Roy Ramirez opened his Ft. Lupton oilfield services business Ramco Services in 2013, when oil prices were hovering around $100 per barrel.
The son of a Mexican immigrant, his father had worked in the oilfield for 30 years, and Ramirez aimed to carry on in the family business.
At the start, work was everywhere. Business boomed. Within five years, Ramirez hired dozens of staff and grew his team to more than 50 employees to help maintain drill sites across Weld County.
Then, in early 2020, he started to notice he was getting fewer calls. His clients, mainly large oil companies, weren’t drilling as many new wells because the coronavirus had killed demand. In the spring, oil’s market price briefly went negative for the first time, sending a shock wave through the industry.
When work dried up, Ramirez laid off half of his staff. It was an emotional gut-punch.
“I have three or four guys that just had babies,” he said. “I took that into consideration this time because I know they need to continue working.”
In the months since, Ramirez has started to diversify, taking jobs moving dirt and “anything to keep the revenue coming in.” He still keeps in touch with his former employees. Many went on to find jobs in construction or landscaping, which often pay less than oil and gas, Ramirez said.
He sees Biden’s victory as a threat to his business’ recovery. He balked at the president’s decision on his first day in office to cancel work on the Keystone XL pipeline.
“With one swipe of the pen, they got rid of almost 11,000 jobs,” Ramirez said.
On top of that, Colorado recently upped its minimum setback distances for new wells to 2,000 ft., a change that could make it more difficult to drill in Northern Colorado in the future. The Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission also revamped its mission to “protect public health and safety” above fostering industry growth.
Ramirez said he can no longer envision what his business looks like in five to 10 years. Instead, he’s just focused on finding enough work to survive month-to-month.
“I’ll fight the whole way - the whole way - to figure out what I can do to keep my company, to keep my guys and their kids and my kids fed,” he said. “This is my legacy.”
Colby Edgington, the rig mover, says he’s looking forward to a slower pace of life. Construction has more predictable hours than oil and gas.
He also thinks, if he works hard, he could get his income back up to where it was in the oilfield.
“When you look at planning a life and a family and everything and you’re trying to stabilize your income, it makes it extremely difficult when there’s nothing stable about the industry,” Edgington said. “I lost 150 pounds of stress when I left.”