A new federal program signed up hordes of eager students—just as the industry went bust.
This story is republished from The Wilson Quarterly, which explores our world by examining ideas, culture, news, and the real lives they affect.
Valentina Quinonez sets the teeth of her monkey wrench around a cockeyed pipe coupling, squares her shoulders to the wrench’s two-foot-long handle and braces against it. She stands hardly more than five feet tall in her work boots and hardhat, and leverages what looks like her entire weight into the wrench before the coupling twists free with a squeak. A small stream of dark fluid emits from the loosened fitting, tingeing the air with a petroleum scent.
As a puddle of fluid gathers, Kevin Pound, the safetyman, scurries over with a handful of “diapers” and begins to mop it up. The rest of the six-person crew gathers around foreman Ryan Braae, who offers everyone water and sunscreen before laying out their next steps.
From behind a nearby separator – a truck-sized metal box whose mechanical innards remove water from liquid natural gas condensate – David Doane lumbers over to the group. He’s a large, imposing man with a prominent beard. Braae stops talking. All eyes turn to Doane.
“Any idea what check valves are for?” he asks.
The group stares back, stupefied. They squint against the harsh sun. Gusts of wind amplify their silence.
After a moment, Doane relents and explains: Check valves stop gas from moving in reverse through a pipeline. They’ll need one if they want to hook that compressor up to the separator, he says. Braae, Quinonez and Pound nod their heads intently at their instructor’s advice.
This is the Wind River Job Corps Center, which sits atop a sagebrush-strewn plateau just outside Riverton in central Wyoming. Job Corps is a 52-year-old federal anti-poverty program with centers nationwide that train low-income youth in a variety of trades. Adjacent Doane’s oilfield crew, a group of heavy equipment operator students works with a dirt roller, bulldozer and shovels to shape an earthen base for a new parking lot. Beyond them, screeches of band saws and crackles from arc welders in the carpentry and welding workshops add to a general atmosphere of bustle and productivity. A student training for his Commercial Driver’s License cautiously navigates a big rig down the road that circles campus.
Doane is one of two instructors in the Petroleum Technician program here, which launched last August along with the opening of the brand new Job Corps center. His gruff voice and weather-beaten skin make it easy to imagine him barking orders across the decks of a drilling rig. He says he never imagined being a teacher.
“I’m used to telling people I want something done, then it’s done,” he says. “If I have to do it myself, you don’t come back. I can’t do that here with the students. It’s a big change for this old redneck.”
Doane, who was born and raised in nearby Lander, was among the roughly 5,400 oil and gas workers laid off over the past year in Wyoming – the result of a radical drop in oil prices in 2014 that plunged the industry into a bust. He has worked in almost every aspect of the oilfield since leaving the navy in 1976. Most recently, for 15 years he operated a ConocoPhillips facility near Lysite, Wyoming that he helped build with his bare hands. But when business slowed, Doane’s employer cut him loose. He says landing a position at Job Corps was a stroke of extreme good fortune – after forty years in the oilfield, and with the oilfield not hiring, his options were limited.
“The only jobs open were in New Mexico and Venezuela,” he says. “I have a 15-year-old son here, and he said he wanted to live with me. I told him, ‘sure, if I can find a job.’”
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Roughly three quarters of all the jobs that exist in Wyoming require no education beyond high school, aside from various vocational certificates or on-the-job training, says Sandy Barton, executive director of the Board, where the Wind River Job Corps Center is located. She played a leading role in bringing Job Corps to the state.
“We’re a blue-collar state, and we’re proud of it,” Barton says. “We need students who can learn a trade and get to work.”
Among the industries offering blue-collar jobs in Wyoming, oil and gas is paramount. David Bullard, a senior economist with the state’s Department of Workforce Services, says the sector typically employs more than five percent of Wyoming’s total workforce, and that the average wage in the oilfield last year was about $74,000, compared to $45,000 statewide.
“The oil and gas industry will employ a lot of people who might be otherwise challenged in the labor market,” adds Robert Godby, director of the Center for Energy Economics and Public Policy at the University of Wyoming. “Often, these people have less education, they’re younger, very often they’re male. If you look at the unemployment statistics nationally, those are the people who have the most trouble finding jobs.”
So when Barton and her colleagues began developing the proposal for a Job Corps center in Wyoming, it made sense to establish the first-ever Petroleum Technician program.
But the oil and gas industry is also famous for dramatic booms and busts.
In 2009, when the Department of Labor approved the Wind River Job Corps Center’s application, advances in fracking technology were fueling a frenzy of natural gas exploration – that year, Wyoming recorded its highest level of natural gas production ever. Man-camps full of itinerant laborers pockmarked the plains.
“The industry was strong then,” Barton says. “Companies were struggling for workers.”
She and her team collaborated closely with oil and gas companies operating nearby, and received assurances that Petroleum Technician graduates would be hired quickly into lucrative positions.
“Then,” Barton says, “wouldn’t you know, as soon as we get started they go through this down slope…Encana sold out of Wyoming. Marathon just sold out. Conoco took most of their operations up into Billings. Everything started dissolving.”
The Petroleum Technician program was designed with slots for 48 students. Today, it enrolls only ten.
“We tell them things are tough in the industry right now,” says Mike Adams, another Petroleum Tech instructor. “Even without me telling them that, they find out pretty quick. One of the things they have to do as part of their training is apply for jobs. They start looking, they find there’s not a whole lot out there.”
The task of preparing students for employment in an industry that’s not really hiring forces Adams to improvise. He recognized early on that much of the know-how he gained during his own 11 years in the industry – before he was laid off in 2015 – is applicable outside the oilfield.
“The meat and potatoes of what we teach here is related to the oilfield, but they could go to just about any kind of plant, any kind of refinery, and find a lot of the same equipment,” he says.
Adams has taken his students to tour water and wastewater treatment plants, and they have plans to visit a sulfuric acid production facility in Riverton. Recently, a representative from a sugar beet processing plant talked to the students about what options might await them there.
Sitting in the brightly lit, concrete-floored classroom where Petroleum Tech students do bookwork, Ryan Braae says he has no plans to enter the oilfield. He aspires to become an underwater welder. “I’m looking for the adventure and the danger,” he says.
When the twenty-year-old arrived at Job Corps from the small town of Sidney, Montana, he learned that welding and several related programs were full. An advisor suggested Petroleum Tech. But Braae says he signed on mostly for the guidance anyway.
“I never had anyone at high school to help me with scholarships,” he says. “I was on my own since I was 16. I never heard about FAFSA. I never had a counselor or any advice. It was nice to come to Job Corps for that.”
With assistance from the center’s staff, Braae is applying for scholarships to Divers Academy International in New Jersey, which he hopes to attend after he finishes Job Corps later this year.
Valentina Quinonez, who’s also twenty, graduated high school with honors in Nogales, Arizona, but couldn’t afford the fashion institute in San Francisco to which she was accepted. A Job Corps advisor steered her toward Petroleum Tech, touting the opportunities for women in the industry.
“Most of my family are carpenters,” she says. “I wanted something different. So I was like, ‘Nobody has ever been in the oilfield. I might as well try it.’”
Her obvious, easygoing intelligence makes it seem somehow fitting that the fashionista would find pleasure in the oilfield’s complex mechanical logistics.
“I like challenges,” she says. “It’s really hard learning all these things like valves and pumps, dissembling them and putting them back together. It’s fun.”
If the oil and gas industry doesn’t pan out, the recently elected student body president says she has several backup plans, including pursuing a degree in psychology.
Other students’ scopes of options, however, seem narrower.
Kevin Pound grew up in Lander and graduated from Riverton High School. He hopes the oilfield, despite the downturn, can offer him a way to remain in Wyoming, where much of his family lives.
“I like staying close to home,” says the 23-year-old, who came to Job Corps after a year of bagging groceries and pushing people’s shopping carts to their cars at Smith’s Food and Drug. Prior to that, he dropped out of Central Wyoming Community College after a year of studying fire science.
“I made the one mistake that’s easy to make: not do your homework. So they pulled my loan and I couldn’t pay for housing,” he says. “I figured I’d come here, learn something more hands-on, something that was other than retail or fast food.”
Pound says he’s watched several uncles chase oilfield jobs around the country, from Wyoming to North Dakota to Colorado, and face layoffs during the bust. After Job Corps, he hopes to enroll in the petroleum engineering program at the University of Wyoming, which trains students in finding and developing oil reservoirs, rather than doing the hands-on work of extraction. But enrollment in the university’s School of Mines has doubled since 2010, and demand for petroleum engineers is low.
“That degree will provide a little more stability,” Pound says. “Not a lot, but a little more stability in the oil and gas industry.”
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Driving northwest out of Riverton on Highway 26, one can speed straight past the Job Corps center and into the heart of the Wind River Reservation. Home to the Northern Arapaho and Eastern Shoshone tribes, the landscape is exquisite and rich with wildlife.
But the reservation’s economy depends on oil and gas. Scott Ratliff, tribal liaison to U.S. Senator Mike Enzi, says the oilfield is the main source of living-wage jobs on the reservation. Because unemployment is high there, however – at least double the rate in the rest of the state, according to census figures – just as important are the “per capita” payments that members of each tribe receive from mineral leases on tribal land.
“All those minerals are put into a big pot, and those are collected by the federal government,” Ratliff explains. “They’re divided equally in half, to the dollar. Then, half of that money goes to the Arapaho tribe, half of it goes to the Shoshone. Of those halves, 85 percent of that goes to the membership.”
Although his per capita today as a member of the Shoshone tribe is around $120 per month, Ratliff says he’s seen payments reach $500 when energy prices peak.
“You take a family of four kids and a mom and dad, that’s $3,000. They could live on that,” he says.
If the rest of Wyoming’s population depends less directly on money from oil and gas, the difference is slight. Robert Godby, the University of Wyoming economist, says oil and gas production brings in more than a quarter of the state’s total tax revenue. Wyoming does not have a state income tax, so wild swings in energy prices – like the seventy percent oil price drop in 2014 – affect its economic health dramatically.
“When we have an energy downturn, we suddenly have a government downturn,” Godby says.
A report released in January estimates Wyoming will face a roughly $600 million revenue shortfall through 2018 due to the energy bust. This results both from the drop in oil prices and an equally severe downturn in the coal industry, which Godby says typically generates another 11 percent of the state’s total tax revenue.
Lawmakers in the most recent legislative session cut $36 million from public schools, $27 million from other state agencies, $35 from the University of Wyoming, and decreased allocations to county and local governments, among other reductions. They also withdrew $488 million from the state’s $1.8 billion “rainy day fund,” in which the state squirrels away money during boomtimes.
“The problem is that the energy sector is so large and so dominant in this economy in terms of how much revenue it generates,” Godby says. “And we don’t otherwise have a large, indigenous economy of our own. When that’s the case, you pretty much have no control over your own economy.”
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Thirty miles down the road from the Wind River Job Corps Center, in Lander, Amber Wilson takes a break in her office from trying to save local recycling. The Fremont County Solid Waste District recently announced it would end its recycling program this spring due to financial constraints – including state funding cuts.
Wilson, an environmental quality advocate for the Wyoming Outdoor Council, says while it’s sickening to read news of mass layoffs and slashed budgets, the way in which many people in the state respond – with vitriol toward the federal government and environmental regulations – is equally dismaying.
“It’s frustrating to see so much anger and rage over the downfall of the oil and gas or coal industries,” she says. “I was born and raised in Wyoming, and my family worked in the trona mines and the coal mines and the gas fields. But it seems like, to me, a no-brainer – we’ve always lived in this boom and bust economy, and as long as we choose to not diversify our economy and rely on these industries that we know go up and down, it just seems like, where is the surprise truly coming from?”
Part of Wilson’s job is to monitor the ways in which the state government interacts with the oil and gas industry. What she often witnesses is a cozy relationship – one in which regulators largely let companies oversee themselves.
“Oil, gas and coal are our biggest sources of revenue in the state, so there’s a lot of incentive to not in any way hinder fossil fuel development,” she says.
Wilson says lax oversight of oil and gas drilling, for example, allows companies to largely self-monitor whether the wastewater they dump into aquifers will contaminate drinking water. This practice came to light during a recent dispute before the state Oil and Gas Commission in which environmentalists argued – successfully, against the commission’s initial ruling – that a company’s experts were misleading the public.
“This kind of thing happens frequently,” Wilson says. “They bring in their experts saying, ‘Yep, we know it’s not going to contaminate any existing drinking water. This is going to be totally fine.’ And then other people bring in their experts who say… ‘This is a terrible idea.’ The only reason this instance gained so much attention is because it affected the main source of drinking water for the city of Gillette.”
Thirty miles due north of Wilson’s office, the small town of Pavillion, Wyoming, has become a focal point in the debate over fracking – and energy-friendly state government’s potential role in obscuring its harm. In response to residents’ longtime complaints about polluted drinking water, the federal Environmental Protection Agency conducted a study and reported in 2011 that nearby fracking activity likely had something to do with it. After pushback from state officials and the oil and gas industry, the EPA demurred and left further studies to the Wyoming State Department of Environmental Quality, who concluded in 2015 that the link between fracking and the town’s poisoned water was “negligible.”
This April, however, scientists from Stanford University published a peer-reviewed study that they say establishes a clear link between fracking and Pavillion’s water problems. The scientists claim their conclusions are the strongest evidence yet proving such a connection anywhere in the nation.
At the same time the oil and gas industry’s outputs may or may not have been seeping into Pavillion’s drinking water, its influence was unquestionably growing in Wyoming’s public schools.
Sandy Barton, the BOCES director who helped launch the Wind River Job Corps Center, says she already had partnerships in place within the oil and gas industry when her team began to develop the Petroleum Technician program.
In 2008, the Fremont County BOCES launched a pilot program at Riverton High School that brought oil and gas representatives to the classroom, took students on field trips to drilling rigs and production facilities, and allowed students to complete OSHA oilfield safety certification training. In 2010, Marathon Oil donated $20,000 to the project, which expanded to other high schools in Fremont and adjacent Hot Springs County. Other oil and gas companies contributed to the program as well.
Tim DeChristopher says public schools’ actively funneling students into the fossil fuel business strikes him as all too familiar. The Utah-based climate justice organizer witnessed the same relationship in his home state.
“Growing up in what they call ‘coal country’ in West Virginia, we were taught that all we had the ability to do was work in the coalmine,” he says. “If we worked really hard, we could work for the natural gas company. Those were the alternatives we were presented with.”
He says the oil, gas, and coal industries have long depended on undereducated communities who assume their proximity to fossil fuel development predestines them for a life in the oilfield or mines.
“But the people born there are not any less smart or any less capable or any less hardworking than the people born anywhere else who have a whole host of options of what they can do with their lives,” he says. “That’s something that is taught, and that is a form of disempowerment that has always gone hand-in-hand with the fossil fuel industry, because they need that easily exploited labor force.”
DeChristopher says it doesn’t make sense for taxpayers to subsidize the oil and gas industry by training its workforce, given that the industry is made up of some of the richest companies in the history of money. He says the Department of Labor funding an oilfield education program while the nation moves toward renewable energy amounts to training yesterday’s workforce, instead of tomorrow’s.
“I think it’s clear that Job Corps knows what’s wrong about that,” he says. “The website for the Wind River center calls this ‘Green Jobs Training’… They’re deceptive. They’ve got the little green tree icon next to their petroleum extraction career training to try to pretend that this is green jobs. So they’re not only reinforcing the fossil fuel industry, they’re actually taking money that was earmarked for green jobs training and using it to subsidize the oil industry.”
Julie Gassner, the Wind River Job Corps Center’s director, argues that Job Corps’ task is not to take sides in the politicized environmental debate.
“For us, as a training program, the political issue is not the issue that we’re arguing,” she says. “We are providing a workforce that’s going to be knowledgeable on how to conserve and protect the world that we live in.”
Each Job Corps student, including those in the petroleum technician program, must complete a training protocol that includes building awareness of recycling and other green practices, Gassner says.
“They are being trained on the green side of petroleum, so it’s not all damaging to the environment,” she says. “Can we solve it all? No. But we can train a workforce that is prepared to help make that industry greener.”
Gassner says a greener oilfield is one in which operators know how to properly process, package, and handle the petroleum products they work with.
“Our students are learning of these techniques so that when they go out on the job, they can be mindful of, you know, you don’t just dump stuff anywhere.”
But for petroleum tech students, these lessons come from sources with ties to the oil and gas industry, which has an incentive to overstate its commitment to green practices. It was on a field trip to a facility run by ConocoPhillips, one of the program’s primary partners, where students Ryan Braae and Valentina Quinonez learned about industry efforts to stop the emission of harmful gasses.
“They have these devices that, instead of burning carbon out into the atmosphere, they keep it and throw it away,” Braae says. “It takes the carbons, and keeps the carbons, and burns everything else.”
“It’s a continuous flame,” Quinonez adds, “so the chemicals themselves don’t go up into the atmosphere. It’s a lot better if you burn them than if you just release them.”
The practices the students describe have become primary talking points for ConocoPhillips as part of the oil giant’s proclaimed commitment to environmentally friendly practices. But industry reports point out that ConocoPhillips has for years leaked more methane into the atmosphere than any other company in the world. Despite recent emissions cuts it remains a massive polluter.
Whether Braae, Quinonez, or others from the first crop of petroleum technician students at the Wind River Job Corps Center will have the chance to apply what they learn – and even perhaps make the oilfield greener – remains to be seen. Even as the job market remains bleak, they have work to do. A donated pumpjack needs to be set up, and they’ve got a wellhead coming in that will connect to it. There are pipes to thread and run at right angles between machines that, during boom times, pumped the lifeblood of the nation’s energy grid.
For now, the equipment runs dry, as does Wyoming’s economy. The students will have to wait alongside the rest of the state’s working class to see if and when the industry picks back up.