Between Two Worlds

Working far from home and at the epicenter of a fierce land use debate, the roughnecks of the roan plateau focus on the job at hand.
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Working far from home and at the epicenter of a fierce land use debate, the roughnecks of the roan plateau focus on the job at hand.
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It’s 5:30 a.m. and the temperature already tops 100 degrees on a summer morning in Rifle, Colo. The parking lot of the Rusty Cannon Motel, just off Interstate 70, is filled to capacity with white pickup trucks, nearly all of which belong to workers in the natural gas industry. Soon the lot will be empty as the lodgers of the Rusty Cannon head out for another grueling 12-hour shift working the natural gas rigs on the nearby Roan Plateau.

The Roan Plateau is a high aspen and sage landscape 3,000 feet above the valley, with canyons that are home to elk populations, streams that harbor Colorado River Cutthroat trout, and white- and red-washed cliff s that serve as nesting grounds for Peregrine Falcons. This landscape is also part of a geological formation known as the Piceance Basin, and sits atop a natural gas play that is yet to peak. Tall natural gas rigs dot the landscape.

Most of the laborers who work the rigs—workers who, like their oil-drilling brethren, are known as roughnecks—live astride two worlds. They leave the comforts of family and

friends for weeks at a time to work on the Roan Plateau’s rigs, and then hightail it back to wherever they call home to attend to their lives there. Many of them are ranchers and farmers from elsewhere in Colorado and surrounding states. They are drawn to the work on the rigs because it keeps them outdoors and, with a salary around $60,000 a year, is a nice supplement to their agricultural lifestyle.

For Scott Geary and many like him, the natural gas and oil fields have provided a livelihood for all of his adult years. Geary, 52, who also owns a ranch near Westcliffe, Colo., has worked on rigs since he was 16, and put himself through college by working

summers in the natural gas fields. Today he works 14 days on and takes 14 days off. While Geary is working on the rigs, his wife, Wendy, and his two teenage children hold down the ranch. To ease his commute during the summer months, Geary, a licensed pilot, flies one of his three planes from his ranch to the rigs and back. “They’re just little bug smashers,” he says of his planes.

As a consultant for the natural gas company Grey Wolf, Geary manages a team of roughnecks. Once a rig hits gas, Geary is nearly always on call as the rig operates

around the clock. There are times when even two hours of sleep a night can be a

luxury. While the rig is being constructed, Geary catches his shuteye in his truck parked next to a rig. Part of his life is here on the Roan, the other is in on his beloved ranch. A map with directions to his ranch is printed on the back of his business card. “Half my life is here and half my life is there,” he says, flipping over the card.

Veterans like Geary have weathered several cycles of booms and busts in the natural gas and oil industry—as has the town of Rifle.

Over the past decade, the price of natural gas has increased along with advances in drilling technology, fueling a drilling boom in areas rich with natural gas deposits such as the Roan Plateau. In 1976 the average wellhead price, the value at the mouth of the well, was $0.58 per thousand cubic feet of natural gas. In 2007 the average was $6.39.

While the Roan’s resources are prized by natural gas companies, the land is also prized for its traditional uses, such as ranching, hunting, and recreation, as well as for its scenic beauty. Often these diverse uses collide in an ongoing debate over how to best manage the land.

At the center of this debate is the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which currently oversees land use on the Roan Plateau. Last August, the BLM auctioned off 55,186 acres of land on the Roan in 31 parcels—18 leases on top of the plateau and 13 leases below the rim.

The sale generated $114 million, the highest amount of any federal lease sale in the lower 48 stages—$56 million dollars from the sale went to the state of Colorado. BLM spokesman David Boyd thinks the sale generated what was expected due to the restrictive nature of the management plan, which limits disturbance on top of the plateau to less than 1 percent at a time. That restriction and others may have lowered the value, Boyd says.

John Gale, a regional representative of the National Wildlife Federation who is involved with Sportsmen for Responsible Energy Development, says more money could have been generated by gradually leasing the land. Gradual leasing of the

land, he says, would have resulted in fewer disturbances to habitat and wildlife on the plateau, as well as a higher sale price.

Despite the heated debate, both sides have agreed that drilling on the newly leased lands (on top and below the plateau) will not begin before June 2009 to allow the court time to hear each side’s arguments. Drilling on previously leased federal land and on private land, however, continues at a swift pace providing jobs and a flow of money into nearby towns.

In addition to the many roughnecks who find employment on the rigs, the town of Rifle also benefi ts from the influx of people and dollars. According to U.S. Census data, its population has nearly doubled since 1990. New construction is everywhere in town, but the rapid growth still can’t keep pace with demand.

Longtime Rifle mayor Keith Lambert has weathered these boom and bust cycles before. He likely holds the record for most groundbreakings of new city facilities and parks with all the new growth. As a 28-year resident of Rifle, he’s seen growth like this on a smaller scale with the oil shale boom and bust cycle of the early 1980s. While he appreciates what the natural gas industry has brought to the area and is optimistic that the resources will last longer than the oil shale boom, he knows it won’t be forever.

Gary Miller, owner of Miller’s Dry Goods, refers to the day Exxon Mobile pulled out of oil shale production in 1982 as Black Sunday.

“After they left we went though a long hard time,” he says. “We’re very fortunate to have this because the rest of the country is really suff ering and Rifle has got its own little niche that has helped us with restaurants and gas stations and everything,” he says.

But, says Mayor Lambert: “At the end of the day when the gas and oil industry leaves—and they will because it’s a finite resource—we will have to go back to relying on the land like we always have.”

In the meantime, the recent boom has provided plenty of work to be done on the Roan for men like Scott Geary and his crew. It is estimated that in the next 20 years more than 1,500 new wells could be drilled in the area.

Williams, the 12th largest natural gas producer in the United States, employs roughly 200 people in the area of the Roan Plateau and operates more than 2,000 natural gas wells in Colorado’s Piceance Basin. The company has a 6,000-mile network to transport natural gas from Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, Wyoming, and Colorado to markets across Middle America.

Each of the massive directional drilling rigs used to extract the natural gas occupies roughly an acre of land. It takes seven days to dismantle, move, and reassemble one of these massive structures, which are each outfi tted with living quarters, sewage disposal systems, water and electric generators.

“It’s like a big erector set to put it together,” Geary says. “It’s almost like building a little town.”

Walking around his rig, Geary explains how natural gas is extracted from the ground. His rig is a newer model that can drill multiple wells from the same base pad, making the operation more efficient with less land disturbance. Once the drill hits a natural gas deposit, the equipment runs around the clock seven days a week.

The equipment is far too expensive and the job too demanding to leave a rig unattended, so for the past two winters Williams has built an encampment where the roughnecks live while working on high country rigs. Like the old cow camps, there are strict rules to follow: Namely, no fighting and no alcohol. Not that there’s much time for either. Even though the shifts are 12 hours long, the men usually put in more, Geary says.

Jarvis Abbey, a drilling foreman on another rig, typically begins his workday at 5 a.m. He works 33 days on and 10 days off . “It is a lot of days to be away from home, and a lot of guys will agree with that,” he says. “But they’re also here to make a living while they can.”

Abbey, who usually sports a large white cowboy hat and a shiny buckle emblazoned

with a Paint Horse, commutes to the natural gas fields on the Roan Plateau from his ranch near Lander, Wyo.—a drive of roughly 7 1/2 hours, if the weather is good. His wife, Maggie, cares for their 80 acres and herd of Paint Horses while he’s away. “She does the irrigating, keeps the lawn mowed, and keeps the horses trotted around,” he says.

Abbey started working for Williams in 2001. “When you fi rst start out you’re a worm,” he says. “I started at the bottom like a whole bunch of us did and worked my way up.” Workers often start out cleaning the rig as fl oor hands and over the years try to move into a more specialized position such as directional driller.

The good money and the opportunity to work outside bring farmers and ranchers to the natural gas fields. Now, many can’t image doing anything else for a living. “I had an office job once before, but I didn’t like it a whole lot. I don’t like to be inside and not be able to be out in the sun and fresh air,” Abbey says. “The oil fields are a good way to make a living and also be oriented with the cowboy way of life. These guys are outside pretty much all of the time unless they bunch up in the dog house for a cup of coffee.”

Joe Reel, a consultant for Williams who’s been working in the oil and gas industry

since 1966, agrees.

“Roughnecks are like truck drivers or any other professional,” Reel says. “Once you do something and it gets in your blood you don’t want to do anything else.” Reel’s father also worked in the oils fields, and today his son is going in for a job interview.

Reel, a rancher, raises a herd of 80 cattle in the Ozark Mountains. He cares about his ranch land and the land out here that he works, as do many other roughnecks.

It’s ingrained in the lifestyle.

“Ranching and cowboying are a great way of life,” he says. “You’re never going to get rich or have fancy things, but you see very few old ranchers die of heart attacks, you know what I mean?” he says. “That’s why we work on the rigs.”

Reel and Geary think the average person driving though Rifl e doesn’t know what roughnecks do on the Roan Plateau and often unfairly judges them as people who don’t care about the environment.

Both say they do and that being outside in the elements is part of the reason they work on the rigs. In the end they are here to do a job that, despite the cyclical and controversial nature of the industry, meshes well with their outdoor lifestyle.

Geary feels that the job is a good match for a cowboy’s temperament.

“A cowboy’s is a can-do attitude,” Geary says. “A lot of times he’s not given all the vehicles or tools to complete his job but he still gets it done and that’s what we do out here.”