Driving north on WYO 59, you see semi-trucks hauling backhoes and bulldozers, oversized loads lugging blockish, cabin-sized construction parts and miles of snow-white roads meandering west through gray-brown sagebrush to the oil fields.
Follow one of those white roads for a few miles, and you’ll inevitably come across an oil production pad or a rig in the process of starting a new one.
Where there are pads, there are power lines.
According to Robert Short, CEO of Glenrock-based Short Powerline Service, business is booming. His staff has nearly tripled, growing from 24 to 66 employees since the beginning of 2018. Powerline work has been in high demand as drilling in the Powder River Basin speeds up.
Short Powerline Service, which does fiber optic work, drone surveying and construction in addition to building powerlines, provides high-paying jobs.
“We have kids who are in their late 20s who make over $100 grand a year,” Short said. “That’s pretty substantial.”
Brett Short, a line superintendent and long-time employee at Short Powerline Service, said that Converse County’s current activity is almost as busy as he has ever seen it, nearly approaching the levels of the last boom. Brett noted that the company has been busy since Converse County’s most recent wind farm was built.
“It’s to the point that I wish we had about five more linemen,” Brett said.
PRICE OF A BARREL
The Converse County uptick has been obvious for a while now, but few of those involved in the energy industry allow themselves to grow complacent, with the lean times of 2015-2016 and even 2017 fresh on their minds. All Wyomingites know that the Equality State’s fickle economy is perpetually susceptible to a brutal bust, even when business is booming.
Some in the energy industry admit they’re unsettled by the recent drop in oil prices. Short tries not to worry about it and prefers to focus on the overall picture.
“It’s a little bit disconcerting but I think it could be cyclical,” Short said. “I think our president may be slightly misguided thinking $40 a barrel oil is good for us.”
The sweet spot, according to Short and many in the industry, is the $60-$70 range. Fall below $60 and the margins aren’t as favorable. Rise above $80 and the chaos among consumers and elsewhere in the economy can be unpleasant.
Virtually no one the Budget talked to wants the price of a barrel to surpass the $80 threshold. Most businessmen involved in the energy industry, or its ancillary support services, have their fingers crossed for slow, steady growth, and many are tentatively optimistic that the slow growth seen since fiscal year 2018 will continue through 2019 and far beyond.
Even with the recent dip – a barrel of WTI (West Texas Intermediate crude, which is what Wyoming’s oil is generally pegged to) was selling for $53 on Monday – the numbers suggest Converse County is in good shape. Recent industry and news reports suggest money can still be made at $50 on new wells.
And in the Powder River Basin, primarily from Glenrock and Douglas north to Wright, hundreds of new well permits roll in by the month, and sales tax revenues continue to climb steadily, with the City of Douglas’ numbers approaching the highs from the last boom. As the charts on this page show, sales tax revenues for the city and county have once again spiked, with the city so far this year outpacing a healthy 2014 fiscal year and approaching the previously unprecedented highs of fiscal year 2015.
Converse County also has 11 of Wyoming’s 17 oil rigs as of this week, per Baker Hughes’ rig count data.
Short Powerline Services hasn’t been the only company on a hiring spree. Converse County unemployment fell by half a percentage point last month, 3.6 to 3.1 percent – nearing the lowest rate seen during the last boom of around 2.9 percent.
Mike Grose, owner of Wild West Construction, estimates that his staff has grown by about 40 percent since the 2016 election. The rental side of his business, which offers support equipment to energy companies, has quadrupled.
“I just hired another guy today,” Grose said. “We’re still looking for quality people. That’s the problem.”