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Starting all over: Drilling downturn sends some looking for work

By Brandon Evans | Published Wednesday, April 10, 2013

{{{*}}}Late in life, Eddie Gomez finds himself starting over.

The 53-year-old from Alvord began working in the oilfield almost 40 years ago. He cut his teeth working at injection wells in West Texas in 1975.

He was prepared to retire in the industry, but a dramatic downturn in drilling activity in the Barnett Shale caused him to be one of many laid off from the local office of an international drilling company last November.

STILL LOOKING - After starting a career in the oil field almost 40 years ago, Eddie Gomez, 53, of Alvord joins others looking for a new job after the drilling company he worked at laid off almost half its employees for the local office due to the drastic downturn in drilling activity in the Barnett Shale. Messenger photo by Joe Duty

STILL LOOKING – After starting a career in the oil field almost 40 years ago, Eddie Gomez, 53, of Alvord joins others looking for a new job after the drilling company he worked at laid off almost half its employees for the local office due to the drastic downturn in drilling activity in the Barnett Shale. Messenger photo by Joe Duty

“There were 22 people working at the company,” Gomez said. “By the end of the day there were only 12 … Everything is moving out. Several years ago they couldn’t find enough people to do the work.”

Last week the rig count across the Barnett Shale reached its second lowest point in the last 10 years. This happened despite an increase in the price of natural gas and a recent University of Texas study that shows production to continue in the Barnett Shale through at least 2030.

As of Friday, there were 28 active rigs in the Barnett Shale, one more than the 27 seen in February, which was the 10-year low.

Wise County remained the busiest, with eight active rigs.

“It’s strictly related to the price of natural gas,” said Ed Ireland, executive director of the Barnett Shale Energy Education Council, of the decline in production. “Most of what’s found in the Barnett Shale is dry natural gas, and in this market companies are going after crude oil rather than the natural gas.”

But he noted the price of natural gas is rebounding.

“The price of natural gas has been on the rise,” Ireland added. “We were below $2 about a year ago. It is now more than $4.”

Natural gas was valued at $4.02 per MMBtu as of yesterday. Meanwhile, crude oil continues to hover around $100 per barrel. While drilling activity wanes here, it continues to gain steam in West Texas in the Permian Basin.

“The drilling companies have to follow the work,” Gomez said. “If you want to keep your job you have to be willing to leave and go where the work is. And it’s not just the drilling companies but all the support industry that goes with it.

“I have gotten to a place where I don’t want to pick up and move on. I’m finally at a position where I don’t have to pay a mortgage. I’ve seen a lot of people in this situation.”

Now Gomez finds himself filling out job applications on a daily basis. Since he was laid off late last year, he’s applied for more than 50 jobs, but with no luck. He was one of several huddled over a computer terminal in a large mobile employment vehicle.

From 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. every Thursday Workforce Solutions of North Central Texas deploys an RV in the back parking lot of Weatherford College Wise County Campus. The high-tech vehicle is equipped with all the tools needed to search and apply for jobs. And it’s large enough to comfortably accommodate several job seekers at once.

Gomez is a regular when the RV makes a stop in Wise County. He’s been looking for a fabrication job, but he’s had trouble finding a position that offers benefits.

“There are some companies willing to hire, but they don’t want to provide benefits,” Gomez added. “At my age I need insurance and retirement benefits.”

“I just want to get ready to retire soon, but there’s no sign of that happening. At this rate I’ll be working until I’m 70 to 80 years old. That’s the reality of it.

“You never really know. There’s no job security anymore.”

And while Ireland said drilling activity in the Barnett Shale will increase if natural gas prices continue to rise, it will likely never again be at the peak seen in 2008, when there were 182 active rigs at one time.

“It can certainly come back to somewhere in between where it was then and where it is now,” Ireland said.

Until then, people like Gomez will either have to move with the rigs or start over here at home.

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