What the Frack?

Forty years ago, long gas lines and sharply rising energy costs caused every president from Nixon to Obama to call for United States’s energy independence. Five years ago, Russia’s energy development made it the largest energy producer in the world. Today, political problems in Nigeria, Libya and Sudan, in addition to other Middle East strife have caused a substantial rise in energy prices.

Hydraulic fracking, horizontal drilling, and other advances allow rigs to tap oil and natural gas deposits locked in shale. Since 2009, the United States increased oil production 135.6%. Texas shows the strongest increase, by nearly 225%. For Texas, that means an extra 3.72 billion barrels yearly. North Dakota saw increases by 152.2% and states like Pennsylvania, previously producing nominal amounts of oil and natural gas, have become energy production giants. Unemployment in Texas and North Dakota dropped concurrently. Pennsylvania’s energy workers enjoy salaries $20,000 higher per year than the average Quaker state citizen.

John Kirby ’16 aspires to enter the energy industry, taking the last three terms off to find a job “rough-necking” or a related job. After a long search for work, Kirby settled in Odessa, Texas working for a parts manufacturer called Barnhart Bolt and Special Fasteners. He explains, “Getting a job on a rig is tough. It’s dangerous, employers do not want injuries, but the pay is exceptional.” For entry-level rough necks, compensation is about $18 an hour. During a typical seventy-two hour week, workers make about $1,600, with time and a half over 40 hours. People come from across the country to work in previously economically depressed areas of Texas and North Dakota.

The boom in oil dramatically affects local economies beyond the rigs. Kirby explains, “Halliburton, Schlumberger, Baker Hughes share the same interview question: do you have a commercial drivers license.” Truck drivers are compensated between $100,000 and $200,000 a year, depending on the hours they work. Like roughnecks, marginal salaries increase dramatically as the hours increase, and drivers also come from across the country. In places like North Dakota, “roughnecks and drivers sleep in their truck due to lack of infrastructure.” To boot, the overwhelming influence of oil trickled down to local businesses, and such businesses quickly become national.

John Kirby started working at Barnhart Bol in May. Over the next three months, Barnhart started sending parts and pipe all over Texas, expanding beyond its typical deals with Odessa. In more recent months, they shipped parts and pipe to Ohio. Many manufacturers grew dramatically due to the boom in oil. Collectively, fracking, drivers, and manufacturing companies trickle down to other local businesses.

Fast-food chains, grocery stores, and even bars all experience substantial increases in business. Construction companies in North Dakota near the Bakken Oil Field are constantly at work, building infrastructure to accommodate the influx of immigrants to North Dakota. Because of high wages associated with energy, local businesses must match high salaries. John Kirby describes, “Even McDonalds offers jobs paying $15 an hour.” He continues, “If you are unemployed in Odessa, you really just don’t want a job.”

The energy boom affecting local economies are feared to be short-lived; however, labor opportunities are sustained through other industries. Areas depleted of oil still have manufacturing plants that no longer just supply parts for local rigs, but rather, drilling sites nationwide. Moreover, roughnecks and truck drivers are adaptable, and they desire to work wherever there is opportunity.

The United States is scheduled to surpass Russia as the world’s largest energy producer within the next few years. In the race to dominate energy, the United States utilizes hydraulic fracking technology to increase production and create jobs. Much of the growth results from the private sector, independent of Republican or Democrat allegiances. Fossil fuels may not generate clean energy, but they are creating jobs faster than we can anticipate. Kirby concludes, “Fracking is happening. We (the United States) are the best at it, we have the best technology, and we know what to do with it.” The sweaty, oily, often four fingered hands of roughnecks are carrying the United States towards a dream of energy independence.