Oklahoma's oil patch blooms again

The nation may be bemoaning another summer of high gas prices, but Clyde Wootton isn't feeling quite so bad. Wootton and his company, BRG Petroleum Corp., are in the petroleum exploration business. And while it normally takes them four months to raise the money they need to drill the exploratory wells they have planned for the year, this year it took two weeks.

"That's what happens when there's a boom on. People throw money at you," says Mr. Wootton, vice president of exploration at the 25-person firm. "It was a nice change."

After years of falling crude prices and sinking job prospects, oil workers here are enjoying a turnaround that seemed out of the realm of possibility even two years ago.

In fact, as Tulsa enjoys national attention this weekend as the site of this year's US Open golf championship, business is so good that oil and gas companies are having a hard time finding workers to fill some jobs.

After a tough decade, residents of oil country aren't inclined to feel bad for rest of the nation.

"The prices bring a smile to my face," says Dewey Bartlett, Jr., president of Keener Oil and Gas Co. "But it's frustrating, because people scream when they pay $1.65 for gas, and on the way in to buy it they pay $3 for cigarettes and $1.50 for designer water."

Oil in local veins

Before Oklahoma was even a state, Tulsa was known for oil. In 1905, drillers hit a gusher just southeast of the city on the land that would come to be known as the Glenn Pool Oil Field. Soon the area was flooded with oilmen and companies looking to get rich quick. By 1920, the city swelled from about 7,000 people to more than 70,000, and it became known as the "oil capital of the world."

The city is still proud of this roughneck heritage. On the lower floor of its airport is "The Panorama of Petroleum," a 56-by-13-foot mural full of historical figures that shows that oil industry as it was in 1966. And outside the International Petroleum Exhibition Building stands the "Golden Driller," a 76-foot-high bare-chested, hard-hatted oilman - one arm resting on a giant derrick.

But the cyclical nature of the oil business has taken a toll over time. The booms and busts, combined with industry consolidation, have weeded a lot of people out of the oil business here. "A lot of people just couldn't make it through that last downturn," Wootton says.

By 1999, only 26,500 people were involved in oil and gas extraction in Oklahoma, down from 40,000 in 1991. And even in Texas, the place to which much of the oil industry moved in the 1990s, the numbers were dramatic. About 138,000 Texans worked in oil and gas in 1999, versus 175,000 in 1991.

John Hill, manager at Lexus of Tulsa, says cars are moving off his lot at a brisker pace than last year, but the energy boom has not produced a real sales spike for him - at least not yet. "It's nothing like it was 10 years ago," he says. "The role oil plays here is less than it was. A lot of folks have just gotten out of it. When the last bust hit, this city just died."

A new Tulsa bounces back

The price of a barrel of crude got so low during the last glut, he says, that many of his longtime customers simply capped their wells.

But things have definitely improved in the wake of the energy crisis. Lately the employment figures have begun to tick up. Oklahoma alone has added 1,700 oil and gas extraction jobs in the past year, and as the nation worries about the economy, unemployment is at 2.7 percent statewide - 2.4 percent in Tulsa.

Mr. Bartlett, who is the current president of the Oklahoma Independent Producers Association, says his company stopped drilling altogether three years ago. Now, slowly, they are at it again.

"I'd like to get back to five a year, but we're still getting out of debt," he says. "We drilled one well last year and we'll drill three this year."

The problem for Bartlett and other oilmen in the area now is finding the machinery and manpower to get the drilling done. Wootton says the area is at a "choke point," with drilling rigs difficult to find. One oilman told Bartlett he visits the local prison on parole day, and "when he sees a decent, responsible-looking guy walk by, he asks him if he wants a job."

The fact of the matter, Bartlett and others say, is a lot of people simply got tired of the ups and downs of the oil business and opted for jobs elsewhere, leaving the gap in skilled workers.

"There are a lot of openings and opportunities for our members if they want to move jobs," says Cheryl Wootton, Clyde's wife and an officer in the Desk and Derrick Club of Tulsa, a group that promotes networking among oil workers.

Those brighter job prospects are starting to catch the eyes of younger people, who for a long time weren't interested in careers in oil, she says.

But regardless of how long it takes the industry to catch up with the current boom, this state and region will be getting a big lift from oil-tax revenues. Both Oklahoma and Texas suspended their per-barrel tax when prices fell below $17 and $15 per barrel, respectively, in the hopes of "saving the oil industry," as Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating put it.

Now, with the price pushing $30-a-barrel, the concern has shifted from how to save the industry to what to do with all the money it is bringing in. Tax-cut talk is in the air.

Despite the good times, no one here expects oil to dominate the economy as it once did. Tulsa's chamber of commerce actively pursued other industries in the late 1980s. Meanwhile, most big oil companies have gone, leaving 800 or so small independent companies to do the work. Industry people here estimate that petroleum, which once dominated this economy, now makes up 10 to 20 percent of the city's economic output.

"We're happy the economy has diversified ... so that one industry isn't going to hurt the town," Wootton says. "Those of us who've been around for a while know times like these come and go."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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