Service Companies

Terry Els, a machinist for J/B Machine and Manufacturing Inc., works on drilling a flange in their workshop off Yellowstone Highway in July.

Josh Galemore

Billy Brenton has a foot in two worlds, one in oil, gas and mining, the other in wind.

Like a lot of companies that serve energy industries, a dramatic drop in the fossil fuel economies in recent years meant an evaporation of business in Wyoming. So Brenton’s trucks and cranes and hauling equipment would normally be dotting Wyoming were shifted to offices in neighboring states where there was still work to be found. Wind similarly had a downturn from Brenton’s point of view, ever since the state passed a wind tax. And again, the firm moved its resources elsewhere.

But it’s coming back, a bit, he said.

Wyoming’s oil and gas jobs hit about 11,600 in June, coinciding with increased drilling activity in the state. And they’ve stayed right there for the last six months, according to state economists.

Many firms that serve the industry are headquartered in Casper, home of machinists and roustabout crews, rig repair shops and maintenance bays. Though development is better than is was, improvements appear to have leveled off. Shops that closed have remained closed. The handful that survived the worst of the downturn are working again. The economy of the city, much like the state as a whole, has contracted, said Jim Robinson, economist with the state’s economic analysis division.

A recent snapshot of Casper’s economic health showed improvements from the year before, but they also show what’s been lost, said

The jobless rate is down, which improves the overall picture, but it also means folks have gone elsewhere, he said.

“The Casper economy is recalibrating itself,” he said. “Part of that adjustment process is that sometimes people leave the area because they can’t find a job.”

And the result is a smaller labor force and a tighter mining sector.

Not all folks have been left out of business. Jerry Blom’s JB Machine and Manufacturing shop was buzzing with the sound of steel being cut on the day before Thanksgiving.

The father and son shop on Yellowstone Highway is one of the few that survived the downturn when business fell flat. They cut employees and made it work from contract to contract.

Things are better, they say.

The company has had a number of jobs with a local company in recent months that have given the shop a boost. JB generally works with small to medium sized independent companies repairing equipment that is run down out in the oil fields.

Those small firms have kept the shop open during the downturn, Blom said.

The price of oil hit $58 bucks a barrel, Blom, noted. He expects it to continue.

“Real slow, like it’s been doing,” he said. “That’s good for us. They start bringing out some rigs that they haven’t used that they need repaired.”

For Brenton, whose businesses serve two different industries, the oil and gas side has seen an uptick. Drilling that’s going on in the Powder River Basin, near Wright, has trickled down to the company that hauls heavy equipment, helps transport rigs from one site to the next.

The company is about five years old. It came into its own before the sharp downturn and made it through by working in other states.

Brenton, like Blom, said he expects a slow return of the oil business, no dramatic upswings or sudden booms.

But there is some frustration for how politics are influencing the wind business, Transportation Partners and Logistics, he said.

The wind tax pushed business out of the state, and it went straight to Colorado and Idaho, he said.

“We have projects that we are servicing all around Wyoming, except Wyoming,” he said.

The business could have a dramatic upswing if politicians would get rid of the tax, or make a promise to keep it at a certain level long term, he said.

Being able to operate outside of Wyoming means the lull in wind development hasn’t hurt his bottom line. But Wyoming’s missing out, he said.

“Would I love to build a railyard in Casper? Yes, I would,” he said. “I would build it tomorrow.”

Follow energy reporter Heather Richards on Twitter @hroxaner

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Heather Richards writes about energy and the environment. A native of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia, she moved to Wyoming in 2015 to cover natural resources and government in Buffalo. Heather joined the Star Tribune later that year.

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