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Wold Drilling

The Nabors X21 rig operates at a Wold Energy Partners well site March 16 north of Rolling Hills in Converse County. Converse County is poised for a massive oil and gas development, but experts say most of the influx of people will be in Casper.

Alan Rogers, Star-Tribune

Conventional wisdom says every rig worker or roughneck sweating in Wyoming’s oilfields represents about two jobs in a shop or service yard around town. Though not an official estimate, jobs in the field mean jobs in Casper, the state’s oil and gas service hub. So though a massive oil and gas project proposed in Converse County may be outside the central Wyoming city’s boundaries, that development would likely pour jobs into Casper in the coming years.

The Converse County project spans 1.5 million acres, lying just north of Interstate 25 between Glenrock and Douglas. Five major oil and gas firms have proposed the venture, which could lead to about 5,000 wells and $28 billion in revenue. The comment period of the draft environmental impact statement closed last week. A final decision on whether the project can move forward is expected out by early 2019.

In Casper, where nearly 1,000 residents left for greener pastures a year ago, new jobs and demand for local businesses are a boon. But it’s not clear that the Converse County project is fully anticipated in Casper yet. The price of oil and the desire to drill will play a role in how the proposal rolls out. And if a boom happens, well, Casper can handle it.

“It will definitely have impacts on Casper,” said Natrona County Commissioner Paul Bertoglio. “Casper’s gone up and down with the boom-bust cycle. It’s nothing we haven’t seen before.”

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The Converse County project alone could generate as many as 8,000 jobs over 10 years, but it’s not the only industry activity going on the Powder River Basin east of Casper. New technology and a steady price of oil have already encouraged more development in the area and with a surprising number of wells planned.

The Wyoming Oil and Gas Conservation Commission reported recently that it has 10,000 pending applications for permits to drill, the most the state agency has had in recent memory. Most of those seeking drilling permits are looking at Converse County, and a number of current drilling operations are less than 30 minutes from Casper.

Wyoming’s oil and gas industry needs a hub to service that activity. Given its central location in the state, Casper has long been that location. The Converse County project will likely put pressure on Douglas, a service town within Converse County, but much of the impact will be in Casper, and many of the workers will likely live in the larger city, according to the Bureau of Land Management’s socioeconomic analysis of the project.

That means a demand for things like housing and an increase in use for public services like sanitation and wear on city roads.

City Manager Carter Napier said the city is ready for potential population growth, whether a sudden boom from the oil fields or steady ramp up.

It’s recently upgraded its water system, has excess capacity at its landfill and has a lot of available housing.

“From those kinds of basic service needs, I would say we’ve taken the investments over the years and put them toward being able to accommodate a city that has (a population of) 60,000-plus,” he said.

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Casper and Natrona County were hit hard by the downturn. Some small service shops failed as the demand for their business stalled out. Industry workers left the state looking for new jobs.

For some, the potential from the oil fields will heal some of that damage and return what was lost.

“Those jobs to us are very important,” said Bob Hopkins, city councilman in Casper. “We lost a number of people over the last few years in the Casper metro area and to have some of those jobs back, I’d be tickled pink.”

Each of those oil and gas jobs in the field, whether they are in Converse County or Natrona means two jobs back in town, he said.

For Casper-based service companies, the oil and gas project would be welcome. But if it came in a boom, they’d suffer to meet it.

Over the downturn, Graco Oilfield Services cut its Casper staff by more than half. The company is based in Texas but has a presence in a number of national oil plays, including Wyoming’s.

“Right now we are shorthanded,” said district manager Tom Meier. “We’ve got enough to cover what we’re doing. If things got busy, we’re dang sure going to need to hire people.”

A number of companies servicing the Wyoming oil and gas industry are reporting similar straits. As activity picks up, companies are struggling to fill positions, from workers with a valid commercial driver’s license, to rig workers with enough downhole experience to be an asset to local teams.

Still few are anticipating the sudden boom in relation to the Converse County project. They are busy keeping up with the current uptick in activity.

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Though the Bureau of Land Management studied the oil and gas project from the point of view of 5,000 wells over 10 years, it may not play out that way, said Bertoglio, the county commissioner.

“I personally take some of those with a grain of salt,” he said.

The reality will probably be more gradual growth, he said. For the moment, places like Texas continue to capture the main interest of major players, he said.

That slows down the development of projects like the Converse County proposal, as does the complicated regulatory environment in Wyoming.

The converse County project is largely on private land, but would drill into federally managed minerals. More red tape is required in Wyoming for each of those projected 5,000 wells, he said.

“It’s just going to be a slow build,” he said.

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When the last oil and gas boom hit Douglas, it created a multitude of problems for the town. Much smaller than Casper, county officials were dealing with a sudden influx of population, demand on city services and an increase in crime.

Those downsides are something to think about, said Napier, Casper’s city manager.

“There’s lots of dynamics to pay attention to when the oil play is on the rise and things are back online,” he said.

Sudden growth means more jobs and hotels and apartments are filled. Restaurants are full. On the other hand, crime can increase when people have more disposable income, he said.

“(It’s a) work hard play hard kind of a thing,” he said. “That’s how people do it in a lot of parts of our state.”

That is already at play in Casper, Napier noted.

Compared to March of last year, arrests for driving under the influence have shot up by 100 percent. Mills arrests are up as well.

“There are those societal impacts that we have to pay attention to as well,” he said of a potential oil and gas project. “In a lot of ways, we’re in good shape. In others, we still have some work to do.”

Follow energy reporter Heather Richards on Twitter @hroxaner

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Energy Reporter

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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