Life on the Shale

By John MacCormack
San Antonio Express-News

CARRIZO SPRINGS — A few years ago, Frankie Gonzalez was working marginal jobs and running with the wrong crowd in his small South Texas hometown of San Diego. Now he’s among the many oil field workers cashing in on the gusher known as the Eagle Ford Shale.

“I started out in the wash pit, washing trucks. I worked concrete for three years. Now I’m an equipment operator. I run the hydrator,” said Gonzalez, 27, who works for a major hydraulic fracturing company, but spends little time with his family.

“My wife doesn’t like the hours, but she’s happy for what I bring home. I expect to make over $100,000 this year. The oil field is a great place,” he said.

The richest gas and oil play ever in South Texas is rapidly changing a region where historically wages were low and opportunities were few, and which promising young people tried to escape as soon as possible.

The boom has also blown up all the old economic realities, as oil and gas companies are pouring billions into the region to tap the sweet hydrocarbon lode found in a shale formation beneath two dozen counties.

Ranchers who once scraped by on bony cattle and seasonal deer leases have become millionaires. New motels, restaurants and other businesses are making local entrepreneurs rich.

In the oil field, drill-site consultants can make $1,500 a day. Youths without special skills or college degrees can earn six-figure incomes by working 90-hour weeks in sometimes rough conditions.

But as every oil field veteran knows, there is a harsh tradeoff, beyond the grueling labor. Some men work hundreds of miles from their families, others live in primitive conditions or face the real risk of being maimed.

“You have no life. It’s basically work, sleep, work, sleep, and when you do go home, you sleep,” said Carlos Garza, 36, who drives a fluid truck and rarely sees his four kids in Mission, just two hours away.

“Sometimes we’re 30 hours on location. I haven’t seen my house in the daytime in two weeks,” said Garza, who bunks in Asherton.

But the lure of big checks is still bringing waves of workers. In Dimmit County, population 10,000 before the boom, more than 1,000 oil field jobs were added in 2011. Around the 20 Eagle Ford Shale counties, at least 7,000 jobs have been added in two years.

“When we do hiring events, we draw candidates from all over the state. We had one individual drive all the way from El Paso for a job fair,” said Betty Sifuentes, director of Work Force Programs for the region.

“The average wage for a driver is $25 an hour. Some pay by the mile, others by the trip. For a roughneck, it’s about $16 an hour. For entry-level positions, they are depleting the workers from restaurants and retail,” she said.

Cleo Bustamante, who owns several restaurants, is a prime example.

“I’ve got two carloads coming in from Eagle Pass every day to fill my positions at Church’s Chicken in Carrizo Springs,” he said.

‘Man camps’

The massive influx of workers is causing housing and labor shortages, traffic congestion, increased crime and new infrastructure demands.

“I’d say the population of Asherton has at least doubled in the last two years. We have 10 to 15 RV parks, two ‘man camps’ with a third being built, and a motel being built,” said Ralph Cordova.

Cordova, 27, a city councilman in this once dirt-poor city south of Carrizo Springs, quit his job at the Toyota plant in San Antonio for one in the oil patch.

“I haul fuel for a petroleum company. I’m doing much better,” he said.

Around the region, dozens of man camps — large clusters of mobile homes equipped with bathrooms and a mess hall — have suddenly materialized.

Hundreds of often-primitive roadside RV parks have also sprouted on freshly graded caliche lots. There are now more than 60 in Dimmit County alone, up from just two a few years ago.

The more fortunate workers such as Gonzalez, who was staying at the Mesquite Lodge, a newly opened camp, sleep on clean sheets and eat good meals.

In the evenings, they can play horseshoes, watch movies on the patio or sip a beer around a campfire, all behind a security fence.

But smaller companies cannot cough up the $125 to $160 a day to house and feed a man at a good man camp. Some workers, who have to find their own housing, stay in everything from horse trailers to converted shipping containers to mobile units parked by the rig site.

Still others are jammed into single-family houses being rented by the bed for $100 or $150 a week, or even “hot bedding,” in which two men working opposite shifts share a bunk.

Far worse conditions used to be the norm, say the old-timers, who recall sleeping in shacks, trucks or even empty tanks.

“The good-old days were the hard-old days. If you lived at the drilling rig, you lived in a little room with six or eight guys on top of you. You ate whatever you could bring out there, and you took a shower every three days,” said Alan Roberts, 53, who has worked offshore from Norway to Africa.

And, he said, many find the cost is more than they care to pay.

“The money may sound astounding, but put on a pair of boots and come get you some of it. See if you like it. And you’d better hope that you have the same amount of people there when you get up as when you went to bed,” he added.

The old stereotype of the heavy-drinking, drug-using, reckless roughneck with a shady record is also pretty much part of the colorful past.

Companies are now far more safety-conscious and less tolerant of misbehavior. Most do background checks, provide training and have zero tolerance for drug use or alcohol abuse.

Leo Lopez, 54, who began in the oil field as a teenager, doesn’t miss the old days.

“When I started it was $3.15 an hour for a roughneck. Now I’m making $160,000 a year with no education. I can’t complain,” said Lopez, a tool pusher, or drill crew boss, from Mission.

“Back then, there was no safety, not even hard hats. Now we’re treated much better and we don’t work as hard. Now they give you the equipment you need,” he said.

“I worked at this all my life. I like what I do,” he added, while eating roast chicken with his crew at the tailgate of his gleaming 2012 Denali HD pickup.

Big bucks, hard life

But despite the good money and other improvements, some things don’t change — like wearing fire-retardant overalls in 115-degree heat or going three days without proper sleep. And not everyone can take it.

“A lot of the new guys aren’t ready for this kind of environment. Last summer, a good 10-15 guys quit,” said Gabriel Villarreal, 23, of Alice, a safety officer for a hydraulic fracturing crew.

But, he said, if you can handle the isolation, the pressure and the hard work, it beats the alternative, hands down.

“Before this, I was selling shoes in Mall del Norte in Laredo. I think to myself, what would I be doing if I weren’t doing this? Working at McDonald’s? I’d be lost,” he said.

“And once you get used to the money, it’s hard to get out. My wife wouldn’t have Coach or Louis Vuitton purses, and I’ve got to keep her happy,” Villarreal said.

But for every guy buying designer duds for the woman in his life, there’s another trying to feed the kids. For everyone eating a rib-eye at a comfortable man camp, others are living in old trailers and scratching out a living.

Juan Garcia, 34, and Jorge Castillo, 24, both from San Juan in the Rio Grande Valley, do the dirty work, including digging trenches, washing pits, building fences and moving rigs. They earn $13 an hour and pay $400 a month to live in a FEMA trailer.

But when there is no work, there is no money, and the bills and burdens continue to mount.

“Everyone thinks it’s a good life, the oil field, but not until you get in do you find out it’s not all gravy. I’ve been here three days. I haven’t made any money,” said Garcia, who before this drove a tow truck in the Valley town of Pharr.

Being away brings new problems, particularly if the money isn’t flowing as expected.

“It creates marital stress. She calls and says, ‘I need you to come help with the kids,’ but I can’t go,” Garcia said. And even when he’s with his family, he’s never certain how long it will last.

“You give up all your rights. We’re on call 24-7 even when we’re home. If they call, you’ve got to come back,” he said.

The two men talked two weeks ago while washing stained work clothes at a laundry in Carrizo Springs, waiting for the call to go back to work.

On the bulletin board was an offer of a $1,500 sign-on bonus plus $22 an hour for truck drivers. But it was a false hope. The job required a commercial license and hazardous materials experience.

Castillo, who hoped to become a crew leader, echoed a now-familiar refrain.

“People see we make money, but they don’t see the hard life. There’s no time to do anything for yourself. It’s work, sleep. Simple as that,” Castillo said as he folded fire-retardant clothing he bought at a Valley flea market.

And getting one of those higher-paying jobs is a tricky proposition.

“I’m keeping my eyes open, but it’s like a mafia. It’s enclosed, like a family. If you don’t know someone, you ain’t gonna get in,” he said.

A few days later, Garcia was laid off and Castillo was promoted to crew leader.