By MIKE McKIBBIN
Monday, April 30, 2007
MEEKER — Finding and housing more than 500 workers to build an oil- shale test project in Rio Blanco County will be a challenge, according to Shell Oil Exploration and Production officials.
The company has three, 160-acre federal leases for oil-shale research, development and demonstration projects and estimates it will need 560 construction workers to build its first test project within the next few years.
Since 1982, Shell has tested a patented underground process that heats shale rock and pumps out the oil on private lands it owns north of De Beque in Rio Blanco County. It plans more tests and research, along with a freezewall to protect groundwater during the heating, until 2016. The company plans to make a decision on a commercial oil-shale project shortly after the next decade.
Shell Sustainable Development Manager Tracy Boyd is in charge of the project’s work force needs and said when Shell contracts with a company to oversee construction, it will provide enough workers.
“We have a lot of gas companies up here that have been really drilling a lot of wells,” he said. “As we get going, we might see them start to cut back a little, so we could see some of their workers move over here.”
Drilling wells for an oil shale test project differs from drilling an oil, gas or even water well, Boyd said, so workers might have to be trained.
“We’re going to be drilling holes to put electric heaters in, so we don’t have to have the well cased with concrete or perforated” to release gas, he said.
Shell spokeswoman Jill Davis said drillers would make up about 35 percent of Shell’s work force, with fewer numbers of carpenters, insulators and pipe fitters, electricians, welders, mechanics, heavy equipment operators and others.
“We think for 350 wells, or holes, for heaters, the freezewall and monitoring wells, we’ll need between 120 to 130 drillers and support people,” she said.
Boyd said the construction work force should peak in 2008-09.
As construction ends, work force numbers gradually drop to around 100 permanent, mostly Shell, employees, Boyd said. He estimates 20 people from that permanent staff will be on-site engineers. Other positions will include drafting technicians and support staff.
Many of the engineers Shell will need are at company headquarters in Houston, Boyd said.
“Most of the demand I see we’re going to have is what I call the operations workers, including the construction workers,” he said. “A lot of those operations positions require a two-year degree in an applied science.”
Shell and area natural-gas producers EnCana Oil and Gas and Williams Production have donated several million dollars to Colorado Mountain College and Colorado Northwestern Community College to expand or start those training and degree programs. Similar programs are planned at Western Colorado Community College.
Joel Journeay coordinates the process technology program at Colorado Northwestern Community College in Rangely. The new program is in its second semester, he said, with 16 students enrolled.
Meanwhile, the number of college students enrolled in engineering and other energy-related degree areas has declined, and many companies worry about a crisis when most of their baby boom workers retire.
Ron Brummett, director of the Colorado School of Mines career center, said energy companies such as Shell employ petroleum, geological, geophysical, electrical, mechanical and civil engineers.
“There’s not a whole lot of petroleum engineers out there, so a lot of companies will pay to train one of their other engineers,” he said.
Demand for all types of engineers exceeds the supply, Brummett said. His school awarded 504 bachelors in engineering and applied science degrees in the last school year.
Shell now has 100 workers living in temporary quarters at its Mahogany Research Project, which can expand to 400 beds.