Oil and Gas: Temp jobs show need for diverse economy

When members of the West Virginia Press Association gathered in Charleston last week to hear from lawmakers and lobbyists during the group’s annual Legislative Breakfast, one of the topics of discussion was the oil and natural gas industry — and, in particular, pipelines.

State Senate Minority Leader Roman Prezioso, D-Marion, talked briefly about his surprise, back in December, at discovering the “man camps” (plots of land filled with the mobile trailers in which relatively transient oil and gas industry workers live) he was accustomed to seeing in his communities had been cleared. After at first hoping many of them had simply headed home for an extended break over the holidays, Prezioso said someone explained to him that, no, movements to stop work on disputed pipelines had meant those workers had nothing left to do. They had packed up and moved on to the next job.

It is a story that demonstrates just how temporary part of this alleged economic boom from oil and natural gas really is, in the Mountain State. Later, when asked just HOW temporary, Independent Oil and Gas Association Executive Director Charlie Burd, of Vienna, acknowledged this wave of construction jobs might last about three years.

Burd, while remaining confident that “they will continue to assess and build new pipelines,” said “So let’s hope we replace pipeline jobs with downstream jobs,” referring to projects such as the still-elusive crack plant project, other petrochemical possibilities or even the dreamed-about Appalachian Storage Hub.

Anne Blankenship, executive director of the West Virginia Oil and Natural Gas Association, took a different approach:

“There’s no denying that construction jobs are temporary,” she said. “But property taxes are on pipelines every single year once they are built.

“Even though construction jobs are transient, property taxes are still going to be significant.”

Fair enough. But it is worth thinking about whether we still should be talking in West Virginia about oil and natural gas JOBS, rather than shifting our dependence on extraction industry employment to look for ways to bring in a diversified slate of employers. Maybe some of that property tax money flowing into the school districts fortunate enough to receive it will produce a new generation of well educated Mountaineers who have been taught to consider just such possibilities.

In the meantime, though, be cautious about thinking about the oil and natural gas industry as a limitless supplier of work for local residents. As the swift abandonment of some of those man camps demonstrates, a significant number of those jobs (and the people spending the paychecks from them) can disappear in the blink of an eye.