'I do it for the money'
The weather can be harsh, and life in a military-style man camp tough, but the money and the sense of pride keeps workers in the field.
PINEDALE, WYO. (CNNMoney.com) -- Working on a drill rig in western Wyoming must be a bit like working on the surface of the moon.
It's cold, some days it doesn't get above 30 below. The hours are long - 12 hours on, 12 hours off, for two weeks straight. And accommodations are often company-provided "man camps" - military-style barracks in or near the oil and gas fields.
And then there's the landscape itself, which when viewed from an oil platform, is deceptively barren, brown and lifeless.
The brown sagebrush blends into the brown dirt and rock, giving the place the feel of an extra-terrestrial mining colony. Nothing seems to grow taller than two feet. All plant and animal life is dwarfed by the steel derricks and the fields of oil and gas tanks.
But despite all that, when asked why the roughnecks work here, their answer is simple.
"I do it for the money," said 26-year old Jeff VanGundy, a native of nearby Riverton, Wyo., who's been working on drill rigs since graduating high school.
VanGundy is a driller on a rig in the Jonah field, a prolific natural gas field in the Western part of Wyoming.
He get's paid $32.50 an hour to monitor a bank of complex gauges inside the control room of a drilling rig, making sure the drill doesn't get jammed up and avoiding an explosion. With the help of two colleagues, they use joy sticks to maneuver steel drill pipe in place weighing several tons.
"I'd be making $13 an hour to minimum wage" doing other typical jobs in this section of Wyoming, like working as a ranch hand, he said.
Drill rigs have gotten much more high tech from the days when a crew of men worked on a an oil-slick drill floor and wrangled the steel pipe in place.
"We always had to worry about getting fingers smashed, broken arms, or whatever," said Carl Grove, a 40-year drilling veteran, from behind the controls of a nearby rig.
The steel drill bores and pipes, measuring around 40 feet long, are loaded off a flat bed truck and pushed onto the drilling floor by a mechanical wedge.
From there, they're moved to a vertical position by an elevator, then attached to the drilling mechanism by another robotic arm, known as a iron derrick hand. The pipe is then screwed together by another machine, known as the iron roughneck.
Only one human works on the floor, guiding and lubricating the pipes, about everything else is controlled remotely by three men in the control room - known as the doghouse.
Once the drill pipe is in place, it can get drilled into the earth. In this case, over two miles deep. It will take Grove and his crew roughly 16 days to drill the two miles down.
Grove works for the Canadian energy company EnCana, which holds most of the leases in the Jonah Field. Jonah supplies over 1.5% of all the natural gas used in the United States, and is one of the most productive natural gas fields in the country.
EnCana will spend nearly a million dollars to drill this one well and another million to bring it online, but the gas from that well should offset the drilling costs in less than a year.
EnCana hopes the wells will produce gas economically for 40 to 50 years, although with each passing year the amount of gas will decline and the cost of maintaining the wells will rise.
With the high price of steel, the cost of laying pipe has doubled. And the other equipment isn't cheap either. A simple drill bit, which is little bigger than a football, can cost upwards of $30,000.
When this well is done, they'll be on to the next one. EnCana has so far drilled over 700 wells on this piece of land, and has plans for 750 more.
But just because the drilling is more mechanized doesn't mean it's easy work, and the higher pay doesn't equal a comfy lifestyle.
In addition to the harsh weather, some workers paint a picture of life in the man camps that isn't exactly posh.
"You're bunking with 60 people, and everyone goes back to the same shower room, the same bathroom," said Bob Hatfield, a veteran oil field worker who stayed in man camps back in the 1980's. "I gave that up years ago, that's for the young guys."
Hatfield, who manages a trucking company that hauls equipment in and out of the fields, now prefers to live in an actual town, even if his weekly commute is 500 miles and costs him $75 a day in gas.
"There's no place to stay, and it's a long ways in Wyoming from anywhere."
There's also the issue of what type of people work this job.
The industry has made an effort to clean up its ruffian image from the last oil boom in the 1970's - when some said rampant substance abuse, foul tempers and accidents made the oil fields an uninviting place to work.
Nowadays, the more sophisticated equipment requires more skilled workers to run it, and the companies have enacted strict drug and alcohol polices with mandatory, random testing and "one-strike-you're-out" rules.
Still, tales of drug and alcohol use persist. Statewide drunk driving arrests rose 10% in 2007, an increase officials blamed in part on transient workers.
One former oil field worker, who declined to give his name because he was again seeking employment in the industry, said cases of beer and discarded needles can still be found in the ditches of the dirt roads leading out to the fields.
One of his co-workers, he said, had shaved off all his body hair in an effort to avoid drug detection. When dealing with moving pieces of steel weighing in the tons in what can be, quite literally, an explosive situation, the safety implications are obvious.
"I'm not worried about what I do, I'm worried about what the dumbass next to me is doing," said the worker. "This one guy's got a big middle finger tattooed on the back of his shaved head. That's the kind of people we get."
Those people may exist, but VanGundy and his crew certainly didn't fit that bill.
He and he and his colleagues seemed to take their job - drilling pipe in the ground - quite seriously.
Asked what he likes most about his job, he smiled and said sarcastically, "My tool pusher," referring to his boss, a gruff, imposing man standing nearby, who another worker referred to as "the guy who yells a lot."