County Commissioner discusses energy’s challenges
Douglas – Although he’s been a Converse County Commissioner for five years, Jim Willox Jr. says the most significant change he’s seen in the county has come in the last 18 months to two years with the oil and gas play and horizontal drilling.
“The biggest thing from a county standpoint is that it’s going into areas that haven’t had traditional mineral development,” he says. “It’s going into some different areas in the north country, and it’s moving a little farther east.”
The North Platte River divides Converse County into the north and south country, which are marked by agricultural differences.
“The south side is more mountainous, and the north is high plans. The two areas have different winters and different operations,” says Willox.
Willox grew up as the fourth generation on a cow/calf operation south of Douglas.
“We were the second ranch that Wagonhound bought,” he says of the large landowner in southern Converse County. “Ten years ago, as we looked at the agricultural environment, we were looking at the job market and estate planning, and selling was the world’s easiest economic decision and the world’s hardest emotional decision.”
“Converse County has always done well with the mineral industry, but agriculture has always been the staple,” he adds. “Energy is a great supplemental income for those who are getting it. A lot of times agriculture is on the edge, so that can be softened with a royalty payment, which makes it easier to get a new tractor, put in new corrals or develop a new water system.”
Of the energy development, Willox says the county is finding the impact to be the most on the traditional farm to market roads that are becoming heavy industrial.
“I was visiting with a guy who had a daily average traffic load of 40, and he’s talking about putting a gravel pit out there with the potential for 150 vehicles per day. That’s a challenge,” he notes. “From a commissioner’s standpoint, our biggest issue has been roads. We’re trying to get ahead of those and maintain them for traditional users and also recognize the mineral companies have a job to do, as well.”
Of the tax base that will eventually be generated for the good of the county, Willox says it takes 18 months to two years for the taxes to catch up with the impact.
“What they produce in 2011 is taxed in 2012 and paid the end of 2012 or in 2013,” he explains. “There’s also still speculation in the county, so that’s part of the challenge.”
While Campbell County went through coalbed methane and Sublette County has the Jonah Field, Willox says Converse County hasn’t been hit as hard, and is working with the companies to come up with solutions to the development challenges.
In addition to roads, another challenge the county is facing is emergency management.
“An influx of people means an increased call for emergency services. It’s not a perfect science to understand where the workers will be, how they’re here and what their needs will be, but it will put an additional demand on emergency services,” he explains.
He adds that another challenge, with regard to “man camps,” is that Converse County is one of the few in Wyoming without zoning.
“The man camps already exist – they’re just small ones. There are two kinds of man camps – the centralized, located man camp that people traditionally think of, and what we’ve got, which are many man camps, with every rig site having 15 to 20 people living on-site. To date there hasn’t been a major push for a big one. We hear lots of rumors, and there’s lots of discussion,” he says. “Hopefully we’ll develop a mechanism to get the information on where they’re at so we can deal with the emergency services.”
Willox says those emergency services won’t be needed disproportionate to the rest of the county – it’s just a fact of concentrating a group of people.
“The man camps today are different than the man camps of the ‘70s. Many have a zero alcohol policy, and a zero opposite sex visiting. They hot bunk, and these guys are working and getting a couple hours off. They’re working hard and getting paid hard, and the skill level has gone up – there are as many computers on a rig today as there used to be wrenches,“ he comments.
Although the biggest learning curve has come for small acreage owners who are now dealing with mineral leasing, Willox says the larger ag operations are dealing with seismic crews, directional drilling and split estates.
“What the large ag operations are facing is the concentration of activity,” he says. “They want to have a pad and go four directions, and the volume of trucks and product going out is nothing like it’s been prior. Between the frac tanks and production, the traffic is significantly higher even for the people who have dealt with development in the past.”
“We’re not booming, but we’re sure growing, and so far it’s manageable but it’s tight and we’re getting through it,” says Willox of housing and infrastructure. “Between Glenrock and Douglas there are very few rentals, and housing prices are working up, but they’re not back to our highs. The biggest push is for small industrial, for all the companies who want a yard to park their rigs and trucks.”
“Infrastructure wise, Douglas is ok, but we’re a little tight on water. They’re selling gallons and gallons to the frac tanks,” he adds.
Of the future of the county, Willox says it’s all dependent on the energy play.
“Ag continues to be the staple – the steady one that’s been here. Hopefully in this growth cycle we’ll be able to attract some companies that aren’t as closely tied to the mineral industry,” he says. “My crystal ball that I had three years ago doesn’t look anything like what I see today.”
Christy Martinez is managing editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.