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Resilient Utahns hold to hope amid oil's boom and bust cycle

Editor's note: This is the second in a two-part series on the rise and fall of the oil industry and its impacts on Utah.

VERNAL — Kathy Deets sees the panic and fear on fresh faces in her office each week as the newly unemployed line up to apply for benefits, scour the computers for jobs and learn the ins and outs of federal assistance.

She has a bright smile for everyone, and her chipper voice is loaded with encouragement, providing mental and emotional booster shots to people trying to ward off despair.

"I tell them when they get to the end of their rope to tie a knot," she said. "That knot may get really big, but they're still hanging onto that rope."

A global market flooded with an oversupply of oil has led to plummeting prices and an exodus of workers from eastern Utah as companies declare bankruptcy, tighten their bottom line and cease exploration waiting for the cost of a barrel of oil to rise. Residents of the Uinta Basin are feeling it keenly, with businesses closing down week by week and others struggling to survive. Families are figuring out which bills to pay, the ones they can let go, and seeing their homes in foreclosure.

But there are solutions to the problems and ways to overcome the downturn.

Deets, an employment counselor in the Vernal office of the Utah Department of Workforce Services, said the agency is working closely with those who are out of a job — from surveyors and construction workers to waitresses and truck drivers.

The agency has a two-week, 80-hour employment boot camp that is free to people who want to learn how to build a better resume, submit catchy job applications, perform better in job interviews and network to find employment.

Bob Gilbert, the office's manager, said the program helps give participants confidence and skills to break into the job market — even if it means leaving the field they are used to, which is likely given the drop in the price of oil.

Gilbert can relate to what workers in the oil and gas industry are going through. He transferred from a job in the basin to Oklahoma during the 1980s and was laid off.

"It shatters your life."

But it can be temporary. Gilbert's office is all about rebuilding, putting those pieces back together.

If clients need to send an application somewhere, mine for jobs at a computer or need help applying for state food assistance, it all happens in this office.

"We're kind a one-stop shop," Deets said.

For Uinta Basin natives who've spent their career in the oil and natural gas fields, the prospect of having to relocate for a job may not be palatable, but Gilbert said it is the reality.

"We are just a little pocket of the state and the rest of the state is doing really well," Gilbert said. "We try to help them tap into that more."

Larry H. Miller dealerships held a recruiting fair last month in Vernal, looking to hire 70 people to work in sales, Gilbert said. A construction company based in St. George and working on solar projects was in the office Feb 26.

"They were looking for construction workers," he said. "There were 60 people at the door at 8 in the morning."

In the basin, hiring remains steady for those in the health care field and education jobs will experience an uptick as this school year starts to wind down, he said.

"There are still people hiring," he said.

Hope for a job, and hope for paycheck, then, is not something that has been completely doused in the struggling economy.

Cameron Todd, president and chief executive officer of Canada-based U.S. Oil Sands, slowed the pace of his project in the basin, which will be the country's first commercial oil sands operation. He's kept his 100 workers, but two major contractors who went out of business forced the company to dial back activity.

He believes the price of oil will come back at a reasonable price per barrel.

"When it was a $100 a barrel, we thought $80 was too low," he said. "Now, people would be thrilled if we could see $50."

Todd said he believes the price of oil went too high, and now companies and communities are feeling the pain.

"Small towns feel it more acutely. Calgary has the highest unemployment they have had in years and years."

U.S. oil prices hit a four-week high last Friday at $34.13 a barrel, but it is still not a number that is promising enough to spur any new signficant activity in the oil fields.

Jeffrey Barrett, deputy director of the Utah Office of Energy Development, said some companies are still using some of their resources to drill new wells, but they're capping them so they don't produce.

When the market returns, he said they will be well positioned to take advantage of the increased prices.

His office is working with local and state government in the basin to help them diversify their economy.

While Utah state government coffers have taken a hit, he said it isn't having nearly the impact of states like Alaska or North Dakota, where so much of the state budget revenues are derived from oil and gas production.

"The economy of the state is diversified enough and healthy enough that a major hit in oil and gas does not quite throw the state off the rails, which is a good thing."

Over time, too, Barrett said local governments in the basin has built some resiliency into their budgets to better weather the tough times.

"One thing we have seen in those counties is that they have developed local municipal governments that are deeper. They are better staffed on the economic development side and they are really mobilized to find other opportunities — from outdoor recreation to other industrial activities."

Observers, too, point out that the numbers of the decline may be drastic, but it was because the "boom" years also created frenzied job growth and economic development that is tough for those on the Wasatch Front to envision.

"It's crazy," Deets said, recalling the boom time. "There are not enough bodies to fill the jobs. I had someone from the restaurant call me and beg me to send over anyone, as long they were upright and breathing."

So with the rise comes an inevitable fall.

"They're always looking for the next boom and holding their breath against the bust," Barrett said.

For now, people are helping each other, reaching out and hanging on. There's local canned food drives to keep the local pantry stocked, and social media is lit up with trades of services and goods — bartering that now has an extensive reach thanks to the Internet.

Alisha Gowen, director of the domestic violence victims advocacy program in Uintah County, said a housing complex cut rent by $250 a month to help people stay in their homes. A local gym is urging people to come in and work off their stress, even if they can only afford to spend a dollar for a membership.

"There is a lot of generosity to help people through, there is that connection with people here because you know you have lived through these tough times before."

Vernal's City Manager, Ken Bassett, echoed that sentiment.

"That is the one thing about this is that you see the goodness in people come out. Neighbors helping neighbors, opening their doors."

Todd said as painful as this economic collapse of oil is for communities and companies, it's a ritual that is part of being in the commodity business.

"We in the oil industry and these communities have faced this before," he said. "It is not the last one and it does not make it hurt any less. It does give you confidence that it will change and you will pass through the other side all right."


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