Dispatch From the High Plains

Gas Boom Is Both Boon, Bane for Wyoming County

Sublette County has become the center of natural-gas drilling on federal land in the West. The energy industry drives a seasonal population increase and floods local coffers.
Sublette County has become the center of natural-gas drilling on federal land in the West. The energy industry drives a seasonal population increase and floods local coffers. (By Blaine Harden -- The Washington Post)
By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 6, 2006

PINEDALE, Wyo. -- Sheriff Wayne "Bardy" Bardin, who sweeps up criminal fallout from the hottest energy boom in the Rockies, has noticed something new and nasty on barroom floors in his county.

This being the outback of western Wyoming, the sheriff expects that young men will now and again knock each other down during an evening's drinking. What has alarmed Bardin in recent months is what happens to those boys once they hit the hardwood.

"They're puttin' the boots to 'em when they're down," he said.

Chasing boomtown money, thousands of roughnecks from Texas, Oklahoma and Louisiana have rolled into Sublette County. What they find here is a mountain-ringed stretch of high plains. It's cold, lonesome rangeland where migratory herds of mule deer and pronghorn antelope outnumber the year-round human population by more than 10 to 1. Since there's not much housing fit for families, newcomers tend to leave their wives and children wherever they've come from. They live together in company-built "man camps."

When they go out drinking, they bring a robust oil-patch etiquette to barroom brawls. Their rules countenance the use of a boot to commit criminal assault on a fallen man.

The sheriff has seen more and more of this unsporting behavior in the five years since Pinedale became the epicenter of natural-gas drilling on federal land in the West. More than $4 billion worth of gas was taken out of the ground around here last year, producing record profits for energy companies.

Since the big money began to flow and roughnecks took over the bars, there have been substantial increases in assault, domestic violence, methamphetamine addiction, theft and traffic accidents -- none of which the sheriff's department has the manpower to deal with. A county report found a 94 percent increase in arrests since 2000.

The sheriff says he needs at least 20 deputies to watch over Sublette County, a jurisdiction nearly twice the size of Delaware.

In the summertime its population of roughnecks, truck drivers, builders and tourists swells to between 50,000 and 80,000. Bardin, though, can pay a new deputy no more than $19.50 an hour, not nearly enough to compete with the gas fields, where a half-smart high school graduate with a strong back can get hired for $28 a hour. County government is reluctant to raise the base pay for new deputies. It fears being stuck with an unsustainable payroll when the gas boom goes bust. In the meantime, the sheriff, who last year found about two-thirds the number of deputies he needed to keep the peace, dreads the coming of summer.

Not everyone, of course, is crying in his beer about the money coursing through Sublette County, which has a year-round population of about 6,000. Thanks to the oil and gas industry, young people are no longer fleeing the county to find work, and energy companies now pay 96 percent of all property taxes.

"We have lots of money," said Janet Montgomery, the county assessor. "The numbers are getting really hard to work with nowadays. They are so big."

The assessed value of land leased by oil and gas interests has exploded, from $475 million in 2000 to more than $3 billion this year. The windfall has given Sublette County School District No. 1 more money than it knows what to do with.

"There is nothing these teachers need that they don't have," said Vern McAdams, director of business and finance for the school district, which has about 770 students.

Those teachers have become the highest-paid in Wyoming, with an average income of about $50,000 a year, plus a 10 percent bonus last September and a $1,500 bonus at Christmas.

Students pay 50 cents for breakfast or lunch; all meals are free if they travel for sports or field trips. All 60 of the district's fifth-graders received a new laptop this year, as did all 80 of the district's staff employees. The school swimming pool was aging, so a $16 million aquatic center will be built and paid for in cash out of this year's $25 million windfall.

Next year's windfall is expected to be in excess of $28 million, and McAdams says the school board has not figured out how to spend that money. It seems certain, he said, that the legislature will soon change the Wyoming school funding formula so that much of his district's surplus can be distributed statewide.

In the meantime, McAdams said, "we have to use it or lose it."

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