Oil Shales & Sands: Massive Job-Creating Machines (BP, HAL, SLB)

Recent reports from North Dakota illustrate just how much demand there is for workers in the Bakken oil and gas fields. Unemployed workers have relatively little trouble finding jobs there, whether on the rigs themselves or at thriving local businesses. And the story is much the same in other areas of the world where oil & gas exploration may be providing the biggest job boom in recent memory.

In the Alberta oil sands as many as 75,000 new workers will be needed in the next few years according to the province’s energy minister.  And Canada would like to import workers from the US to fill some of those jobs.

The Canadian’s motives are not altogether altruistic. Chinese investors in the oil sands expect a pipeline to the west coast, where synthetic crude would be loaded on tankers headed for China and other Asian countries. In order to keep a grip on Chinese investment, Canada needs to get that pipeline built and the country also wants to get moving on the Keystone XL pipeline that would carry synthetic crude from Alberta to the US Gulf coast.

And the demand is just as strong elsewhere around the globe. In Scotland, BP plc (NYSE: BP) plans to hire about 1,000 new workers to develop a 45-million barrel North Sea field. Drillers in the United Arab Emirates also plan to add more than 1,000 new workers.

But the largest demand is likely coming from Brazil, where billions of barrels have been discovered offshore and the state-controlled oil company, Petroleo Brasileiros (NYSE: PBR), or Petrobras, and other companies could add up to 2.5 million new workers by 2020.  The Brazilians plan to use the development of their offshore fields to create an oil field services industry for the country that could then develop fields in other locations around the globe.

Another area that could generate more jobs is shale gas extraction. The US is the only country in the world where the kind of work is being done on a large scale, and potential development in eastern Europe and China could add more jobs at services companies like Halliburton Co. (NYSE: HAL) and Schlumberger Ltd. (NYSE: SLB)

The usual disclaimer about booms and busts should be inserted here. That is, if something is too good to last forever, it won’t. Since posting a peak of about 267,000 jobs in 1982, oil field jobs in the US have fallen to about 177,000 today. But the unemployment problem in the US is immediate and the oil and gas extraction industry has added more than 430,000 jobs in the US since 2006.

Oil field jobs in Canada and overseas may or may not be much immediate help for unemployment in the US. But the sector is booming right now and it’s one place that US companies and workers generally hold an edge. US companies should exploit that edge and do everything they can to make it a barrier.

Paul Ausick