Long after the summer tourists motor home, George and Tammy King will still be hopscotching from one western campground to another.
“It’s a sacrifice. It’s a choice that you make if you want the lifestyle that we lead, the kind of money that we make,” George King said. “If you’re going to make this kind of money, you’ve got to sacrifice and go where the money is.
“That’s why they call us gypsies, or nomads, or whatever. Wherever the work is, that’s where we go.”
King makes nearly six figures as a natural-gas compressor station construction supervisor for Great Bend, Kan.-based Jomax Construction. Even starting gas pipeline welders rake in more than $7,500 a month and work at least 10 months of the year, he said, lounging in the overstuffed leather of the couple’s $100,000 RV trailer.
Although pipeline work has always been lucrative, more work is to be found now than ever before. Pipelines can not be built fast enough, it seems, to export methane from the booming Powder River Basin of northeast Wyoming and southeast Montana.
Dozens of colossal trailers and hefty new pickup trucks, all belonging to pipeline workers, fill one end of a KOA campground west of Douglas.
The campground is near two interstate pipeline projects that will export gas from 10,000 new wells in the region, according to Mickey Steward, who was hired this year as an information officer for the coal-bed methane industry in Wyoming.
“There is no hill you can stand on in the Powder River Basin at night anymore and not see the lights of a compressor station,” she said. “We’re not in the back of beyond anymore. We’re in somebody’s backyard.”
New pipelines are needed because Wyoming’s existing gas pipelines are running at full capacity.
King is expanding a compressor station along a $160-million pipeline Wyoming Interstate Co. is building from east-central Wyoming to northern Colorado. The line will parallel and nearly triple the capacity of a pipeline built just two years ago.
Although Texas has by far the nation’s largest supply of natural gas, Steward believes the Powder River Basin, where gas is siphoned off thick coal seams, could easily become the top-producing area.
“If you’re growing tomatoes for market, you’re going to be the main seller if you can get your tomatoes there, even if your neighbor is growing more tomatoes,” she said.
The pipes are up to an inch thick and a yard wide. Sections as long as a flatbed trailer are welded together, dropped into a trench and buried under the rolling, grassy prairie at a rate of about a mile a day.
If it seems like an easy way to make big money after passing high school shop, consider this: Welders must have their own equipment, a $50,000 investment, and a full-sized pickup truck to haul it.
Also, welders who are not familiar to a contractor have to do a test weld on the job site. The weld must withstand a certain amount of pressure--otherwise, it’s hit the road, Jack.
Then there’s the lifestyle. Pipeliners work in all weather. They move every few weeks to few months and live 10 or 11 months a year in places like KOA campgrounds or small-town motels. Some are union members, but getting work is not guaranteed.
Pipeliners help each other out, though. They spread the word about where the jobs are. Old friends park next to each other and get together for barbecues, said Tammy King, a field office manager for Jomax.
The Kings sold their permanent home in Hemphill, Texas, and bought their triple-glide-out trailer a few years ago. In more than 28 years on the road, it is the most elaborate trailer they have had.
“We made the choice a long time ago to wait until I retire or get done with this type of work--then we’re going to build us a house so we can be there to enjoy it,” King said with a Southern drawl.
Each December they park on land they own in Texas and spend time with their son, a high school senior who lives with his grandmother. It is difficult not seeing more of him, they acknowledge.
The trailer of John Moon--more modest than the Kings'--sits at the edge of the pipeliners’ part of the campground. Over the past year, Moon, of Homeland, Fla., has welded pipelines in Florida, North Carolina, South Carolina and Maine. But he says he is not a gypsy.
“We are the ones now who are in demand,” he said. “There is a crisis.”