By Rebecca Elliott
Carter Collum used to spend mornings shoulder to shoulder with competitors in the record rooms of East Texas courthouses, hunting for the owners of underground natural-gas deposits. At night, he made house calls, offering payments and royalties for permission to drill.
Mr. Collum worked as a landman, tracking the owners of oil and gas trapped in rock layers thousands of feet beneath the earth’s surface and getting their signatures, a job about as old as the American petroleum industry.
He started around 2006, a couple of years before the shale boom took off and pushed prices for drilling rights in East Texas to more than $15,000 an acre from around $250. Successful landmen, racing to knock on doors ahead of rivals, earned six-figure incomes.
“It was kind of like the Wild, Wild West,” said Mr. Collum, 39 years old. His predecessors in the field included former President George W. Bush and Aubrey McClendon, the late fracking pioneer who co-founded Chesapeake Energy Corp.
These days, the jobs are going dry. Landmen, after riding the highs of the boom, face weakened demand for fossil fuels and investor indifference to shale companies after years of poor returns. Instead of oil and gas fields, some landmen are securing wind and solar fields, spots where the sun shines brightest and the wind blows hardest.
The difference is shale wells eventually empty and, in good times, that keeps landmen on the prowl for new land and new contracts. Wind and solar energy never run out, limiting demand for new leases as well as landmen.
Renewable energy jobs are growing in the U.S., but last year roughly three-quarters of them were construction-related, according to consulting firm Wood Mackenzie. Even after last year’s oil-field job losses, U.S. oil and gas production employment is likely to outnumber renewable energy jobs for roughly another decade, according to the firm’s analysis.
Tami Hughes, one of the relatively few female landmen, contracts for an international oil company divesting U.S. assets. In 2019, there were more than 100 landmen and support staff on the divestment project, she said. Now, there are eight.
“If this job ends, I probably wouldn’t be able to get anything else until the price of oil and gas rises,” Ms. Hughes, 62, said.
Mr. Collum remembers the good times, when shale companies couldn’t find new deposits fast enough. They employed small armies of landmen who tracked down nieces, nephews and grandchildren who owned the rights to underground minerals, sometimes unbeknown to owners of the land above.
Mr. Collum had his own epiphany around 2006 while working as an assistant pro at the Peach Tree Golf Club in East Texas during a tournament for a group of high-spirited landmen. At his parents’ house the next night, Mr. Collum asked his dad what landmen did.
“Anybody that could breathe basically at that point could be a landman,” Mr. Collum said. Weeks later, he joined the ranks.
He spent some of his early years working the Haynesville, a natural gas field that stretches from East Texas to northwest Louisiana. As a contract landman for El Paso Corp., Mr. Collum would get assigned a region to lease and a rough budget.
Typically, he started by identifying either the largest tract of land in that area or the easy pickings, a family he already knew, for instance. He conducted title searches with a courthouse computer and record books, tracing who had bought, sold or inherited those mineral rights over the years.
Often, dozens of landmen were in the records room doing the same thing. If you got up from your seat to, say, pull another worn index book from the shelf, you left your yellow legal pad face down to prevent the next guy from rubbernecking, Mr. Collum said.
Then he chased leads. Negotiations were often done at a family’s kitchen table. Owners of oil or gas mineral rights typically get an upfront payment plus a percentage of the revenue. Mr. Collum focused his pitch on the likelihood his company would drill wells that would deliver royalties and financial security. “I tried to sell the future,” he said.
Starting around 2015, landman work began declining in an oil-price plunge that forced many shale companies to cut back. Work slowed further when Covid-19 swept the world, weakening oil demand and again forcing companies to retrench.
The U.S. oil-and-gas industry has been one of the hardest hit in the pandemic, shedding nearly 75,000 jobs last year, or roughly 19% of positions, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data on oil-and-gas extraction and associated services. Jobs involving evaluating and securing new drilling locations, such as landmen and geologists, were among the first cut when companies scaled back.
“There’s not much hope in it, really,” said Garet Edwards, a 37-year-old landman based in Oklahoma. “Oil and gas seems to be a never-ending battle.”
Mr. Edwards belonged to a generation of Oklahoma State University graduates who jumped into the shale land rush. He recalled the day he drove more than seven hours from Oklahoma to New Mexico to persuade a retired preacher to sign.
The deal allowed Devon Energy Corp. to edge out Chesapeake for control of a prized drilling area. Last June, Chesapeake, once the second-largest U.S. natural gas producer, filed for bankruptcy protection. Devon agreed last fall to join forces with WPX Energy Inc., a shale-patch union engineered to weather the pandemic price rout.
He, too, thinks back to the boom days. “You didn’t let the grass grow under your feet too long,” Mr. Edwards said. Now, he said, “You can step into any of these little old courthouses, and you might be the only one that’s been there all week.”
For two years, he contracted for a renewable-energy developer, signing up landowners to host wind turbines and solar panels. In 2018, he switched sides to represent landowners in renewable and fossil-fuel energy deals. Even that has slowed. He is considering part-time work selling insurance to ranchers.
Employment data for landman jobs isn’t broken out by the Labor Department. Membership in the American Association of Professional Landmen tumbled around 20% last year. The organization recently expanded its definition of landman work to cover renewable energy.
“For folks that even know what a landman is, you immediately think oil and gas. And over time, that’s not what you’re going to think,” said Lester Zitkus, president of the landman association and a Gulfport Energy Corp. executive.
Lee Grubb, an Oklahoma-based landman, said he had around 10 friends working as landmen in 2014, when federal data showed U.S. oil and gas employment at its highest level in recent decades. Only two remain, including Mr. Edwards. The other works for a renewable energy company.
“It’s kind of a shocker,” said Mr. Grubb, 39. “It was one of the hottest oil and gas areas in the world for a while, and there’s nothing going on out here now.”
Mr. Grubb travels the Southwest persuading ranchers to sign over land for wind and solar farms for Enel Green Power, a unit of the Italian utility Enel SpA. He earns more on average in renewables than he did in oil and gas, where he could go a year or two with little or no land work when prices were low, he said.
He also travels more, clocking around 60,000 miles a year making house calls. Many of the people he visits are more familiar with oil and gas than wind or solar power. Part of his job is educational. Wind and solar leases generally offer less money up front but steadier payments that could stretch for decades, he said.
“You’re trying to get everyone’s minds wrapped around that,” Mr. Grubb said.
Rick DePriest didn’t need much convincing before he and his wife signed up about a decade ago for wind turbines to be built on their roughly 450-acre property southwest of Oklahoma City. Together, the two turbines bring them about $20,000 a year, money the DePriests plan to use to supplement their retirement. “Low-impact income,” Mr. DePriest said.
Jim Stout, a landman based in the Pittsburgh area, was laid off in late 2019 from EQT Corp. , the largest U.S. natural gas producer. Mr. Stout, 42, spent more than a year piecing together jobs that included selling real estate and building storage facilities. His income, he said, fell by about half.
“The idea is don’t ever rely on being in one job again,” Mr. Stout said.
This month, he started as a full-time contract landman, helping identify and secure land for solar farms. Opportunities for higher pay in fossil fuels make returning one day to the industry attractive, he said, but “it’s hard to see when the next boom phase in oil and gas might be.”
U.S. benchmark oil prices have rebounded to around $60 a barrel from a pandemic low of negative $37.63 last April, spurring companies to deploy additional drilling rigs and resume some hiring.
Yet employment in U.S. oil and gas production has likely peaked, according to Wood Mackenzie. The firm expects industry jobs to increase some 18% from 2021 through 2027, to around 424,000 positions, before slowly declining as technology improves.
Renewable energy and related fields are forecast to attract roughly 60% of the world’s energy investment from 2020 through 2030, according to the International Energy Agency, up from around 48% from 2015 through 2019.
When shale driller Marathon Oil Corp. laid off Mr. Collum last spring, he figured another oil-and-gas job would be hard to come by. He began taking online real estate classes, but he found a landman job at a small firm in his hometown of Tyler, Texas.
The company, Vernon E. Faulconer Inc., operates existing wells rather than drilling new ones, and Mr. Collum works mostly from his desk. He was recently scouting for properties to dispose of wastewater that is produced along with natural gas.
He worries about finishing his career as a landman. “Man, I’ve got three girls,” ages 8 and under, Mr. Collum said. “If they came to me and said, ‘Hey, Daddy, I want to do what you do.’ Would I steer them away from it? Yeah, I probably would.”