When thinking about the heights of the oil industry boom that spanned the twentieth century, what comes to mind for many Americans is an image of the classic pipe-smoking early-1900s industrialist resembling Daniel Plainview from There Will Be Blood, as he travels throughout Texas in search of property owners who may sell oil-rich land on the cheap. While that may be how the business operated during the earlier years, there came a point when individual, land-owning“oilmen” either reached the echelon of John D. Rockefeller or considered selling. Regardless, that era largely led into a new one, which featured fewer, yet larger, oil businesses.
However, oil wells were temporary ventures. Eventually, the underground pool would dry up and new wells would be found. Because of the nonstop demand for new, untapped oil-rich land, landmen were never out of work, and the job became the go-to profession for salesmen who wanted an alternative to the typical routes of college or trade school.
Another seismic shift in the petroleum industry has changed the status quo again. Renewables have gradually become a larger part of the sector and this time it is the landmen who are incentivized to join the growing industry. Gone are the days of hardworking new entrants to the oil industry poring over courthouse records in search of property-owners unaware of the black gold beneath their feet.
Unlike petroleum drills, renewable operations with windmills and solar panels draw from energy sources that are virtually infinite, and the land is rarely given up by the clean energy companies. This has decreased demand for new properties and for landmen. One silver lining is that those who remain in the industry have done so because they are extremely capable.
For Jonathan Click, a growing renewables business has provided an opportunity to land on his feet while continuing his work as landmen. “If it wasn’t for solar, I wouldn’t be a landman right now,” said Click, who had previously secured leases for petroleum companies for fifteen years in the Houston area. Armed with an economics degree from the University of Houston, Click is undeterred by the industry shift that has left less qualified landmen looking elsewhere for work. “Minerals research is minerals research, it doesn’t matter if they’re putting a zoo on top of the land,” he said.
And it isn’t just the landmen who are able to take their petroleum experience into the solar and wind sectors. Projects like Lightsource BP’s Impact Solar operation look to create jobs in the area, mainly hiring the same local Texans who worked on petroleum operations. “No question, we are getting workers moving over from oil and gas,” says Kevin Smith, Lightsource CEO. “A lot of the oil and gas skills are applicable to solar.” The $250 million project in Lamar County has 320 workers, over 80 percent of which were hired from the nearby area.
The prospect of oil wells drying up has always been on the distant horizon. At some point, every bit of oil that could be extracted from the earth would be used up, and the transition towards well-paying renewable energy jobs could offers thousands of landmen – and other oil industry workers – new lines of related work. Solar, wind, and other renewables are the fastest-growing energy sector in the country, and within a decade should begin to outnumber employment in oil and gas. In fact, by the end of 2021, as many as 1 million Texas households are expected to be powered by solar energy.