From Working in the Oilfield to Mobilizing for Environmental Justice

Miguel Ceballos-Ruiz (center) with activists and Colorado leaders Victoria Raquel Aguilar, Representative Serena Gonzales-Gutierrez, Gina Millan, and Senator Julie Gonzales, (left to right).

Public health and justice remain at the top of our minds, and we stand in solidarity with organizations and individuals fighting systemic racism and violence against Black people, Indigenous people, and people of color. The burden is on us to interrogate injustices in all of our systems, and chart a path toward a future where everyone, regardless of their race or income, can breathe clean air, drink clean water, and work in an industry that doesn’t jeopardize their health. We cannot forget that oil and gas is a dangerous and dirty business. In addition to being a primary source of harmful air pollutants to our communities — including carbon, methane, and volatile organic compounds (ozone precursors) — oil and gas operations are a hazard to our lands, waters, wildlife, and public health with toxic spills, leaks, fires, and explosions occurring every year in Colorado. 

These hazards put Colorado’s workers, residents, environment, and quality of life at risk. To protect the state we love, we are engaging in a number of oil and gas rulemakings to implement the strong reforms outlined in Senate Bill 181. To learn more about what the reforms and rulemakings mean for Colorado, find more information here

At Conservation Colorado, our mobilization manager, Miguel Ceballos-Ruiz used to work in an oilfield but then changed his occupation to support his own physical health and match his commitment to environmental justice. Miguel shared his story of working on the front lines of oil and gas development, and his political awakening process to where he is now: standing up for what’s right for himself and his community. 

Miguel wearing a hard hat

“In the aftermath of the recession that began in 2009, I found myself unable to find any work or even get a call back from minimum wage positions in Denver. I had bills piling up and had to find something, anything quickly. As life would have it, I found myself in Odessa, Texas helping my father recover from open-heart surgery. Seeing that the recovery time would be long, and not having any job prospects back in Denver, my brother and I decided to stay behind and help my father recover. Together, we walked into an oilfield services company and interviewed for a job. We started working the next day, making $22/hour. This was the highest hourly pay either of us had ever made. Most of my coworkers were immigrants like myself, looking for opportunities that paid a living wage, even at the cost of our health and safety. In the West Texas oilfields, many of the dangerous positions were offered to immigrants.

My first assignment was to work on a casing crew, which involves putting in pipes in the ground for the drilling process. There were pipes being swung onto the rig floor to be put into the ground, people tied to the rig tower to guide the pipe in, high powered tongs that screw the pipe together, slippery wet surfaces, and drilling mud everywhere. To add to this, the work hours were outrageous. The longest my crew spent on a rig floor was 63 hours, before we were relieved. We left the casing crew because our bodies started to take a toll from the long work hours and dangerous conditions. We switched over to another line of work in the oilfield; the waterline service company. My brother lined the water pits and I laid the line from water wells to the pits. 

We saw a lot of worker abuse. One time a crew was asked to go into a water pit and repair a leak. They all developed sores in their mouth in the following days. These workers were often workers who looked like myself, and I know I was exposed to harmful particulates in the oilfield too. The reality is that we put our life on the line, time and time again, because nobody else would. 

I started to question if the oil companies cared about their immigrant workers, and if they didn’t care about us, did they care about the public’s health? I wondered why I could only secure work that put my health and safety at risk. 

In 2015, I started waking up with my lungs filled with phlegm. That’s when I knew enough was enough. As my family and I moved back to Colorado that year, I began a process of political awakening. 

I realized that you have to stand up for your health and your rights and so I looked for ways to get involved. I started working on political campaigns, and supporting candidates who stood up for worker protections and environmental health and safety. I spent the next two years of my life dedicating myself to championing environmental justice in the Denver metro area. Finally, I began my current job as mobilization manager at Conservation Colorado. Through my political work, I have found an opportunity for upward mobility that does not compromise my health. 

Miguel shares that he is leaving work on the oilfield in a Facebook status update

I have also found that my experience in the West Texas oilfield was not too different from those of oil and gas workers in Colorado. No person should have to choose between making a good living and keeping good health. And the public should know for certain that they are protected from harmful particulates and pollution. I hope that by sharing my perspective and demanding a change, we can secure a better future for workers, people, wildlife, water, and the Colorado we love.”

Miguel’s story shows the cumulative effects of spending time near heavy industry. Although oil and gas industry jobs may offer a competitive hourly wage, that paycheck does not consider the long term costs of chronic health conditions or increased vulnerability to health issues. 

Disproportionate impacts of heavy oil and gas industry activity on workers, especially those from lower-income backgrounds, is an environmental injustice. The good news is that Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission rulemakings have the opportunity to change the course of this system by considering environmental justice in all of their new rules. Improvements will change the lives of our workers on the oilfield, helping them stay healthy and resilient as we face new and ongoing threats to public health.

The coronavirus is a public health crisis in its own right. But, COVID-19 has also revealed instability in the United States’ economic system and oil and gas industry. As our economy slows, oil prices have sunk even lower. Change is coming to Colorado.

Miguel transitioned to work that fits his values and supports his health, but not everyone has shared his success. In order to support the health of everyone in our state, we need jobs that don’t put health on the line — and we need rules to hold industry accountable. 

If you are able, please submit a comment to the COGCC.