Brian Barclay makes a 275-mile commute every week to work near this dusty little town, drawn by a natural-gas boom that has added trucks...

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RIFLE, Colo. — Brian Barclay makes a 275-mile commute every week to work near this dusty little town, drawn by a natural-gas boom that has added trucks, cranes and hundreds of people to the rocky landscape.

Asked why he travels so far for work, the former soldier grinned and answered: “The money, and it’s better than getting shot at.”

The natural-gas industry has swamped parts of the Rockies with workers and equipment. But despite the surge in population, the energy industry is desperate for labor in the high deserts of Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming.

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At least one company is helping American oil and gas developers bring in drilling rigs and crews from China, while others are recruiting engineering students before they graduate from college.

Experts say the oil and gas industry will lose more than half of its skilled work force to retirement within 10 years, even as companies consider resurrecting oil-shale mining in the sparsely populated land north and west of here.

“I’m sure with the wages the way they are, people will be recruited but not at the rate that’s needed,” said Bob Woodworth, a partner in Denver-based Western Energy Advisors, which helps North American companies work with China National Petroleum.

Oil and gas companies are dealing with some alarming labor statistics: About half the entire work force will soon be eligible for retirement because the average age for members of the Society of Petroleum Engineers/American Association of Petroleum Geologists is 50, according to a study by the University of Texas at Austin.

The number of petroleum engineers in the U.S. dropped by more than 50 percent between 1983 and 2001, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The number of college students pursuing petroleum and mining degrees dropped by 80 percent over a similar span.

A married couple, Forest and Olivia Bommarito, both 24, were among 11 students who graduated with master’s degrees in petroleum engineering in May from the Colorado School of Mines.

Forest Bommarito said he had seven job offers before graduating, and his wife received her first job offer a full year before she graduated.

Husband and wife signed contracts in October to work for ConocoPhillips and BP, respectively, in Anchorage, with starting salaries around $79,000.

“Right now times are great, but there have been times in the past and probably times in the future that haven’t been so good,” Forest Bommarito said.

“But it’s going to take a long time, if ever, for the petroleum industry to phase out and for another energy source to become dominant.”