Sunlight Shining Through Cloud

Archive for February 2012

  • In: The Oil Patch
  • Comments Off on All’s Well That Smells Well

7° below zero. Damn. This was going to be the day on which I said only positive things about my new environment. But as I scraped the windshield early this morning, a list did begin to develop in spite of my frozen fingertips. We’ll start with the weather.

As this is being written, a huge storm is walloping all parts of North Dakota except my part: the far northwest corner. Perhaps Mother Nature is showing mercy to the many who labor out in the elements. But she didn’t forget us entirely. As I approached Williston from the southwest this morning, I entered a sort-of fog, sort-of low cloud cover. The effect was to trap and concentrate the emissions of our industry at breathable level. It stunk. It stung the eyes. People talked all day about their heightened sensitivities and allergies. By the end of the day, even I was feeling a bit heavy-chested and headache-y.

But this is a positive post. At least we didn’t get a foot of snow.

I continue to enjoy life at the office. My new compadres are helpful, supportive and encouraging. I finish each day feeling as if I’ve learned something useful. Today provided two such somethings and I got to visit the friendliest of our landowners yet. Most of them are nice. Occasionally, I am warned, so-and-so isn’t. But I’m doing just fine with the so-and-so’s, so that’s positive, too.

I did a routine intake with the medical arm of the Veterans Administration here today. I will admit that my expectations were low. So you can imagine my pleasure upon discovering a small, clean facility staffed by great people and a wonderful Nurse Practitioner. Positive.

About four weeks worth of crud has accumulated on my little car. While that bothers me a lot, it doesn’t seem to bother anyone else: their vehicles are at least as dirty as mine. It’s impossible to keep anything clean with the barrage of dust and dirt continually assaulting us. Well, I finally found Simonson’s Car Wash today. It’s one of only three car washes in this wall-to-wall trucks town. While I had to pay more than I wanted to, I was pleased with the result, and even more pleased with the two young attendants who seemed genuinely happy and were good at their jobs. And they reacted as if no one had ever tipped them before. Very positive.

A quick stop at the grocery store on the way home. I’m a sucker for any new kind of potato chips and tonight I spotted new Lay’s Limón Chips. Anything lime is an automatic favorite for me. Lime tortilla chips have graced my palate for decades. So this was a no-brainer buying decision. Here… I’ll open the bag and try them right now – – –

– – – oh my god, these things are AWFUL !

And it had been such a positive day.

When the United States Air Force sent me to Alaska the first time, it was to a teensy 100-man post called Tatalina Air Force Station deep in the Kuskokwim Mountains near the village of McGrath. This was a very short assignment; they were closing the base, and I then wound up in Galena. On the night of my arrival in McGrath, I was billeted in a lodge populated by mushers who were about halfway through the annual running of the world-famous Iditarod Sled Dog Race. It was, for me, a baptism-by-immersion into Alaskan culture. I didn’t get any sleep that night and I didn’t know if I liked this new place.

When the Air Force sent me to Alaska the second time, it was to the big city of Anchorage which quickly proved itself magical and full of energy and opportunity. On the day of our arrival, the first barrel of crude flowed into the brand new Trans-Alaska Oil Pipeline. Granted, Anchorage was still in the frozen north. But everything is relative, and we found the place very much to our liking; so much so that we stayed five years beyond my time in the service.

What I found was that people either loved or hated being in Alaska — there was no middle ground. Factors included weather, affordability of everything, distance from everywhere, and extremes like long dark Winter nights and long light Summer nights. Me? I liked it all, and I especially liked being among the few hardy souls who thrived despite the inconveniences.

That was then.

A couple of months ago, I traveled to Williston ND to collect impressions of the city, industry and people. Of the first two, I felt that the town was groaning under the weight of its newfound resource mining. Of the latter, I felt that the people were positive, helpful and friendly. I was even invited to overnight with a family; where does that happen anymore? But it happened to me, and a good thing, too…I was prepared to sleep in a rental minivan. In December. There were no rooms at the Inn.

I came away from ND with more answers than questions and had the feeling that something good could happen for me there despite relatively minor hardships.

Time will tell how I fare. Now, with an entire week and a half of residency in The Oil Patch under my belt, I have much to learn; impressions to confirm or debunk. But my ‘relatively minor hardships’ may not be yours. So if you’re thinking of coming here, add this blog to your process of due diligence.

My arrival in Anchorage coincided with the ending of the building phase of the oil boom in Prudhoe Bay. My arrival in North Dakota’s Bakken coincides with the beginning of the building phase of an even larger boom. Swarms of skilled, unskilled, experienced, inexperienced, mature, and immature people are coming into this formerly peaceful area. Some of these are working at drilling sites. Others are building infrastructure. Still others are managing things. All are working long and hard. For all of this, we are paid well.

But what becomes of us when we get downtime? Williston is not like where you live now. Here’s why.

If you’re living in a man-camp, you’re being taken care of. But if your living circumstance requires buying groceries, there are only two choices: Economart and the modestly-stocked Walmart Supercenter. Prices? This is a boomtown and prices are high. How about a nice meal at a restaurant? Here again, the choices are limited. And sometimes, you’ll find long wait times to get a table.

Retail stores, in general, are struggling to keep their doors open. They can’t find workers at the wages they are able to pay. Any worker worth his/her salt is capitalizing on the boom; making way more than the $12-15/hr. offered by Arby’s or O’Reilly’s Auto Parts. It’s not unusual to find a sign posted on a retailer’s door stating that hours have been curtailed due to the limited availability of people — in the middle of the day! For sure, you’ll find fewer stores open after 5pm.

Okay, then. You’ve got a little time and a full tank of gas. Hop in the car and go somewhere that has what you need. Here are your nearest options:

  • Minot ND — 2 hours (one-way from Williston)
  • Dickinson ND — 2:45
  • Bismarck ND — 4
  • Regina SK CN — 4
  • Jamestown ND — 5
  • Billings MT — 5:15
  • Fargo ND — 6:30

So a quick trip to Target becomes an all-day affair. (Note: there are no Target’s in Dickinson, Jamestown or Regina.)

But you might want to stretch your legs a bit, anyway. Be well-rested; the panorama may be boring and the road hazards can be many. Varmint crossings are plentiful here just as they are where you live. But the deer and the antelope like to play on the roads, too. Trucks mean business. So do the rocks that hit your windshield. And train crossings are particularly hazardous, day or night. In the wide open country, a distant train can be on top of you in a jiffy.

One more thing. As you drive, you’ll see oil pumping rigs dotting the landscape of the northern Plains. Nearby, there may be a heavy flame shooting out from a separated corner of the wellsite. These are gas flares and they’re lit to let off built-up pressure in oil wells. While they may seem interesting on one level, they can be offensive on another. If your olfactory system is even a little bit better than mine, you’ll experience a car-full of Eau de Secaucus.

If you had the good sense to leave your spouse back in civilization, you’re fine. If not, there might ensue a lively discussion about how much you love being here.


4/17/12  Afterthought — I grew up in New Jersey which has long been the butt (pun intended) of smell jokes. In particular, the marshes of East Rutherford and the odiferous emissions of industrial Secaucus. Say “SEE-kaw-kus” in a sentance and expect a laugh of derision.

That was so 40 years ago. I just had occasion to give the place another look (via Wikipedia) and found that Secaucus is now a high-value Hackensack River suburb with lovely streets and homes. I knew that Hoboken had undergone a Renaissance, and of course Giants Stadium and other development had changed the marshland completely. But Secaucus was a surprise. I now understand why my little geographic joke didn’t get a single response: nobody got the joke. There is no joke to get. Sorry, Secaucus.

To fully appreciate the good news, you have to remember the bad. My company was gobbled up by a bigger company in 2003 and there followed a reduction in the management force. I was 51. A modest self-enterprise eventually reaped an offer from one of my clients. Then came “The Great Recession” and this position, too, was downsized. I was 56. My parents were ailing then, and we pulled up stakes to care for them in North Carolina. The recession was even worse there. It still is.

So when family conditions made it possible for me to move, I headed for the one place in the country where I could be almost guaranteed to find work: North Dakota.

I began looking for work here last Wednesday, and when I had found none by Friday, began to get panicky. I was getting the same old saw: “You’re over-qualified for what we do.” It seemed that I’d come all this way only to be stranded here empty-handed while young studs made big buckets of money.

Then I got an offer. It was a good one; much more up my alley than swinging chains around a drilling pipe. It even paid well. But I’ve been so negatively conditioned over such a long period of time that I didn’t jump at it. They patiently waited and, yesterday, I put self-doubt aside and said yes.

My company is contracted by the oil companies to find out who owns land they want to drill on. There are surface rights and mineral (below the surface) rights to be investigated, legal papers drawn, contact made, and checks tendered to these landowners. I am part of this process. I get to use my nose for research, my eye for detail, and my sterling personality for working with the soon-to-be wealthy.

I can do this.

There’s nothing glamorous about my job and that’s part of its appeal. I wear jeans and no tie. I work with good people who are giving of themselves to help get me up to speed. I’m not strapped to a desk, will be face-to-face with salt-of-the-earth people, and will be nicely compensated for the effort.

If I weren’t so old, I’d consider doing back flips.

But that’s Part 2 of the good news. Part 1, as I’ve stressed in my previous posts, is finding shelter. Lots of people get here without a place to live. I had one a week before arrival. It’s a modest basement room in the home of a wonderful family just across the border in Montana. I don’t have to look far to realize how fortunate I am in this. My new Veteran Service Officer – a life-long Willistonian – reinforced the point for me today. I have it good especially when compared with so many of the men and women he sees every day.

So I’m thankful: to God for keeping me going when my heart wanted to stop; and to so many people who kept pulling for me along the way. I wish there were a way to package and send measures of my happiness to you all.

This post is directed toward two categories of job-hunters: the 25-year-old adventurers, and everyone else.

Estimates have it that western North Dakota and eastern Montana’s oilfields will be in development for the next fifteen to twenty-five years. That means oil companies will be poking holes in the ground at seemingly random places that are actually plotted carefully by geologists. After all the oil has ultimately been found and tapped and capital costs spent, production will be the exclusive enterprise with its incremental maintenance costs (read: almost pure profit). This could continue for many decades beyond the development phase.

Every major oil company, every oilfield service company and hundreds of support companies are here. They all need to build (or support the building) at the drilling sites. A network of pipelines need to be built to aid in the efficient flow of crude. All of this requires lots of laborers. Those would be the 25-year-olds. It’s hard and dangerous work in all kinds of weather done on non-standard schedules. You’ll have enough energy at the end of a day to shower, eat, and hit the bed before another long day tomorrow. Recreation? Not so much. Money? You’ll be making tons of it. But there’s nothing here to spend it on. This is not “the good life.” It’s work.

Much has been said in the media about the frenzied Oil Patch environment. Williston ND has been the center of attention. Now swollen to a population of 15,000, it is dusty and dominated by trucks of every kind…everywhere…all the time. If you have a Commercial Driver’s License (CDL) and experience, just show up and you’ll be working within a day. Bring your similarly-qualified friends.

There are companies that’ll train you for a CDL on their own equipment. But the number is diminishing because (mostly) rookie drivers are trashing trucks to the tune of 1½ each day. Insurance companies are tacking on larger premiums and new requirements.

Housing is the first problem, though. The shortage is so critical that most companies won’t interview you unless you have already found a place to live. It’s a classic catch-22. You can’t afford a house until you get a job. You can’t get a job if you don’t have a house. And finding a place to live is darn near impossible.

The larger companies have erected temporary “man-camps” to help solve the problem a little. Man-camps are communities of living trailers with dining hall, exercise and entertainment facilities contained at the core. These camps can number between 100 and 1,200 residents each. Women live there, too, though they are outnumbered by quite a large margin. Other random trailer and tent communities have sprouted up all over the landscape including – infamously – the Walmart parking lot. This rowdy bunch was so problematic for the city, the store and its shoppers that all the campers were evicted last Wednesday and a permanent patrol has been established to keep them out. Nowhere else have I seen height barriers at parking lot entrances to keep 5th wheels, campers and trucks out.

While oil rig labor and commercial drivers seem to get all the pub, other employment categories are needed as well. In fact, almost every discipline is needed here; and in great numbers. This is the second category of hunter to which I referred at the top. These folks range from thirty-five to my own (undisclosed) age. I keep hearing of the need for mature, experienced managers. There will be more to say about this in future posts.

The “lodge” for this job hunt (if you’ll forgive the pun) is the Williston office of the Job Service of ND ( The office and the website are resource-rich providing information about how oil drilling and extraction works, job titles and what they do, companies and contact information and a place for you to submit applications to them all.

The thing is, many of these companies will never call you. You can and should put yourself into their databases, yes. But you need to show up in person to be considered. Networking counts, too. Everyone you’ll talk with will have a recommendation, suggestion, lead, or contact for you. And if you follow the trail, you will find the cheese. Big cheese.

I’m not trying to be a wet blanket. It’s just that I’ve seen and heard of prospective oilfield workers with dollar signs in their eyes as they head for North Dakota. Too often, they are faced with the reality that getting a job here is still a job; not a coronation.

So come on down! Just set your expectations correctly first.

  • In: The Oil Patch
  • Comments Off on Full Moon Rising Over The Oil Patch

Mom is now able to live independently, so I’m free to move about once again. Nuthin’s shakin’ in Carolina, so I loaded up a truck, hitched up the car to a trailer and pounded the roads home to Minnesota at a 400-miles-a-day clip. After only a few days there, I headed west.

My 600-mile day, today, brought me to Sidney Montana in the glow of a smiling full moon. Sidney is at the state’s eastern border, is in the Mountain Time Zone, boasts fewer than 10,000 souls, and features maybe a dozen casinos. Most significantly, it’s at the western edge of the Oil Patch: The Bakken Oil Shale Formation which is currently thought to multiply Alaska’s Prudhoe Bay by at least a factor of 4.

It’s the wild, wild west out here both figuratively and literally. This place has jobs oozing from every pore…tens of thousands of jobs. Can’t import workers here fast enough. Can’t find places for them to live or to eat.

And the work, of course, is oil. A non-renewable resource, being sucked from two miles underground using a controversial extraction method called “hydraulic fracturing (frac-ing)” using materials that may be radioactive and which produce microparticles that can cause silicosis (a cancer).

My place in all of this? Safety, I hope. The work being done here may produce a modicum of energy independence for the country thereby changing the geopolitical complexion of things regarding the middle east. Certainly, the work being done here is producing jobs and helping the economy. The work here will be done with or without me. The most I can hope for is to contribute to safe practices.

Tomorrow, I’ll set out to find me a job that’ll do that. I’ll keep you posted.

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