Sunlight Shining Through Cloud

Archive for December 2012

No year exists by itself. My 2012 began sixty years ago and built up to now. About the same for you? Sure.

North Carolina was a perfectly lovely place. But with apologies to my friends there, it just wasn’t home. When it became possible for me to exit, I did. And by the time I did, my network of personal and business relationships had been considerably weakened back in Minneapolis. So I wound up in North Dakota: a strange place to me, populated with people whose dominant culture was different than I had yet to face. This would take some getting used to.

When I was younger, a situation like this would have been an adventure and my approach would have been with energy and excitement. Not so this time. I was broke, broken and depressed. I wanted to find work, and spend the rest of my day alone. I did nothing to integrate myself with the people here.

I had last seen Bruce when he was just four. Now he’s six-foot-three, married to Liza and has a bunch of great children. They took me into their home without condition, fed me and made me part of their family. I had the shirt on my back, a paid-for car and, within a couple of weeks, a job. Things were trending positive. Still, I resisted.

There was a decision to make: would I spend my life wallowing in self-pity, wanting what I couldn’t have, or would I find myself and find a way to thrive and grow in this new place? Things got worse in my head before they got better.

I didn’t make the big decision; I made a little one. I decided to buy new carpet, and after several weekends of looking, I found it and brought it home. Before laying it down, I thought, “Well, it would be best if I painted the walls first. So I prepared the walls, thought about colors, and painted the room: sunshine yellow for the part of the day I’d be active; sky blue for the part of the day I’d be asleep. Face one way and it’s daytime. Face the other way and it’s night – all in one 8 x 12 room. “Genius,” I thought. And then I put down the underlayment and carpeting.

Thusly proud, I thought about maximizing the space. The twin bed I’d purchased took up so much floor space and made the room so small. I decided to elevate the bed, and not to common bunkbed height, but high enough that I could stand and walk comfortably beneath it. The ceiling is 12 feet high, so the mattress surface would be at 8 feet. I designed and built the structure beneath the mattress with one 4″x4″ post occupying floor space and the rest of the structure secured to the wall studs. I stained the wood my favorite shade of oak. No standard bunk ladder reaches that high, so I built my own. It’s perfect, and the elevated bed is perfect. It doesn’t squeak or creak and I feel perfectly comfortable and safe sleeping up there. “Genius,” I thought.

I spent a few weekends looking for just the right kind of lighting for both the ceiling and under the bed, and I am using daylight CFL bulbs to reduce eye strain. I found an oak wardrobe kit with hanging and shelf space. Costco had a pair of 2’x4′ maps: one of the world and one of the U.S.  They are mounted side-by-side on one of the yellow walls both as a reference and as a reminder that I live in a larger world than my little room represents. There’s a corkboard on which I tack the artwork the kids draw for me. “Genius,” I thought.

My computer, monitor and printer all sat atop their respective boxes along one of the day walls. That would no longer do. I designed and built a 6 foot long, two-tier shelf on which these components are now arranged. And there’s plenty of space left to use for other things. My next projects are a shallow 4-foot-wide dresser (oak, of course), and a reclining swivel glider-rocker with an ottoman, all made of oak and with supportive and comfy cushions. And I will build these things, too. Then this room will be complete.

So, what, exactly, is the genius of what’s been done here? Well, I stretched myself. Building stuff like this is not something I’ve ever done before; it’s not in my skillset. I had to research the proper angle of the ladder, for example; and the distance the steps should be apart, and how to notch the steps into the sides for added weight-bearing. I had to calculate the exact dimensions of the two-tiered shelf to fit into the space available. In other words, I had to challenge myself to do something new. I had to stretch beyond my usual mindset and abilities.

There’s another aspect to my genius, though. Without thinking about it, I was investing myself into my living space – thereby creating a place that I wanted to be; creating a home of my own.

If there are any IQ digits for me to think with, I take no credit. I didn’t give them to me. I’ll take credit only for using what I have as, I believe, the Giver would have it.

I have long thought that I’d regret turning 60. What actually happened was a surprise: I felt a weight lift off of my shoulders. For all of my life, I’ve been striving: trying to achieve this; trying to earn that; working for tomorrow. On my birthday, it occurred to me that I no longer cared as much about tomorrow. Today provides sufficient challenges. I’m not living today as if it’ll be my last; I’m just living it to the best of my ability. And I’m not reaching beyond what’s available to me today. Understanding this, I felt relief.

I’ve also made an effort to become more of a joiner. I accept invitations now, and I make some, too. I go places and do things that don’t fit my usual patterns. And whereas I used to do these things with low-level dread, it usually turns out just fine. Enjoyable, even. I’m allowing roots to go down; friendships to form.

Okay. That’s the ethereal stuff. Here’s the other stuff.

I wrote about the much-anticipated thrill of Mike Oldfield’s live contribution to the London Olympics Opening Ceremony. I could not have anticipated that an equal thrill awaited within the closing ceremony of the London Paralympics.

Coldplay, my second-favorite musicians (after Oldfield) were invited to play a set at the big stadium. I thought, “Well that’s terrific; all the pomp and circumstance will get done and then Coldplay will entertain everyone with a big concert.” Wrong. What actually happened is that Coldplay came on and did a few of their big hits. These served as background for physically-challenged performers to do amazing things. It was all quite wonderful to watch.

In an ordinary concert, Coldplay does a song called, “God Put A Smile Upon Your Face.” While the title seems benign, the song rocks! It may be among the hardest songs for a drummer to play. When “God Put A Smile…” came up during the Paralympics set, there were two drummers on stage: Will Champion, Coldplay’s drummer, and Mat Fraser, born a thalidomide baby without arms. Well, Mat grew up to become a man, a writer, an actor and a drummer who performed in the Paralympics Opening Ceremony. Coldplay frontman Chris Martin was amazed by Mat’s work. So he invited him to play the toughest song in their repertoire: “God Put A Smile …”. Stunning! Fraser played the song beat-for-beat as aggressively as Champion, and he smiled throughout. It wasn’t a smile that said, “Hey, look at me; I’m playing with Coldplay.” It was a smile that said, “I’m good enough to play with Coldplay.” He was. And the 7.7 million people watching him will never forget it.

That was a Sunday. The next day, it was back to work. Everything I do depends on my car. It’s just a Dodge Neon that wasn’t built for punishment. Yet, I commute to work and back 100 miles each day. And I run that number of miles daily, on average, out in the boonies with dirt-, gravel- and scoria-covered roads. I arrived here in February with 70,000 miles on the odometer. We’re now just shy of 120,000. The car gets serviced regularly, and new tires were put on in October. My confidence in the car has been growing of late; it just keeps doing a good job for me.

We face a greater hazard here than most other places. With all the construction and trucks moving dirt and rock, some of it lands on the roads. Or, worse, gets kicked up into your windshield. You can’t call yourself a Montanan or North Dakotan if your windshield hasn’t been assaulted by rocks. I’ve been fortunate so far; only six dings in the glass. I get them fixed immediately and they haven’t spidered into long cracks. It’s only a matter of time, though, and I’ll have to replace the whole thing. It’s the cost of doing business.

This next story says my bad. It’s your good if you learn from my experience. With my kind of work, it’s best to have all of my computer files with me on a flash drive – available whenever and wherever I might be. I think of this small device also as a backup. My flash drive has reliably done the job since February. Then, one day, it didn’t. I stuck it in the office PC, and the PC didn’t “recognize” it. I called our IT guy who tried a few things to no avail. We stuck it into a few other computers. No recognition. My skin was becoming clammy.

The IT guy found a company near Denver that does crash recovery, talked with them by phone, and then recommended it to me. I hotfooted it to FedEx for next day air ($36). It was received and preliminarily tested on Tuesday. Failure. ($220). They offered to run my flash drive through their whiz-bang high-end machine for another $500. It was a no-brainer … I needed those files. It was Wednesday. The next day, I got an e-mail that said the process had been successful. And on Friday, they sent me a link from which I could download my files (which took all morning to do).

Meanwhile, I tried to find a way to back up my backup in the cloud. And I researched and bought a 64G USB 3.0 tank of a flash drive; dust, shock and waterproof to 20 meters. It’s a Corsair Survivor. I’m still trying to find a way to sync it to the cloud. If you have any suggestions …

The total price for my (duh!) lesson was $820, plus lost time working without my files. It’ll drive a man to drink.

I’ve written before of my fondness for things flavored with lime. I have discovered BudLight Lime-a-Rita’s. It doesn’t taste like BudLight with a squirt of lime. It does taste exactly like a top-shelf Margarita and it packs an 8% wallop to boot. They come in a 12-pack of little 8 ounce cans and man, these things are good!

The new year brings a few changes, all of which will be broadcast to my mailing list. I have a new cell phone number, a website (www.fredmarx.com) to host this blog, and a new e-mail address.

One more story from 2012 before heading toward the New Year’s Eve confetti. On Saturday, November 13, we had our first snowstorm. It rained the night before, then froze, then snowed. I spent the better part of Sunday shoveling the driveway; something I actually enjoy doing.

I figured the plows would have had plenty of time to do their thing on the major roadways by Monday morning, but I was wrong. They’d taken only one pass and the major road heading north from Sidney was mostly snow-packed.

I headed out at 6am, as usual. It was dark and the road was snarky, so the 65mph speed limit was ignored in favor of a safer 40mph. There was, thankfully, very little traffic. About 5 miles north of town, there was just one oncoming car a quarter mile away, and another a mile behind that.

Then, one of my drive wheels must have found a patch of dry roadway – and I started spinning. Fast. It had to be at least three clockwise rotations; I couldn’t count. There wasn’t time for my heart to jump to my throat. There was only time to reflexively turn into the spin. The first car miraculously passed me without contact.

I came to a stop facing north in the southbound lane. The second car couldn’t have stopped if it tried. My car was stalled. I tried three times to restart it. It cranked but didn’t catch. I turned off the headlights and radio and tried again. It caught, I turned on the headlights, put the car into gear and slowly crawled back into the northbound lane – getting there just as the second car went past.

I continued on to the office kind of surprised by how calm I was.

Later in the day, I sat down and purposefully thought about it. I started spinning. I turned into the spin fully expecting a collision but not having one, and I didn’t land in a ditch. I then realized that I had said two words right about then: “Holy GOD!”

For all the spinning I’ve lived through this year, at least my head is still screwed on tight.

The year-ender … where media outlets fill time and space cheaply by looking back over the past twelve months of news that’s already been reported. But, alas, I have not seen a year-ender about The Oil Patch. So, with stats from various departments of the state of North Dakota, stories published by the AP, Reuters, The Bismarck Tribune, and the Sunlight (this) Blog, I present Less Is More (and other conundra). At the end, you may think, “that seemed like ‘More Is More.'” I’ll let you decide. As for the conundra, you’ll have a headache and won’t want to figure them out.

The Bakken

The Bakken

Eggplant-crop

The Eggplant

The Oil Patch – also called The Bakken (rhymes with rockin’) – is a big eggplant-shaped chunk of western North Dakota, eastern Montana and southern Saskatchewan under which lies eight layers of earth containing lots of decaying dinosaurs [Conundrum #1: You mean dinosaurs had nothing to do with the creation of oil?] [Nope.]

Big oil companies and their sub-contractors have been poking holes in the Bakken since the 1950’s. What they got was lots of promises and even a few barrels of oil. Then, a couple of geological geniuses – Dr. Horizontal and Dr. Frac – developed new hole-poking technologies. The first was eponymously named “Horizontal Drilling”. Here, they drill down two miles deep toward China. Then they hang a Louis and drill another two miles toward France.

Not wanting to be left in the cuttings pit of history, Dr. Frac developed the important-sounding “Hydraulic Fracturing” method wherein a roughneck lights sticks of dynamite, throws them down Dr. Horizontal’s holes, cover his ears, and blows the whole thing up. The scientifically calculated results? Sinkholes big enough to swallow the thriving metropolis of Williston ND; hence the new terrestrial feature called “The Williston Basin”. No, what they got was holes through which the dinosaurs could escape and repopulate the earth. Seriously this time, they got substrata now pressurized and ready to squeeze oil up to the surface so we could fill our tanks.

The good doctors immediately recognized the potential for lots of media interviews so, in 2008, they formed a company called “Oil Boom”. Their methods are patented, so don’t try this at home.

Now that you have the history, we can take a clear-eyed look at 2012 (right after I wash the fracking chemicals from my glasses).

This year, North Dakota became the second-ranking oil-producing state in the union, right behind Texas. This caused great fear in The Lone Star State. You see, Texas has had size issues ever since Alaska became the 49th state; Alaska being much larger than Texas. All the girls would look at Texas and laugh until Texas ran, crying, to its mothe … but I digress.

ND passed both Alaska and California on its way toward Texas’ ego. California responded by sending ND a lovely fruit basket. How did we get this big? By sucking almost 700,000 barrels of oil from our 4,000 wells every day! The suits – who enjoy their year-end bonuses – are planning to drill at least 2,000 new wells per year for the next 15 to 20 years. After that, they’re reasonably sure they can afford to buy the solar system.

In ’05, the U.S. imported 60% of its oil needs, the majority of it from a distant country called Canada. As a reward, Canada let us win the Stanley Cup once or twice. Today, we import only 42%. As a reward, Canada has shut down the entire NHL season and is threatening to pollute Nebraska’s water table with tar sands.

How are we growing our national energy independence? By producing more oil, silly. (Do I need to clean your glasses, too?) But you did your part by buying more fuel-efficient cars imported from foreign countries like Japan and Tennessee.

The renowned accounting firm of Zager and Evans projects that by 2020, the U.S. will surpass Saudi Arabia in oil production. In the year 2525, and I quote, “Everything you think, do and say is in the pill you took today.”

41,000 workers were hired in the past three years statewide, most of them for new oilfield or related-industry jobs. 22,000 jobs remain unfilled. The pace of drilling has increased, but the fracking division of ‘Oil Boom Inc.’ can’t keep up. Most applicants claim to be afraid of dynamite. Sissies.

The venerable Sunlight Blog has often ruminated about the number of trucks truckin’ around here. Here’s why they’re there: it takes 1,000 tanker truckloads of water to frac one drilled well. If you do the math, that’s 1,000 tankers times 300 rigs times 28Loves sign-crop wells per year per rig and you get … let’s see … carry the 17, add the hypotenuse of pi r², divide by zero error, remember to feed the fish … oh, darn … my pencil broke. Let’s just agree that that’s a lot of trucks.

This blog has dutifully reported that truck drivers have a problem doing their business (if you know what I mean) as they travel the 118 highway miles through the Oil Patch. To solve this problem, Love’s and Pilot have opened brand new truck stops with gleaming new facilities (if you know what I mean). Another truck stop has broken ground, and yet another has hung a sign on the corner. More later.

What most people don’t know – and I’m going to teach you – is that the black gold underground does not live alone. It co-habitates with natural gas. If you can get past the morality of this for just a moment, I want to teach you that the stuff that comes to the surface is more like a primordial stew than the refined liquid you get from the gas pump. The oil and gas and other ingredients are then tearfully separated topside.

Which brings us to flaring. Flaring is the burning of pent-up natural gas which, if left to enter the atmosphere by itself, would kill us all within a mere 40,000 years. Instead, we light it up … which produces an impressive flame shooting out of the ground for the kids to enjoy while giving the rest of us big headaches. (This is why you won’t be figuring out the conundra anytime soon.) In the rest of the country, 5-10% of the wells are flared. Here, it’s 30%. Every sentient being is concerned about the health effects of flaring. Even (allegedly) sentient beings at the state capitol are proposing legislation to lessen it. In the meantime, the suits are chanting: “Burn, baby, burn.”

What the suits know is that the only real solution is to capture the natural gas by sending it through pipelines to processors and ultimately to market. To their credit, many millions of dollars have been invested in the construction of many thousands of miles of pipelines this very year. But we need a lot more. Maybe the guys who’re afraid of dynamite can help us build more pipelines. (The costs, price and value of Natural Gas in today’s market will be the subject of a future SunlightBlog post.)

It’s all about transporting our products out of the Bakken and into the banks so we can get paid. We use lots of tanker trucks for that, adding to the conundra on the highways. We also use rail tanker cars. It’s hard to describe the scope of what BNSF Railroad has done to satisfy the need. They’ve built depots with twin tracks side-by-side in a two-mile-long circle leading to a low-slung building in which the tankers are filled with oil as they’re dragged through. Ten of these monstrously huge depots have been built around The Oil Patch this year resulting in 25% of production being hauled away to banks at all corners of the country. The checks should be arriving any day now.

Minerals extraction, as we insiders call it, does not occur in isolation. The massive oil industry lives and works alongside the small towns and people of northwestern North Dakota. Ever-considerate of our neighbors, the industry realized that the good people of Williston couldn’t get to church because of our perpetual truck-populated traffic jams. So, truck bypasses were built on the west and east sides of the city. Unfortunately, no traffic improvement was derived because other meaningful summer/fall road construction projects were undertaken in all four directions effectively causing trucks, pickups and cars to fight for the single-lane spaces through the miles-long construction zones into and out of town. The churches have given up. Too much swearing.

The official 2010 census said there were 14,716 souls in Williston. Nearly-official estimates say there are 33,000 here now. A recent university study guessed there will be 44,000 here by 2017. The same story can be told of all the towns around here. Arnegard will multiply its population (115) by a factor of 12 with the completion of a mancamp there. All of these people need to get here, so Amtrak has doubled the number of rail passenger cars on its Empire Builder line. Jefferson Lines is driving its big buses through the Bakken seven days a week between Minneapolis and Billings. These modes of transportation will get you to or from a major metropolis in a scant 12 hours.

If your time is scanter than that, you’ll want to fly. Delta and United both started operations at the Williston airport last month. 4,916 November boardings equals a 63% increase over the previous record in May. Two small points must be made about this: 1) a round-trip to/from MSP or Denver costs about $700; and 2) Sloulin Field International Airport has no tower!!! Here again, the same can be said for other airports. Minot experienced a 52% increase in boardings. Killdeer (where?) is getting 16 to 20 takeoffs and landings each day at Weydahl Field where they used to get 90 per year. Small problem: this airport has been closed for several years due to disrepair. The FAA advises pilots to land at their own risk. Yikes!

Now that you’re here, you’ll need a place to stay. Hotel beds have doubled in number throughout the region in 2012. If you do find a room, it’ll set you back a cool $200+ per night. It’s pointless to try, though; the oil companies have pre-leased the rooms for themselves.

A fairly large number of incoming workers brought 5th-wheels, trailers and RV’s, and found homeowners willing to rent their driveways and back yards in which to park them. Williston city fathers felt that these wheeled crash pads were responsible for lowering the quality of life (insert raucous laughter here), so in August, they banished these living spaces to other places not in Williston.

Housing was and is a big problem. We need 22,000 more workers but we don’t have anyplace to put ’em. So mancamps, trailer parks, RV parks, apartment complexes, and housing subdivisions are going up everywhere. I personally know a professional plumber who hasn’t slept all year. When he does get to bed, he lays awake all night worrying that the phone will ring with another toilet for him to install.

Verizon Wireless techies have been busy in the Bakken, and thank goodness — you can get to feelin’ like you’re isolated out here. You want to keep that data flowin’ and the phone a-ringin’. VZW’s workers kicked Williston’s service up to 4G-LTE back in June. I was first to convert in my company, so they nicknamed me 4G-Fred (4G, for short). In Sidney Montana where I live, we went 4G last week. This represents a considerable acceleration of VZW’s own upgrade schedule. Good job, Verizon!

Whew! All that work makes me hungry. Let’s go to Buffalo Wild Wings. You may recall reading in the Sunlight Blog during the summer that BWW advertised for part-time workers and couldn’t find any. So they scotched the idea and went home. Well, they’re back – and soon we’ll be enjoyin’ them Jammin’ Jalapeño wings with a frosty mug of beer. Still don’t know where the waitstaff is comin’ from. While we’re eating, let’s spend a few moments listening to the local radio station. Hey, they’re doing the Williston Basin Jobs Board.

Announcer: The Pizza Place in Minot is looking for a delivery person with a clean driving record. We pay $15-20/hr to start and a $250 signing bonus. Call 555-5555 and ask for Yoda.

Happy male voice: Hi. I’m Xxx Xxx, manager of the KFC in Sidney. We do chicken right. Here’s Fred, one of our loyal customers: “They do chicken right.” We’re open from 11 to 8 Monday through Friday. Closed on weekends. Got a beef with that? Go to McDonalds.

Dry female voice: Hi. I’m Xxx Xxx, manager of the McDonalds in Sidney. We’re closed. McDs pic-cropOh, you can pull on the doors all you want, but you’re gonna have to settle for the drive-thru which is only open from 11-9. You laughed at our foreign-exchange workers, so this is the best we can do.

                                              –

Walmart sign-cropGlum male voice: Hello. I’m Xxx Xxx, manager of the Walmart in Williston. We do nothing right. Our shelves are always empty. There are pallets of stuff in the middle of the aisles; all the aisles, all the time. We’ll pay you more than I’m making and throw in some benefits, too. Come to work here so your friends won’t have to wait at the checkout for at least 20 minutes. I’m so depressed. Excuse me while I stock the shelves. By myself. Again. Call next week to see if I’m still here.

Well, that was pleasant. I sure hope all those places find workers because we can’t spend all of our money on Amazon.com.

Two more stories about the retail labor shortage. Watford City (pop. 1,744 going on 10,000) has two very small grocery stores. The highly-respected Coborn’s grocery chain in Minnesota wants to expand their reach into North Dakota. They’ll soon build a shopping center in Watford. So they bought Mike’s SuperValu not for its space or inventory, but for its 40 employees.

And here’s the most out-there story of all. Minot’s Menards (home improvement) store has needed 50 more workers since forever. Here’s how they’ll solve the problem: Menards will hire 50 workers at their corporate headquarters in Eau Claire Wisconsin, fly them to Minot, put them up in hotels, pay them perdiem, and fly them back home. Every week! Now do you believe me?

The oil industry has experienced something of a slowdown for the past several months. This is manifest in perceptibly less traffic; the wait at Walmart’s checkouts is down to 15 minutes now; and it takes only an hour to get through the carwash.

Talk with the experts and you won’t find consensus about the reason for the slowdown:

  • The oil companies are waiting to see how President Obama exacts his revenge upon them for having donated so much money to Mitt Romney
  • The EPA will hammer down on the oil industry for damaging the environment, even after the resignation of Administrator Lisa Jackson
  • We don’t believe pigs fly (this will be important when we all fall over “The Fiscal Cliff” and we want to grab onto the nearest flying pig)
  • We’re tapped out from having spent the annual drilling budget already last winter which was snowless and warm
  • We’re trying to catch up with infrastructure, pipelines etc.

Here’s what I think. The price of oil on the world market is low thanks, in part, to our own extractions and to the off-shore drilling being done in Brazil. More product on the market with decreasing U.S. demand – even factoring in the increasing demand in China and India – means lower prices. Simple commodity math. An uptick in pricing could occur if, for example, Iran sneezes without covering its nose; or Yemen refuses to let our tankers play in their sandbox; or the dish runs away with the spoon.

If one of these (or any number of other) scenarios occurs and causes the world price of oil to rise, the suits will consider only one factor: Profit. None of the above-bulleted hypotheses will matter. As long as the bottom line is in the plus column, drill we will.

Which brings us back to workers. The oil companies want so badly to keep them that they’re now giving 15% cost-of-living boosts to their wages and benefits. This makes our Bakken workers the highest paid in the country; even higher than in Alaska where the cost-of-living is higher than San Francisco or Washington D.C. (but without the hot air).

Who are our workers? They are manly men from Louisiana and Arizona and Ohio; indeed, from every state in the union (yes, I’ve even seen a license plate from Hawaii). One day in early October, the thermometer reading fell to 18ºF. You could almost feel the whoosh as manly men headed south. We had our first snowstorm in mid-November. What manly men remained climbed into their chrome-plated, high-steppin’, deisel-fueled, flare-throated, four-wheel-drive pickups and screeched for the warmer climes; some of them screeching sideways on the ice and snow-covered roads. There have been two storms since, and there’s nary a Floridian to be found.

And I don’t mind a bit. Fewer of them means there’s more coffee for me at ‘Daily Addiction’, my favorite shop. I have my eye on a new drive-thru coffee kiosk, however. It’s named ‘C-Cups’. Now, there’s a name I can get behind.

Hope you enjoyed my 2012 Bakken industrial retrospective. Tomorrow, I’ll take a look back at … me!  It’s called, “And In With The New.” In the meantime, here’s a photograph shot from outer space. Note the size of Minneapolis/St.Paul and suburbs, the 14th largest metro in the country. Compare that to the size of the Bakken.

Photo: Int'l Space StationCaptions: midwestenergynews.com

Photo: Int’l Space Station
Captions: midwestenergynews.com


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