Sunlight Shining Through Cloud

Archive for the ‘The Oil Patch’ Category

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


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

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:

Photo: Int’l Space Station

It was exactly the kind of July day you’d expect south of the border. The sun blazed without mercy. The usual breezes were absent. The dust hung lazily in the air. Thermometers agreed: 107ºF. The cattle didn’t do their customary mozy from one field to another. Today, they stayed put…in the drinking ponds. (Click to enlarge.)

Stayin’ cool in the pool

Nuthin’ unusual about this until you consider that the border I was south of was the Canadian border.

You probably have a fair concept of the Mexican border: multi-lane traffic jams at the crossings; high fencing everywhere else…gotta keep the bad guys out. But did you ever wonder about our northern border? Maybe you’ve crossed through in a one- or two-lane affair. Fencing? Not so much.

…and the old one. (Pics taken before planting)

The new border marker

Our Border Patrol keeps a never-ending eye on access points not located on any map. They have mounted cameras and motion detectors. They actually do catch ne-er do wells who would traffic drugs or perpetrate terrorism on our lands. You rarely see our good guys around…until they’re needed…then they’re there like white on rice…right out of nowhere.

I spend a fair amount of time near the border. I’m so close so often that the Patrol probably has an active file with my name on it. (Thank God I was 16 when I committed my last crime.) Lately, they’ve even waved at me as I approach on the back roads. Have I passed muster, or do they wave at everyone?

The two-fingered wave. Farmers and truckers alike…most will lift a couple of fingers from the steering hand to acknowledge you; it’s the regional courtesy. I’ve seen variations elsewhere. I’m glad they do it here.

I’ve written before of the pleasure of meeting and doing business with people who live off the beaten path. It almost always evolves into something of a friendship.

In the tiny town of Westby Montana, only six miles from the border, there’s a farmer’s co-op, a hardware store, a restaurant and a very small grocery store: Al’s Meats. I didn’t think much of Al’s the first time I walked in. It’s just an old, hardwood floor place whose shelves are stocked with the essentials. I soon came to realize, though, that Al’s had a major reputation for quality meats.

100-year-old cutting tables on left

Al’s Meats in Westby MT (pop.168)

First, I bought beef jerky that didn’t pull my teeth out. Then I started bringing Al’s bacon back for the home folks. Every time I go through Westby, I shop at Al’s. Now they know me by name. I like that.

But back to the border. When the oil trucks aren’t roaring past, it’s an incredibly peaceful place. You can hear yourself think. You wonder what the countryside looked like before they started poking holes in it. You wonder how much longer the locals will tolerate the intrusion before finally deciding to flee. For now, they’re holding their own. It’s all they have ever known. It’s their land. It’s what they love.

The access trail to my northernmost landowner actually crosses over into Saskatchewan before curling back into the U.S.  The first couple of times I went there,  I felt the eyes of the Border Patrol upon me. But no matter…once on the farm, the utter peace and quiet make the trip worthwhile. This is the way American settlers have lived for many generations. City boy that I am, I find myself wondering if I could fit into this lifestyle.

It’s a nice thought.

He pulled the gleaming new Silverado into the gravel parking lot and rolled to a stop near us. Gary said to me, “This guy lost his wife in an accident last month at Four Mile Corner.” He then walked over to the driver’s side and extended his iron-strong hand.

The guy might have been sixty, hadn’t had a haircut in a while, was wearing a plaid shirt and the obligatory ball cap. Maybe a farmer or a rancher, his face had seen its share of weather. His lenses tinted dark in the morning sun. He reached into a shirt pocket and joined Gary in a cigarette. From the other pocket, he drew some photographs.

“This is what hit us,” he said. “He t-boned us so hard, it knocked the fifth-wheel right out of the bed of the pickup. The airbags didn’t inflate. Her shoulder belt held so tight that it broke some ribs. EMS got three calls from the scene, but didn’t send a paramedic until a fireman called; I had to cut her out. They took us to the hospital. She had a punctured lung. She went into cardiac arrest three times. They airlifted us to Minot.”

Upwards of twenty-thousand trucks move through Williston’s Four Mile Corner every day. Add to that the cars and pickups and you have a real mess. They put traffic lights there a couple of months back, and a truck destroyed the intersection’s control box just a week later. It’s been flashing yellows and reds ever since. Testosterone-fueled decision-making yields a harrowing experience for all. I could just hear the truck driver tell the cops, “I thought I could make it.”

I was getting my car fixed at Gary’s shop. It’s a mammoth-sized garage that he’s run by himself for generations. Tools of all kinds and ages are strewn about and Gary knows the location of each one. Johnny Cash plays from the radio, and calendars with drawings of beautiful naked women hang high up on the walls. They date back to 1953.

The garage also serves as a gathering place. When I first came here on Wednesday, I learned that the price of admission was a case of beer for the community fridge. It was too early for beer, today, so I brought a dozen donuts fresh from the bakery. Coffee and donuts and assorted neighbors; the conversation ranged from the Oil Patch to the Vietnam War to rebuilding the church west of here. Somewhere in the middle of that, Gary started working on my car.

And now he handed the pictures back to the Silverado guy. “How are you doing?” Gary asked. “Well, I’m doin’ okay, I guess,” was the brave answer. “Don’t think I’ll buy another fifth-wheel, though. I’m headed for family in Minnesota. Maybe I’ll come back after summer.” And for just a moment, I thought Gary was going to hug him…but that’s not his way.

I may not have much in this life right now. What I do have is the ability to breathe and walk.

And I have a good mechanic.

I hear it all the time: “It’s really hard to exaggerate what’s going on around here.” Monstrous industrial buildings are going up almost overnight. Entire trainyards, replete with thousands of freshly-minted tankers, are embossed to the countryside in days. Networks of pipelines are planted six feet under as if by moles.

Natives have been rolling (or reeling) with the changes for several years. Newcomers become initiated quickly; a period then followed by an effort to sink stakes into a continually shifting landscape. Such is “The Bakken,” where four billion barrels of recoverable crude are known, and several times that number are predicted. There is a softly-spoken undertone to the daily dialog: “We ain’t seen nuthin’ yet, and we ain’t necessarily lookin’ forward to what’s comin’.

So human nature kicks in and we inoculate ourselves against future shock. We hang on to those things which have made life comfortable all along; we try to find new ways to improve our lot.

Then something comes along — something so unusual, so remarkable — that it actually merits our gaze; needs to be shared and talked about. I came upon these items just in the past week.

I’ve written before about the proliferation of “man camps:” large collections of trailers offering the downsized amenities of home. This small man camp just sprouted up west of Williston. (Click to enlarge.)

Not bad if you can handle a little claustrophobia. Keeping that in mind, you might be interested in this:

For $25,000 (plus options), you can buy a VEC Housing Unit.

“The Cube” is about eight-feet square inside with a seven-foot ceiling, has a fold down table, mini-fridge, countertop, microwave, lockable dresser, closet, and a 32″ flat panel TV. A toilet and/or sink can be added as options, but they’ll take away from the aforementioned space occupiers, and you can forget about adding a shower. This is a living space for (not one, but) two people who sleep on the skinniest of bunks. The Cube is insulated to 30°F below zero, and has an air conditioner on its roof to hum you through those hot summer nights. Williston’s Walmart is the exclusive purveyor of these humble abodes. Hurry and buy yours now. Four of them are on display in the parking lot. Bring your own forklift.

The headline read: “Buffalo Wild Wings Not Coming To Williston.” That’s news?  Something’s not going to happen? As it turns out, the Twin Cities-based restaurant chain was examining the possibility of entering this market. So they placed a classified ad in the local paper which offered $12-15/hr to prospective part-time staffers. No one responded. That was an inexpensive way for the company to learn that there isn’t a sufficient pool of workers for such things as cooking, serving, and busing tables. If you’re qualified, you’re making twice that in a man camp dining hall. Of course, there won’t be a lovely dining experience awaiting when you get off work.

Since we’re on the subject of food…lunch trucks are rolling in from all corners of the country. Local city and county governments are trying to get them licensed for tax purposes and inspected for health conformity. One small town has just relegated all of its food trucks to the fairgrounds and is meting out stiff daily rental fees for the privilege. This, of course, raises prices. Oilfield workers are happy to pay the premium; happier still for the variety of available cuisines. If there’s one thing we don’t have here, it’s variety. Or quantity. I guess that’s two things.

One thing we don’t have for sure is an amusement park atmosphere, so someone got the bright idea to bring it here. This food vendor magically appeared one day last week. It’s parked right next to a man camp, of course, and there’s always a customer or two queued up in front. Color! That’s what we need more of. Cover the monotonous greens and earth-tones with carnival colors. That’ll pick up the mood.

But when the day is done, you have to go home to your man camp or cube. Maybe you were smart and brought your own RV. Sorry about the lot rental fees. Back in civilization, that kind of loot would make the mortgage payment on a nice house. But maybe you’re making enough money to cover that and still have some left over. Well then, you are a candidate for this: an enclosed RV park. Yes, a Minnesota developer who smells money  sees opportunity  has identified a need has just received a permit to build ten structures with enough space to contain 240 RV’s. It’ll include all hookups and laundry facilities. Sign up today! Lots are going fast. So is your hard-earned cash.

It’s quality of life issues that I hear people talking about. Natives and newcomers alike: dirt, traffic and noise and the increasing cost of living here. And crime.

Perhaps I’m naïve. I hear about crime in The Oil Patch and wonder, “Who has time for that? We’re all working too hard; making too much money; sending it back home; using our precious free time to rest up for the next day’s work.” My view is likely a product of seeing the good in human nature a few milliseconds before the bad.

Local police report that the crime rate has not increased. What has increased is the number of people in this once-peaceful town. And with that has proportionately grown the number of crimes.

There are a couple of bars near the train station. Until recently, the warning was that all bad things start from there. Now, the bad seems pervasive.

The word is out across the country: ‘The Oil Patch has jobs and money; it doesn’t have the usual number of outlets at which normal hard-working citizens can recreate.’ So those outlets are streaming here along with all of the other opportunity seekers, bringing with them their proclivities for doing good or doing bad. Unfortunately, those who would do good are muted because good news rarely makes headlines. It may also be true that the opportunities to do good are diminished by extended work hours and efforts to maintain relationships back home by various means.

And then there are criminal opportunists: people who come here specifically to do their misdeeds in a land fat with money. No need for a recitation of their activities; it’s just like any other big city now.

Residents who are used to leaving their homes and cars unlocked are unhappy that the hometown peace has been replaced by the boomtown reality.

And this. Somewhere between 9,000 and 20,000 trucks roll through here every day. If you do the unpleasant math, that means that a whole lot of truckers have to “go” as they pass through the city. And as we all know, when you hafta “go”…   The problem is that there are no truck stops along the entire Williston corridor. And you can’t pull your semi into McDonalds.

Here’s what’s happening: truckers are filling their soda bottles and are tossing them out the window onto the roadside at cruising speed. This joins some even more disgusting human waste and other litter: hypodermic needles, for example.

Knowing this, residents — who were previously disposed to keeping their environs clean — have become indisposed to spring cleanup efforts. It’s not just trash pick up anymore…it’s life-threatening.

The situation got some buzz early this week. I’m now hearing of citizens and company groups who will gather this weekend and brave through the hazards in Williams and McKenzie Counties to keep their highways clean.

It’s easy to see the bad in people: they’re in your face all the time. But sometimes you have to celebrate the good in people, too. It makes living here, well, livable.

I am a product of the big city. I frequently (not-so-jokingly) say that I like bus fumes and skyscrapers. I once worked for a man who grew up on a farm. For him, nothing smelled sweeter than cow dung, and the sight of a distant red barn made him feel all warm inside. He always hated his trips to New York, and it took me a full six years to warm up to his cow-barn Green Bay WI. But I did, ultimately, adapt. And then he transferred me to Minneapolis.

I’ve probably made too much of the fact that The Oil Patch will be an acquired taste, but it’s an issue I have to deal with every day. And it’s something I have to overcome because this is the opportunity available to me now and I intend to fully capitalize on it. It’s probably my last shot before retirement.

So, I’ve taken little trips: explorations of my surroundings; searches for beauty. Allow me to share.

We’ll start near home. The heart of Sidney Montana is a mere two miles from the banks of the mighty Yellowstone River. (Click to enlarge.)

The placid Yellowstone on a Sunday afternoon

Note the massive rock formation on the other side. This is a hint of “The Badlands:” a geological feature in fair supply around these parts.

The view toward the confluence with the Missouri River.

Some stumps speak for themselves.

There's plenty of wildlife here, though I have - thus far - seen only the roadkill variety. But I have seen sheep before shearing.

But mostly, it’s the northern “Plains;” so-called because the landscape is, well, plain. This is what I see in abundance every day.

Yes, it's beautiful.

Call me weird…but after days-on-end of rolling plains, this is an oasis in the desert.

The brand-new Bakken Buffet on Hwy 85 just east of SH 68 in McKenzie County ND. The food is fabulous. Lots of semi parking.

And Pat and Shanelle, mother and daughter, help bring warmth to the cockles of every heart. How could they not? They’re from New York!

Nature is nice. But it's always good people who make a place feel like home.

Most of the back roads around here don’t have speed limit signs. This one did: 45mph. I had to laugh…it’d be pushing if I exceeded 15. Another thing the back roads don’t have is pavement. There’s dirt, gravel and potholes.

One thing we have in abundance here is back roads. And that’s where my current project finds me. I have an armload of contracts needing the signatures of certain landowners – most of whom live on homesteads and farms way off the beaten path.

I’ve found myself feeling sorry for a thing: my car. This is a new experience for me. And it.

I’ve treated my little car well since acquiring it over 75,000 miles ago. But as I rumble over the countryside in pursuit of my mission, I have living nightmares of nuts and bolts vibrating loose and parts falling off the frame. I have visions of vacuuming inches of accumulated dust from the choked-up air filter compartment. I wonder how soon it will be before the windshield will need replacement. I inspect the tires each time I approach the car and wonder how the donut will fare when it is inevitably deployed.

A quick check with the locals offers no reassurance: the worst-case scenario is the reality of life in the wild west. And in a world replete with things to fear, the single most-dreaded thing here is scoria.

A scoria roadbed

Imagine red bricks, partially crushed. It’s in chunks now with jagged, sharp and pointy edges. That’s scoria: a substance that has never met a tire it didn’t destroy. Scoria makes an excellent road bed; it compacts well and can handle heavy trucks. But it’s supposed to be covered by softer, rounder gravel. The fact that it isn’t is a product of our times — the oilfields have drawn away the workers and other resources needed to complete jobs like road building.

And so, the vehicular torture happens whether I minister it in fast- or slow-motion. The best I can hope for is that the doors don’t fall off.

There is an upside to all of this: the people I get to meet. I’ve been thinking for hours how I’d characterize them. All manner of tired cliché came to mind. Instead, I’ll describe them like this:


I saw this picture in three kitchens just today. It describes – better than words – the reward I get at the end of every rough road.

  • 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.

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