Friday, July 8, 2011

Escape From the Oil Patch

Thirty years ago, I spent a few summers working for my uncle in the Wyoming oil patch. It is hard, nasty, dirty work. During one summer, I worked near Gillette, Wyoming. I used to count the number of trailer houses in caravans as they went down the interstate. Trucks everywhere. Dirt everywhere. My feelings about Gillette have never changed much. Until this week.

I was born a few miles from Williston, North Dakota just over the Montana line. I come back here primarily to hunt pheasants in the fall. This year, death and illness have prompted my return.

They are calling the Bakken formation the biggest oil discovery in modern history. It is relatively common for Bakken oil wells to produce 2500 to 5000 barrels per day. This is enormous. Williston is ground zero in the oil patch. It makes Gillette look like a ghost town.

I have never seen so many trucks concentrated anywhere. They are destroying the streets and roads. Oilfield workers are living in RV's and paying 2500 a month to live in trailer houses. They have "man camps" which are fully transportable blocks of housing that are springing up everywhere in the patch, some new camps near Trenton. These things are barely a couple of hundred square feet per worker. Drilling rigs are drilling and moving, leaving pumps and storage tanks behind. They burn the natural gas off. There are dots of flame visible everywhere at night. It kind of makes me gasp. It is choreographed chaos and is certainly not the Williston of my youth. 

The local Walmart is a disaster zone. There were 21 carts of merchandise strewn about today behind the check stands. I have tried 3 times to change the oil in our car- today's wait was 4 hours. Back in the store, entire sections and aisles are decimated and empty. McDonalds in the morning is simply a non starter. The entire oil patch eats there. Two lines of cars, two lines of people all the way out the entrance.

I've been here nearly 10 days. It is dirty, the bugs are ferocious, and there is flooding and standing water everywhere. The smell of stagnant water. 

But there are jobs. Hundreds of them everywhere. Twenty bucks an hour and up. The drilling rigs are power assisted now- so you are not lifting 100 lb tongs or slips. Drilling in sub zero temperatures day after day with 30 mile an hour winds is no bargain. Summer's tolerable, winter will just flat kick your ass. They drug test too. Wow. That would have left all the workers in Gillette unemployed.

The other day, I parked along side a rig and just watched. I saw a gal scraping a site in an excavator across the road. And for just a minute, I thought it might be fun to do that work again. Make that a second. I came to my senses quickly. The oil patch is for young-uns, old oil men and geologists making bank, corporate America and all of the suppliers. It is no place for old men with torn ligaments.

I have my escape plan laid out. My car is covered in dirt and mud. I'll wash it off when I quit seeing trucks. Maybe in Miles City.

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