A year in North Dakota: Stories of people and change

  • Article by: CURT BROWN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 4, 2014 - 12:13 AM

At the end of a feverish fifth year, it’s easy to paint North Dakota’s oil portrait by numbers: Production is inching toward a million barrels a day, up seven times what it was in 2008.

Thousands of workers have poured in to staff 200 rigs, drilling 2 miles deep to tap a projected 7 billion barrels ­buried in the shale. The state has vaulted ahead of Alaska, trailing only Texas and the Gulf of Mexico in oil extraction. Its once-shrinking population is now growing faster than any other state and its coffers are laced with a $1.6 billion surplus.

Behind all those gaudy numbers, you’ll find countless dreamers and schemers, truck drivers and schoolteachers, frackers and land agents spread across the vast prairie. We’d like to introduce a few more as we wind up our series exploring the state’s transformation as a player in the world’s energy race.

'I hope I'm out here another 20 years'

WATFORD CITY, N.D. - It’s 6:40 a.m. and a dramatic flaming sunrise illuminates the hilly prairie around “Raven Rig No. 1,” one of nearly 200 towering oil rigs drilling around the clock, every day, in western North Dakota.

Billy Peterson and Ivan Welch greet you with a cram course in the nomenclature, the distinct language of an oil rig. Peterson, 36, is the tool pusher, a not-so-lofty title for the rig boss. Welch is the company man, in charge of the site.

The other 20 crew members living in ­trailers around the 152-foot-tall rig include rock hounds (geologists), derrick hands, mud hands, drillers, floor hands, motor hands and directional drillers (who take umbrage when mistaken for rock hounds).

“Go on up,” Peterson says.

So you climb a 31-foot ladder, slick from dew and grease, to the rig floor — a slippery metallic beehive of activity offering a view that stretches for miles. Sparks fly and an acrid smell comes from the burnt steel cable being soldered and unsnaked to prepare for today’s drilling.

Scott Berreth, a 35-year-old derrick hand from Billings, Mont., steps into a harness and is hoisted up like a circus acrobat, using a wrench to bang things in place some 10 ­stories up at the rig’s crown. Soft light filters in on a series of dangling black pipes, hanging like oversized salami in a deli.

When everything is ready, a huge overhead piece of machinery swings into place. Floor hands Ray Gerrish from Utah and Texan ­Russell Girsh slather the pipes with grease and connect them.

Grinding noise from the drill brake signals that drilling is underway, spinning a drill bit 2 miles deep in the Three Forks formation below the North Dakota prairie. The drill bit will eventually twist and veer off horizontally.

When the holes are set in a few weeks, the entire rig will be lifted on its four feet and moved one-third of a mile, making two turns, to its next drilling site.

Then dozens of fracking trucks will come in and pound in water, chemicals and round silica sand from Wisconsin and Minnesota, exploding the shale for oil extraction. Eventually, pumps come in and pull the oil out and deposit it into tanks until trucks and trains move it to fuel-thirsty consumers.

The scene, with rigs drilling holes before frack operators get the crude flowing, repeats itself at roughly 200 sites across the prairie — producing nearly a million barrels a day.

“I hope I’m out here another 20 years,” says Peterson, who works two weeks on and two weeks off, returning to six kids a dozen-hour drive away in Wyoming. He’s been working on drilling rigs since he was hired as a maintenance roustabout at 17.

“When the days are going good, I ain’t got a whole lot to do and might even take a nap,” the tool pusher says. “When days are going bad, I can be up for three days straight.

“It’s good for us workwise, and good for the country,” he says. “Maybe we can start making some money off this stuff instead of buying it all the time.”

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