MOUNTRAIL COUNTY, N.D. – For much of last year, Jeep Punteney was a casualty of the global oil price crash that halted North Dakota’s petroleum boom.
His career was on hold for seven months, while he picked up sporadic work in construction.
“I put my résumé out and got into the same line as everyone else,” said Punteney, 42, who went to college for chemical engineering and has spent most of the past two decades working the oil patch.
Now he’s back in the fields.
North Dakota’s oil country boomed to unprecedented heights earlier this decade, transforming the state, beckoning legions of workers from Minnesota and rippling in other ways across the economy of the upper Midwest. Then, as swiftly as it erupted, it crashed, victim of steps by Saudi Arabia and other countries to boost their production.
Prices dropped from around $100 a barrel in 2014 to $30 early last year, bringing big financial losses for companies that had invested heavily in North Dakota production and bankrupting some of them outright. Jobs vanished.
Now there are strong signs of a rebound. Drillers are bringing rigs back. Some companies are scrounging to find enough workers, an about-face for an industry that shed almost half its jobs during the bust.
“The industry is coming back,” said Monte Besler of FRACN8R Consulting in Williston, N.D. “I don’t think it’s as robust as we’d like it to be. But it is definitely improving.”
The optimism remains tentative, as price and production levels would need to rise a lot more to rival the days of the boom. Newer fields in Texas and New Mexico are the hot spots in U.S. shale oil right now, drawing investment that might otherwise flow to North Dakota, the nation’s No. 2 oil producing state.
Nonetheless, North Dakota players that survived the crash started getting more active last fall, when major oil-producing nations agreed to output cuts that pushed prices back over $50 a barrel. Companies have worked to boost productivity, getting leaner to cope with current price levels.
Punteney is back at work supervising new well drilling sites for WPX Energy. What the past few years made clear is that the industry is at the mercy of oil prices.
“When you work in the oil field, you work in a boom-and-bust world,” he said.
Global oil producers extended their output cuts on May 25, but the price of oil indicates continuing uncertainty. The benchmark U.S. oil price closed Friday at $47.66, below the important $50-per-barrel mark.
Oil inventories are still historically high, partly because U.S. oil production has risen sharply since last fall. And while OPEC and Russia — key oil playmakers — have indicated they’ll cap production for the next nine months, they could capitulate and produce full-out, driving down prices.
What made the big difference in U.S. production, particularly in North Dakota, was the advent of the technique known as hydraulic fracking. Last year, the state’s oil production was more than six times what it was in 2008 — despite the bust.
The adoption of fracking prompted companies to pour $30 billion into the region before the downturn. An oil rig is the epitome of a big-time investment: The 13-story, 275-ton movable, mechanical beasts cost about $50,000 to $70,000 per day to operate.
There are now 51 drilling rigs in North Dakota — well below the high of 218 in December 2012 — but up from a low of 27 in May 2016.
They run 24 hours a day, with workers usually putting in 12-hour shifts. As supervisor, Punteney must be constantly at the drilling sites nestled in western North Dakota’s rolling hills. His “living shack” is adjacent to a makeshift office, and he works two weeks on, two weeks off.
On a recent spring day, the rig was drilling three new wells at a site that already hosts three of WPX’s 248 wells in North Dakota. Each of the six wells will reach down 2 miles, then veer horizontally for another 2 miles, the signature pattern of shale oil fracking.
“With six wells, you have a spider web beneath you,” Punteney said.
A native of Wyoming, Punteney started out in the oil business as a pumper — a grunt worker at a well site. Last fall, he was hired by WPX, a company that focuses on U.S. shale oil and gas production. WPX had five rigs operating in North Dakota before the bust, but then cut back to one. It added a second late last year after raising its capital spending budget. Other producers have been doing the same.
With investment rising, oil field employment seems to have turned a corner this spring. In April, the North Dakota job sector that mostly includes oil and gas workers stood at 16,400, up 10 percent over the same month in 2016. April marked the second consecutive month of year-over-year increases in oil jobs.
Meanwhile, online job openings were at a 12-month peak in April — and up 94 percent over a year ago — in “construction and extraction," which includes oil field employment in North Dakota’s four largest oil-producing counties, according to Job Service North Dakota. Active résumés for those jobs were down 52 percent over a year ago, indicating an imbalance between oil jobs and job seekers.
“Companies are not keeping up in hiring,” said Ron Ness, president of the North Dakota Petroleum Council, a trade group. “We are probably looking for 1,000 employees in Williston, Dickinson, Minot and Stanley to fill the needs.”
Ness said the improving U.S. economy and lower unemployment rates generally aren’t helping. “This will be a long-term problem because the entire labor market is pretty tight,” he said.
The oil fields tend to attract nomads — men and women who travel for work but might keep their roots in another state. With an uptick in the overall economy, there are fewer of those willing to travel for higher wages when they can find well-paying jobs at home.
For those at work in the oil fields, prospects are more encouraging these days.
“I sure hope it keeps picking up — that’s what we are all here for,” said Edward Keith, a 35-year-old WPX worker from Ohio.
“I see myself in this industry until I retire,” he said while manning the controls of a fracking operation in McKenzie County.
Keith and four other workers sat staring at computer screens in the “data van,” a sort of command-post trailer at a “completion site.” Here, a drilling rig has come and gone, leaving six wells ready for hydraulic fracking. The place hums 24 hours a day with diesel engines mounted on 16 frack pump trucks — the power supply for the action below.
Torrents of water and sand are pushed under high pressure through the wells — along with a dash of chemicals — creating cracks in shale rock formations. The grains of sand keep the cracks open, allowing oil and gas to flow.
Shale oil operators have been pumping significantly more sand and water in recent years, extracting more oil per well. They’re operating more wells per “pad,” too — another productivity move. With more wells at a single site, oil field services can be centralized. For instance, fewer roads need to be built to individual sites, and a single water line can serve multiple wells.
A decade ago, two wells per pad was a big deal. The six on the WPX site is common nowadays; one North Dakota operator has 18 oil wells on one pad. “This is the biggest single driver helping the efficiency and profitability in North Dakota,” said Besler, the fracking consultant.
Operators are drilling with better cost efficiency, too. A decade ago, it took about 43 days to drill a well, compared with 13 to 18 days now.
Break-even costs for wells in North Dakota’s four biggest oil producing counties fell significantly from mid-2014 through 2016 — over 40 percent in two of them, state data show. Meanwhile, productivity has soared.
New production per oil rig has risen 38 percent in North Dakota’s Bakken oil field over the past year, according to data from Ernst & Young, which does oil industry consulting. However, total oil production on the Bakken had fallen 1.5 percent during the same time, the data show.
North Dakota’s monthly oil production has been oscillating around the 1 million barrels-a-day mark over the past year. “A million barrels per day is a big psychological mark,” said Ness, of North Dakota’s Petroleum Council.
Production peaked at 1.23 million barrels per day in December 2014 and hit bottom at 942,326 barrels per day last December. North Dakota pumped about 1.03 million barrels per day in both February and March — above informal forecasts from the state’s mineral department.
But the Permian shale oil basin in Texas and New Mexico has been a far more upbeat story lately than the Bakken, recovering earlier from the slump. Permian oil production rose 25 percent over the past year, according Ernst & Young.
“Right now, there is a premium for companies operating in the Permian,” said Vance Scott, a senior managing director at Ernst & Young.
The Permian shale play has geological advantages over the Bakken, and it’s closer to the huge oil refining belt on the Gulf Coast.
Still, Scott said he thinks the Bakken will continue to expand. “It’s proven,” he said. “It’s a viable play.”
And the Dakota Access pipeline, which started shipping oil Thursday, should level the playing field somewhat with the Permian, analysts say. While it sparked big protests by American Indians and environmentalists, the Dakota Access is expected to significantly cut transport costs on the Bakken.
The future, though, is always clouded by the oil business’ inherent conundrum.
OPEC production cuts like the ones announced in November tend to boost oil prices, which encourage the U.S. shale oil industry to produce more. Indeed, U.S. oil output is up about 10 percent since early October, adding to the global oversupply.
At $60 per barrel oil, the Bakken is an “attractive” investment, Ness said. At $50, it’s “moderate.” Still, producers and analysts expect North Dakota production to rise in 2017’s second half as a “new normal” sets in.
Without the market “balancing” — supply falling more in line with demand — prices will likely remain soft. Or they could tank again if OPEC producers open the spigot as they did in 2014 to help quash rising U.S. shale oil production.
“That is the cross we bear, historically we have produced ourselves out of business,” Besler said.