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BOOM TIMES : New confidence in the old Basin

SOUTH OF TIOGA, N.D. - Lynn Mehus steers his big company pickup down the scoria road, down through the breaks above the Missouri River at its most northward curve, to the location of Nabors 265.

SOUTH OF TIOGA, N.D. - Lynn Mehus steers his big company pickup down the scoria road, down through the breaks above the Missouri River at its most northward curve, to the location of Nabors 265.

The drilling rig, set up just two days before on this tidy Williams County location, fits between the north shore of Lake Sakakawea and clay bluffs to the north.

It's one of 54 rigs - as of this late October day - busily drilling holes into North Dakota's growing oil patch.

Just a year ago, there were 40 rigs drilling, and the new "hot spot," a pool of oil near Parshall had just been discovered, one of the biggest in the Williston Basin.

Mehus, who lives in Stanley, oversees four drilling operations as a drilling superintendent for Nabors Drilling. He has worked the oil patch for about 30 years, and this is the hottest it's been since the last boom burst in the early 1980s, he said.


Mehus saw the last boom in the Williston Basin in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

This boom, or surge, looks like it might be bigger and longer than the last one, partly because it's being handled more carefully, Mehus said, echoing what many here say.

There's more at stake, he said.

Oil prices keep climbing, going over $93 a barrel in recent days for the first time. In inflation-adjusted terms, that's near the all-time high hit in about 1980, when rig 265 was new.

The highest annual oil production in the state was 52.7 million barrels in 1984. Last year, just fewer than 40 million barrels were produced. It looks like this year's total will be about 43 million barrels, based on production so far.

Drilling a new oil well can cost $5 million to $6 million, Mehus said.

Only a few miles north of rig 265 is a granite memorial to the first oil well that came in 56 years ago.

Both Clarence Iverson, the landowner, and his namesake oil well are gone now, but the county highway that goes by here also bears Iverson's name.


The well "opened a new era for North Dakota and reaffirmed the confidence of her people in the opportunity and future of this great state," say the words etched in stone a half-century ago.

There maybe hasn't been this much confidence in the state's oil patch since then.

That's largely because of relatively new techniques that allow drilling rigs such as rig 265 to get petroleum out of oil-infused rock, known as the Bakken Formation, in ways that weren't possible during the last boom 25 years ago.

Oil field confidence

Nabors 265 "spudded in" on Oct. 22. Within two days, surface casing pipe has been put down to 2,200 feet.

On this day, a crew from Schlumberger is "cementing" in the casing, sending high-pressure concrete down 2,200 feet to make a permanent setting for the drilling and for the well once it's "in."

The drilling will continue down another 7,500 feet or so, then move out in a lateral leg almost two miles long, following the Bakken Formation.

If things go as planned, two more such lateral legs will be drilled in the same hole, a crow's foot approach to draw in oil. Then, the rig will be skidded a few yards over, same sort of well drilled about two miles down, and then a third hole will go down.


It means this rig will be here half a year, Mehus said. The three multi-lateraled wells will drain oil from a total of 3,840 acres. At least one of the lateral holes will go south of the rig, all the way under Lake Sakakawea.

New technology and older knowledge of this oil patch gives Mehus confidence about the drilling prospects. In the old days, maybe 25 percent of the wells drilled produced oil. Now, just about every hole does. Dry holes are nearly a thing of the past, as current economics make it worth taking out any oil found.

On 256, the bowling-ball-sized drill bit is powered not so much mechanically, but by hydraulic power transmitted through "mud," sent under pressure through the drill pipe, turning a turbined "mud motor" that sits in a heavy casing just above the bit. The mud, cut with diesel fuel, keeps everything lubricated as well as powered, and, shot out of eyeholes in the bit, also helps clean out the hole as it goes.

Holes in the last joints of liner pipe allow for the "fracking" technique, in which sand and mud and water are used to fracture, or break up the shale rock in the formation so the oil will flow into the long length of perforated well pipe laid along the Bakken deep underground, almost like a sump pump and drain tile, Mehus said.

Mehus said he's surprised himself at the changes he's seen in the oil patch when he stops to think about it, and he's a man obviously not surprised by much.

He regularly dips into a round can of chew and puts a load deep down his bottom lip. Like many of the men in authority in the oil patch, Mehus doesn't say a lot and doesn't seem to have to say much.

Explaining how the same steel pipe he helped drop into vertical holes for years now can be used to slowly curve a drill hole 90 degrees to the horizontal, Mehus admits, "I never would have dreamed you could do that with this pipe."

He's part of the industry's faster and more efficient drilling.


"In 1980, it would take 60 days to drill 13,000 feet," Mehus said. "It takes 22 days now."

The workers

Mehus is watching one of his children follow in this footsteps a little.

"My son worked on an oil rig this summer," he said. "He said he liked it."

At $26 an hour, with regular overtime scheduled into the 12-hour days, "four on, four off," that the roughnecks work, that's pretty good money for the Minot State University student, Mehus said.

But his son also isn't sure about committing to the oil patch, probably because he saw how much time it kept his father away from home, Mehus said.

Luke Underdahl grew up on a farm near Makoti, N.D., and has been working on the Nabors 265 rig for six months as a roughneck. He still wears an orange, not a white, hardhat on location, a sign to everyone that he's a new guy, Mehus said. That's for safety's sake - to watch out for him - not to mark him as a greenhorn.

Safety is taken much more seriously now than several decades ago, Mehus said.


"Back when I was roughnecking, many hands didn't even wear a harness on the derrick," he recalled, shaking his head a little at the memory.

Rig crews hold safety meetings before every big change on the rig to make sure everyone is on the same page. The pace isn't as hectic as it was 25 years ago, Mehus said, because accidents and mistakes are too costly now.

Underdahl likes his new job, he said, not least because of the unmatchable pay. "Someone said you gotta make hay when the sun shines," he said. "That makes sense to me."

He goes home to Makoti on his four days off. When working, he stays with three other guys - another roughneck, a derrick hand and the driller - in a "shack," which really is a tight, cozy rig trailer parked in a "camp" in Tioga, 20 miles away.

The shack is no shack and is kept clean. The rules are strict, posted on the wall: "no alcohol, no drugs, clean up your own mess." The penalty for violating the rules is being fired.

The place is much neater than many male college students' dorm rooms.

The driller, Tim Dvirnak, is the top guy in the four-man crew. A Killdeer, N.D, rancher, he's worked off and on in the oil patch for more than 20 years, "whenever I get hungry," he said with his big grin. It's clear he takes care of the younger guys on the crew, going out to eat with them, making sure they get their sleep.

Patch lingo


Some things haven't changed on the drilling rigs from the old days.

The "Geronimo line" still runs from high on the derrick to a steel stake on the edge of the location, marked with colored flags. Fastened to it on the derrick is a big handle. If something goes utterly wrong on the derrick, like a blowout and fire, a roughneck upstairs can make a fast exit - riding down the Geronimo line is the theory.

Mehus has never seen it needed.

The lingo of the oil field is unique and makes much of what is said incomprehensible to newcomers.

There are kellys, tongs, dies and blocks up on the rig; dog houses, mud houses, pipestands, BOPs, long strings.

In the oil field, foremen or managers are called "pushers." There are rig pushers, tool pushers and truck pushers.

Donnie Fladeland, of New Town, N.D., is "tool pusher" on Nabors 265. Officially, in the more professional language now used increasingly on the oil patch, he's rig manager. He works seven days on, seven days off. On his days on, he lives on location, in a rig shack on the edge of the drilling site, responsible 24 hours a day for the drilling and for Nabors' equipment.

Fladeland can monitor everything happening "down the hole," including moment-to-moment pressure changes, via computer from his shack or up on the rig in the mud shack.

He has ranched all his life with his brother and left the oil patch during slow years when his kids were in school. But asked to come back, he did and found it hard to quit.

"I don't know any profession around here that makes what we make out here," Fladeland said.

The consultant

Working next to Fladeland on location is the company consultant, representing Headington Oil, which owns this well. The consultants also work seven days on, seven off, and are on site 24 hours a day, making sure everything goes the way the oil company wants.

They actually are employed by Petroleum Experience, a local company based in Williston started by David "Pete" Peterson. It's one example of many local oil field service companies that spring up, doing everything from fixing pumps, welding iron or spraying weeds.

Forty years ago, Peterson came out of Minot State with a teaching degree. But summer jobs on the oil patch got it in his blood. "I just couldn't wait to get out there every morning," he said of his first job as a "roustabout."

He ditched the teaching idea and, pressed by an oil company, got a petroleum engineering degree in Laramie, Wyo., then came back to the Williston Basin.

More than 20 years ago, he started WellPro Inc., a "fishing" company, as well as Petroleum Experience. Fishing means going down a well hole, using expensive milled "tools," to recover any equipment broken a mile or two or three underground. The tools, of myriad diameters and lengths, are made with inside rifling that can grab a piece of broken pipe like a Chinese finger cuff, Peterson said. WellPro is called when something goes wrong on a rig.

Peterson's Petroleum Experience consulting company is there to make sure nothing does go wrong.

His drilling rig consultants can make $200,000 to $300,000 a year, he said. "And they are worth every penny."

They have just high school degrees in some cases, but earned Ph.D.s in the "school of hard knocks," with 25 or 30 years experience in the oil patch, Peterson said. That is invaluable, he added, not just because they can fix whatever goes wrong. "The truth is, if you have an experienced guy, he's not going to have anything go wrong out there."


But it's hard to find enough new workers, Peterson and everyone on the oil patch says.

With long-term rural depopulation, there aren't as many young men left on farms and ranches to fill jobs on the oil patch, like there were 20 or 30 years ago, Peterson said. Now, most new oil patch workers come from towns or cities, with little experience working with machinery or just heavy labor, Peterson said.

"Some of these kids can't even start a lawn mower," he said.

It means more emphasis on safety and training, and a slower pace to teach new workers the business, he said.

This fall, Williston State College began a new class teaching people how to work on a drilling rig, using a rig and other equipment donated by oil companies, and a state grant.

Mehus said his son got two weeks of company training this summer before setting foot on a real rig. Back when he broke in 30 years ago, like every roughneck then, he just showed up on location and learned on the job, up on the rig.

Now, roughnecks are given regular drug tests. Many people applying for the jobs don't pass their initial one, he said.

It wasn't unusual 30 years ago to see roughnecks working on the rig hung over, or even tasting the hair of the dog that bit them the night before, Mehus said. Now, even seeing an empty beer can in a roughneck's pickup on location can lead to firing him, he said.

Market hurdles

The boom here is being stifled a little not only by a shortage of workers, but by too much oil without ways to get it to market.

There are about 125,000 barrels of oil coming out of North Dakota every day now, the highest since the early 1980s.

Some wells have had to be temporarily closed or slowed down, because there's no way to get all the oil off site to refineries in Mandan, N.D., the Twin Cities, or elsewhere.

An announcement only days ago by Enbridge Energy Partners "was very significant news," said Ron Ness, executive director of the North Dakota Petroleum Council this week. Enbridge said it plans to expand its pipeline from the oil patch through Grand Forks to Clearbrook, Minn., by an additional 51,000 barrels of capacity per day.

"Obviously, they are doing that in response to customers," Ness said, "and it suggests our crude oil production is going to increase."

Reach Herald reporter Stephen J. Lee at (701) 780-1237; (800) 477-6572, ext. 237; or slee@gfherald.com .

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