North Dakota Oil Diary: "It's always scary, until you get used to it"

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In my previous post about North Dakota's Bakken oil fields, I included a conversation with two young waitresses about their journey from opposite sides of the country to almost the dead northern middle. The girls had left their homes on the coasts with their boyfriends, searching for work in what they had heard was the beginning of an all-out oil boom.

They found it, and the boom continues. In North Dakota's northwestern counties, there are almost 90 drilling rigs operating, up from 67 when I was there in April. Governor John Hoeven and oil industry leaders held a press conference this month announcing plans to expand the state's pipeline and railway capacity for moving crude, and wells across the region continue to gush at a promising rate. North Dakota Bakken experts are projecting the state's move from the 7th largest oil producing state in the country to the 5th, overtaking one of the historical big dogs, Oklahoma.

MP3: Listen to Bill Schmitt, a rig manager, describe his drilling operation in the North Dakota Bakken
October 28, 2008: Photos from the Bakken oil fields
August 26, 2008: North Dakota Oil Diary: "People around here need to be ready to change"
August 26, 2008: View a slideshow of photos from North Dakota
August 1, 2008: A looming fuel crisis leads to a boon for North Dakotans
July 23, 2008: Documentary filmmaker tracks an oil boom in North Dakota

But the broader background to the Bakken story looks a little different now than it did at the end of the summer. Last week, oil dropped below $90 a barrel for the first time in months, after a mid-summer high of almost $150. The mounting global financial crisis has rattled every corner of the economy and weakened demand for oil. Maybe this means cheaper gas for us, but it could also mean that some expensive drilling doesn't look as attractive as it did before Labor Day.

Not in North Dakota. A Wall Street energy analyst explained to me the prices at which it makes sense to drill in the Bakken, given the cost of the necessary technology. According to his numbers, the rate of return for drilling is 75 to 85 percent when oil is at $95 a barrel. Even at $55, the rate of return is still 20 to 25 percent.

It seems natural to take a look now at what drilling is like on the ground — the very domestic drilling that's been so hotly contested in recent presidential debates. Whether it's "drill, baby, drill," or "drill, drill, drill," that's exactly what continues at a healthy clip in Mountrail, Dunn, and other counties across North Dakota's Bakken region.

When I went to North Dakota in the spring, one of my biggest concerns was how to get on a drilling rig. Supposedly gone are the days of beer cans clanking in the back of pick-ups as roughnecks show up for their shifts. From what I've been told, there are no more cowboys out there drilling with their helmets off; or, if there are, they're bound to get shut down it they get found out. Today's oil companies are obsessively (and rightly) concerned with safety, and this has a created a climate of restraint and voluminous red tape when it comes to letting outsiders onto a rig. I didn't show up in North Dakota backed by network news or with the resources of a big independent film production, and I feared I wouldn't have a chance at getting on a rig to really see what's going on.

For this reason, I was very lucky to find Jack. A towering man from Colorado with a kind growl and a huge belt buckle, I ran into him at an oil industry convention in Minot, N.D., on one of my last days in town. He owns an oil company that drilled one of the first wells on the Fort Berthold Indian reservation near Mandaree. I told him I wanted to get on a rig. I held my breath for the inevitable response: Call my PR person. Instead, Jack smiled warmly and nodded his head; "No problem. Let me see what I can do."

A day later, Dawson, the cameraman, and I bumped down pot-holed concrete roads and then narrow dirt tracks, jostling around in our seats and kicking up gales of dust. We were heading way out, past Minot, past tiny Newtown and Stanley, where we'd already been filming, and into the empty hill country south of Lake Sakakawea. We passed a herd of buffalo, grazing and dozing in the afternoon sun. We crested hill after hill. Finally, after we were sure we were lost, a tower emerged on the horizon, an enormous tower of steel breaking the endless hush of the surrounding grassland.

New trailers surrounded the tower, and the tower was pumping a massive sheath of steel downward, with a monotonous, inevitable grind. Trucks from a smattering of western states stood guard on the perimeter. A man wearing coveralls smeared in grease sauntered up and greeted us, then took us to meet Bill.

Bill manages the 40-odd men that work on the rig. He has led drilling rigs in every imaginable corner of the globe, but he hails from Wyoming, a home he only sees every couple of weeks at best. We talked for a while in his office, and then he slapped helmets on our heads and gloves on our hands. We toured the drilling site from platform to mud pit, with Bill raising his calm voice over the grunting and creaking of the massive machines that keep the operation running. These are multi-million dollar pieces of equipment that drill two miles down and then turn 90-degrees through subterranean rock, and they'll chop your fingers off if you're not careful.

Bill's work is tough work. The men that do it (it's mostly men, still, out on these rigs) sacrifice the comfort of a stable home life for the promise of high wages and the gratification of dangerous physical labor. These men move with a rig from location to location — this week North Dakota, next week Alaska, or Russia — and they get accustomed to being outsiders in every town they come across. Rig-workers brave punishing conditions, interminable hours and long stretches of loneliness, but, as Bill explains, it's "just a large group of guys trying to make a good living."

You can hear here what Bill has to say about the promise of the North Dakota Bakken and life working on a rig. There's a lot of footage to go along with Bill's words, and I'll post that soon, too. But for now, the diary is taking a pause.

I work for a documentary company here in New York, and we're producing a film and a website for the PBS program FRONTLINE, about the impact of digital media on the way we live. Our first big shoot is in just a few days in Seoul, the pulsing heart of the most wired country in the world. In a lot of ways, this couldn't feel farther from the rig outside of Mandaree. And for now, at least on the pages of this diary, the rig will sit for a while. We'll pick it up again soon, although Bill and his team have probably long moved on.

— Caitlin McNally