Surviving the oil field downturn

Published: May. 21, 2018 at 10:40 PM CDT
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It's been almost 10 years since oil changed the landscape of northwest North Dakota and northeast Montana.

The Bakken boom was spurred by high oil prices and the advent of fracking.

A downturn in prices a few years ago slowed production.

Now, as crude prices begin climbing again, Megan Hoffman takes a look at how companies kept working through the lean years, and are looking forward to more productive days.

It's a familiar site for anyone who's driven through western North Dakota. Oil rigs, flares, pumpers paint the skyline. Liberty Oilfield Services entered the chaotic countryside in 2011 with one crew. Three years later, they had three. But the fall, changes were coming. Oil prices, once over $110 a barrel were half of that by the end of 2014.

"I said no one is gonna lose their job you know look to your left look to your right your job is to help save their jobs we're all in this together and we're keeping everybody.," said Liberty Oilfield Services CEO Chris Wright:

Wright says he never thought about pulling out of the region, even as oil activity deteriorated through 2016, and prices dropped to around $26 a barrel.

Frac Manager Rob McBride said, "Through the downturn we were one of the few companies that were actually hiring personnel while the other companies were laying people off."

While the company cut bonuses and 401k matching, the crews kept working.

Liberty Oil was able to work through the slow down by offering employees a two and two rotation

Fuel Mechanic Nathan Jorgenson said: If it wasn't two and two, I probably wouldn't be here honestly. I got four kids and married for 10 years and the two weeks off is just great for just going to the park with the kids the zoo any you know birthdays and stuff it's just really good

Two and two - meaning two weeks of work, followed by two weeks off, was offered by the company when they started in 2011. It's what drew employees like Rob McBride in.

"It's quality time at home although you're gone 6 months out of the year up here in North Dakota you're working the other 6 months out of the year you actually get to spend at home with your family." said McBride.

And, it keeps bringing people in. McBride says the schedule attracts workers from all over like New York, California, and Florida.

But now, as prices soar over $70 for the first time since 2014, oil and service companies are facing a new problem: finding workers. Cindy Sanford with Williston Job Service says there's over 480 open oil jobs in the northwest corner right now. The problem, she says is part of a larger issue, a shortage of truck drivers with CDLs.

And, it'll be something companies face all summer, as production continues to ramp up. But this time, Sanford says, the area is ready for the chaos.

"It's probably as busy as it was in 2011 but you don't see it because we have the infrastructure," said Sanford.

But, as for what level of craziness in Bakken this time, only a crystal ball will tell.

The number of oil barrels produced per day in the Bakken has dropped each month from December through March. Figures for April aren't available yet. However, the Department of Mineral Resources Director Lynn Helms expects production to be strong the rest of the year.

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