Over the last four years, it seems like all conversations in and about North Dakota have centered on oil and the impact it has made on the local landscape, culture and bank accounts.
Countless stories have been written and who knows how many more have yet to play out.
Last Monday, I was fortunate enough to see, smell and touch the source of those stories thanks to a rig tour provided by Whiting Petroleum Corp.
Blaine Hoffmann, Whiting’s superintendent for the Northern Rockies based in Dickinson, accompanied me and two European journalists to a rig southwest of Belfield. My main duty on the tour was to assist and be a photographer for Swiss journalist Charlotte Jacquemart, a business reporter for the New Zurich Times, who is in western North Dakota reporting on the oil boom and hydraulic fracturing.
Now I’ve read a lot about oil and the boom and have had a hand in some stories. But on Monday, I finally got my education.
In five hours, I learned that a journalist can read and write all they want about the industry. But it takes a first-hand look at what actually happens on a rig to truly understand the sheer size and scope of the impact oil exploration is having on southwest North Dakota, both culturally and environmentally.
The site where I stood was, for years, someone’s field. A farmer once planted, grew and harvested crops on this ground. Now, it is a scoria pad and home to a multi-million dollar rig that helps harvest crude oil, North Dakota’s newest cash crop.
As Hoffmann reiterated more than a few times, the tour was something Whiting and other oil companies in the area don’t do very often, so I’m extremely grateful and thankful to them for providing me that experience.
I now have at least some visual understanding of what it means when someone tells me they work as a floorhand.
Those guys, as well as everyone else on that rig, earn the money they are being paid.
I have several friends and have met many others who work different jobs on rigs or rig sites. Some work 12-hour shifts in the doghouse, others sit at desks and watch computers while a few have mobile jobs that take them from rig to rig.
They’ve told me stories explaining what they do and, for the most part, I understand. But now I can say for certain that the best way for those of us who don’t work in the industry to understand what actually happens on an oil rig is by getting to witness the operation with your own eyes.
What truly amazes me, as I’m sure does most people who visit a rig site for the first time, is the massive scope of the entire operation.
What shocked me the most was the size of the equipment.
We all know oil rigs are big. Growing up on a farm, I was no stranger to heavy equipment. But the machines we use in the field pale in comparison to what oil workers maintain over 12-hour shifts.
Looking up at a drilling rig from its base is much like looking up at a lonely skyscraper that has somehow risen up from the prairie.
Regardless of how you feel about the effect the oil boom has had on western North Dakota, it’s more than apparent that the industry will be around for a while.
My advice is to educate yourself on the business or even do as little as ask an oil field worker you know or meet to describe a regular day in his or her job.
Though it won’t be the same as taking a rig tour, it will help you better understand how the oil industry operates — and that’s an area where many of us in western North Dakota could use a little more education.