By| Editor Marcellus.com
My drive to rig number 680 was halted momentarily as calves occupied the gravel road nearly 100 yards from the drilling rig. In fact there are cows surrounding the extraction operation in what many would refer to as the “middle of nowhere.”
As I waited a minute or two for the calves to finish staring at me and cross the road, it presented an opportunity to observe the massive scale of the 197-foot structure tucked away discreetly within the Badlands of North Dakota. The amount of wildlife surrounding the drill site was surprising, illustrating how curious cows and other wildlife coexist with horizontal oil and natural gas drilling.
The calves crossed, with mother cow chewing grass and watching, and I continued down the road. I drove into a muddy parking area full of vehicles and trailers next to the skyscraper of the prairie. XTO Energy holds the mineral rights on the property about 20 miles northeast of Watford City and is working with Houston-based Nabor’s Drilling to drill wells and extract oil and natural gas from the Bakken shale formation about 17,000 feet underground.
“The drill is about 10,700 feet vertically underground, and another 7,000 feet horizontally,” Nabor’s Greg Burquist, drill superintendent, said during a tour of the extraction operation.
Advancements in technology have allowed oil and gas companies to retrieve minerals stored in deep-underground shale formations like the Bakken Three Forks formation. This technology known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, has been around since the 1940’s and creates breaks in the formation enabling the extraction to occur.
The Nabor’s drill pad is located on several acres of pasture land. As of Thursday Oct 24 the drilling rig was in the final days, if not hours of drilling, according to Tyson Olsen, rig manager, Nabor’s.
“This may be the last day of drilling here at this site,” Olsen said. “Then we rig up and down and start at the next job not far from here.”
Rigging up and down (tearing down and set up) sounds much more time consuming than it actually is. The oil and gas industry has invested large amounts of capital into efficiency and rig assembly is just one of those examples of it paying off. To tear down, transport and erect the 197-foot drill pad site takes a total of about four days.
“A good rig move, assuming all the trucks and everything moves in a perfect world, will take about four days.” Olsen said. “We contract out the trucks and crane, but our crews do pretty much everything else.”
A well cycle operates in three phases – drilling, completion and production. The drill is surrounded by a sea of metal, machinery, computer monitors and safety signs. It is controlled in a nearby room by directional drillers who monitors graphs and relays instructions to the driller, who in turn precisely controls the drill underground.
One of the common misconceptions about horizontal drilling is the visual diagram of the underground operation, said Watford City native Burquist. Rather than a 90-degree angle, the drilling path represents more of a crescent or gradual curve underground to reach the acreage.
As the well is drilled, multiple layers of steel pipe, casing and cement are lined to separate the oil and gas. The well is equipped with a B-O-P or Blowout Preventer, which acts as a backup in case there are any issues in the process.
The BOP is a large specialized mechanical device used to seal, control and monitor oil and gas wells. The BOP controls the extreme erratic pressures and uncontrolled flows or kicks emanating from the well reservoir. Additionally, the BOP controls the down hole pressure and flow of the oil and gas.
“Tyson and I have put the BOP together more times than I care to recall,” Burquist said. “The BOP is the fail safe device.”
That statement was music to this journalist’s ear since the BOP is considered to be critical in the safety of the crew, rig and environment. Who better to control and check the safety and integrity of a situation than those who are directly impacted by it.
Safety signs, back-ups and precautions are extremely visible and part of the work culture. Before setting a foot near the oil rig, I had to make sure I was equipped with hard hat, protective eye wear, fire resistance overalls and steel toed boots.
A daily sample and analysis from an on-site lab, allows the technology to be precise with mixing mud. Sacks of mix are carried up by hand and loaded into a hopper. The mud mixed and eventually pumped into the hole, keeping the drill bit lubricated and cool, as well as preventing natural gas from escaping from the hole. In the event of natural gas finding its way through the mud, the BOP closes off that section of the well until the material can be removed and drilling can resume.
Mud and salt water are recycled and reused on site. This process involves pipes, grates, water and monitoring. During the separation process, which is akin to watching a giant bread machine, other minerals can be detected from time to time. When asked if anything else has ever been discovered while fracking, Olsen smiled and said.
“I’ve heard stories of people striking huge deposits of gold while drilling, but never have I come across anything like that.”
To illustrate how efficient the crew operates at Rig 680, during the tour there was an issue with one of the drill motors. Olsen, who was in the midst of giving a tour, quietly detoured into a massive mobile engine room, and troubleshot the issue. After climbing approximately 75-feet of stairs, we walked into main drill site and the drill bit was not moving.
“Drilling has paused for a moment,” Burquist said. “Ty went to fix the problem, it should be running very soon.”
Within seconds after Burquist had completed his sentence, Olsen walked in and the drill fires up. The motor issue was detected, monitored, maintained and fixed within five minutes and not one person appeared nervous, anxious or worried.
Witnessing the interwoven duties and responsibilities of man and machine allowing the oil and gas apparatus to operate was truly remarkable. The unspoken language, timing and overall team work represented a chemistry of championship sports franchises. These crew members have to rely on each other to be alert, attentive and responsive or the effects could be severe for themselves, their colleagues and community.
After the whirring and rumbling of the machinery resumed, I noticed a number of 90-foot drill pieces feet away. When the drill reaches the end, a new piece is attached to the machine, which is done by crew member 90-feet above where I was standing.
“Imagine working up there when it is 40-below with high winds,” Burquist said. “To put it in perspective, we’ve attached four or five of those (drill pieces) during this 12-hour shift.”
The drilling operation and activity takes place 24 hours a day, seven days a week with a total of 25 to 30 workers on site each day. Some of the workers live on site in the trailers, working 14-days-on-and-14-days-off, Olsen said.
The trailers act as both office and housing for the crews as two six-person teams work around the clock in 12-hour shifts to drill the last well at the pad. The trailers are equipped like any apartment with kitchen appliances, sofas, television and other modern amenities.
Olsen, a Billings, MT, resident isn’t alone with his two-week-on-two-week off lifestyle, many of the crew members come from afar.
“There are guys from all over,” Olsen said. “From down south in Florida, to a couple guys from the West Coast, to some local guys, to some guys who grew up in the tri-state region, there’s guys from all over out here.”
As North Dakota continues to be a major player in the energy market, and more and more drill pads are being constructed across the state. It is good to know that with all the new pads popping up across western North Dakota, there are a few good Nabors out there.