By Dustin Hurst | Watchdog.org
BELFIELD, N.D. – Truck driving in North Dakota’s booming oil patch can be a rough business, but outsiders might never know just how rough.
For truck driver Dan Wells, the days start about 4:30 a.m. But on this Tuesday, there’s a lot of waiting at a state-of-the-art dispatch office on the edge of Dickinson, N.D. The summer sun comes up quickly, pouring light through the tinted windows of a building that is more sparkly, suburban office park than solitary, sweating James Dean drilling a well on a godforsaken piece of Texas in Giant.
If you live in North Dakota — where new technologies associated with fracking have unleashed gushers of natural gas and oil — you already know oil work is hard and the rewards can be significant. If you live in Montana, where fracking is just coming on line, North Dakota is like an image of what’s next for the Treasure State.
That future is prosperous and full of opportunity. It can also be unsettling; a growing economy works that way.
Wells drives a big-rig tractor for a local oil company, making $25 an hour regular pay and $37 per hour overtime. You might think that’s a decent wage. Ride alongside him and you might think again.
Wells doesn’t get his first assignment until 11 a.m. He picks up a grainy map from the office and hops in the cab of his tractor. The job sends him through hay country, to a small but cluttered oil patch just northwest of Belfield.
His task is to move 14 massive containers – officially 8 feet wide by 40 feet long – from one side of the oil patch to the other. The containers are critical to fracking. They hold the fresh water that fracking companies mix with a chemical cocktail, a mixture they shoot thousands of feet into the earth to release oil and pockets of natural gas.
Each tank holds nearly 10,000 gallons of water. Probably 60 or 70 tanks line up in three sides of a square to create outer walls for this patch. Where the fourth wall would be sit massive storage tanks holding oil until truckers whisk it away.
Normally, Wells said, this sort of task would take a couple hours. But this well is undergoing testing, so the inside of the square is an obstacle course of large testing units. A temporary methane torch, burning off excess methane gas, is particularly problematic, as the line from the well source to the torch platform angles toward the containers Dan needs to move. That means as he comes closer to finishing the job, the space available for moving containers will shrink.
If he makes one wrong move with his truck, it could mean a catastrophic explosion.
Wells makes his way to the first container, backing the truck to within feet of the unit. He unrolls the winch cable mounted just behind the cab and then hops out of the truck and hooks the winch to the containers.
What happens next is a mix of precision driving and brute force.
He pulls forward to straighten his winch line and then shoves the gearshift into neutral. He activates the winch, which pulls the truck back to the container. He makes sure the line stays out of the fifth wheel hitch as the container slowly rises to crest the truck’s back wheels.
With the container’s hitch in line with the fifth-wheel receiver, he engages the winch and locks the container in place.
With much care, he puts the truck in gear and slowly eases the container out of its station in the row. He wrenches his steering wheel hard right, inching around the well testing unit with the nose of his big rig.
The ground is wet after morning rain storms. Even on flat ground, trucks can slide in the mud and end up places they’re not supposed to be.
“Light rain is nice because it keeps the dust down,” he said. “Anything more than that, and it turns to mud.”
Wells navigates the unsettled soil well and drives to the other side of the patch to place the container now hanging from the back of the truck. He backs into position slowly, eyes on his mirrors.
This particular container’s back wheels aren’t locked, so Wells has to essentially shake the hitch out of the receiver and then lower the container to the ground with the winch line.
This process is best described as a big-rig earthquake.
He jams the truck into first gear, puts his foot on the gas and jerks the truck forward for a split second. He repeats the process several times to wiggle the container out of the hitch.
Once loose, the container drops, nearly hitting the ground. The winch line catches the container’s enormous weight. The action jerks the truck – and the cab in which he sit – backwards, sending knees into the dash console.
He smirks. “Winching in a violent act,” he said. “That’s just the way it needs to be done.”
It’s rough on the truck, but Wells said he tries to protect the $250,000 piece of equipment he drives. “We can be rough on our trucks without abusing them.”
He repeats the violent act 13 times over eight hours in a marvel of precision. He sets the containers within feet of each other, moving carefully to avoid damaging them.
The last two containers are most difficult. Because he can no longer fit the truck between the container’s front and the methane torch, he has to back the truck sideways in relation to the tanks and pull each one sideways until he can safely winch the tank from the front.
After setting the final tank, Wells reflects on his day. “Without trucking, nothing gets done,” he said. “Without trucking, there is no fracking and there is no oil.”
He’s sweating, his clothes and boots covered in mud, but he’s satisfied with another day in the fields.
He grabs his lunch box and hard hat. “Welcome to the North Dakota oil patch.”