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Photography by Jim Gehrz

A year in North Dakota: Stories of people and change

Story by
Curt Brown

At the end of a feverish fifth year, it’s easy to paint North Dakota’s oil portrait by numbers: Production is inching toward a million barrels a day, up seven times what it was in 2008.

Thousands of workers have poured in to staff 200 rigs, drilling 2 miles deep to tap a projected 7 billion barrels ­buried in the shale. The state has vaulted ahead of Alaska, trailing only Texas and the Gulf of Mexico in oil extraction. Its once-shrinking population is now growing faster than any other state and its coffers are laced with a $1.6 billion surplus.

Behind all those gaudy numbers, you’ll find countless dreamers and schemers, truck drivers and schoolteachers, frackers and land agents spread across the vast prairie. We’d like to introduce a few more as we wind up our series exploring the state’s transformation as a player in the world’s energy race.

‘Everyone kind of caters to you’

It’s Saturday night at Cattails bar on Main Street. A fracker from Utah sings “Free Bird,” karaoke-style. Oil-field workers clink shot glasses. And concrete mixer driver Michelle Bean strokes her cue at the pool table, starting another game of 8-ball with her housemate, dump truck driver Sonya Adams.

Nothing goes in.

“That shot was like a woman,” she says. “All bust, no balls.” Bean, 41, sips Crown Royal and Red Bull to stay alert after working nearly 90 hours this week, pouring concrete for roads, sidewalks and oil pads. Sunday is her day off. She came out to the Bakken in February, fleeing a bad breakup in the woodsy country near Leavenworth, Wash.

“I miss the trees,” she says. “And the guys to girls ratio is a little unbalanced.”

Being female in the North Dakota oil fields, Bean and Adams say, isn’t as bad as the horror stories they hear about leers at the Wal-Mart and harassment around every corner. Unofficial counts say there are 10 men for every woman working in western North Dakota.

“It’s not too bad because everyone kind of caters to you,” Bean says. “Nobody’s messed with me and it’s all been respectful.”

Knife River Corp., a 5,000-employee construction giant based in Bismarck, provides the women with a five-bedroom house they share with another truck driving woman named Betty. They earn $24 an hour plus a $50 per diem and Knife River deducts $600 a month for the housing. Adams, 40, left a divorce and 9-year-old son back in southern Idaho.

Her parents, Richard and Tina Yelton, have come up from Arizona. Her dad is her truck boss and her mom drives a 10-wheel end dump truck just like she does.

“Women are definitely outnumbered,” she says, but even that has improved from when she arrived two years ago. “They’re learning we work just as hard and do just as a good a job.”

‘What we do is investigate, negotiate and argue’

The back seat of Vern Stiller’s silver ­Mercedes SR5 SUV is littered with maps, a hard hat, work gloves and an extra carton of Pall Mall cigarettes.

There are 180,000 miles on the odometer, with 80,000 more piling up yearly. He’s driven 330 miles today and it’s still early afternoon.

“That’s a lot of ass time,” said Stiller, 70. “I drive around, smoke cigarettes, drink coffee, talk smart and write checks.”

His voice is pure gravel, his neck tan and weathered. You can’t tell he’s got an artificial leg under his bluejeans, a remnant of a busted ankle and frostbite from five decades working on oil fields in Texas, Oklahoma, Wyoming and now North Dakota.

“They call us land men,” he said. “What we do is investigate, negotiate and argue.”

As middle man between the oil companies and ranchers in western North Dakota, Stiller searches courthouses for titles and figures out who owns the mineral rights. Then he greases the deal, acquiring rights of way easements for pipelines to move the oil and natural gas from this remote landscape to a world thirsting for fuel.

“I do love making deals,” said Stiller.

He’s been married four times, lives in Billings, Mont., but spends most of his time in a friend’s Airstream trailer at the Tobacco Garden campground 20 miles northwest of here.

“I’ve retired three times but needed something to do,” he said. “I make more money than a medical doctor or an engineer, which is hard to imagine.”

As he steers his Mercedes through the canyon country known as the Little Missouri Breaks, he spots a prominent landowner — Bill Jorgenson of the Bar U Ranch. They talk on the road about 15 miles of potential pipeline that one of Stiller’s clients would like to put on Jorgenson’s property.

“Anyway you can work it out,” Stiller says in parting, lighting another Pall Mall and driving off past another well pad tucked in a hillside.

‘It’s an opportunity for me’

Nathaniel Kroshus didn’t come here for high wages or to escape his past. He’s here chasing his passion.

The 31-year-old from Grand Rapids, Minn., loves to teach music. But a dearth of music-teaching jobs in budget-wracked schools back home sent him nearly 600 miles west in 2012 with his fiancée, Trisha, their cat, Gulliver, and Juno, a gray-eyed white Husky.

“I knew the experience would be like hell,” said Nate, a whitecap in this historic wave of migration making North Dakota the fastest-growing state. “But I didn’t really realize how hellish till I got here.”

He was sitting on a couch last spring, eating Noodle Roni with mock chicken and a salad that Trisha, a vegetarian from Medford, Minn., just prepared. They were paying $1,800 a month for one-third of a trailer at the Hexco man camp, 400 square feet of space down a snaking dirt road north of Williston.

The place had no address. The sink and shower leaked. The microwave outlet didn’t work “and the walls are so thin, we cannot only hear the kid next door, we can follow what TV shows he’s watching,” Trisha said.

“I knew it would be expensive, but didn’t believe it would be this expensive,” she said. “I thought there would be older ladies with rooms to rent. There are not. This place is a cave and the space is so crowded, we want to kill each other.”

Instead, they returned to Trisha’s home near Owatonna on summer break and got married in Hastings.

Trisha kept her “fingers crossed that a call would come with a job in Minnesota,” but when that didn’t happen, she shrugged.

They headed back to the Bakken, where hotels and apartment buildings had sprung up in and around Williston nearly as fast as oil rigs — a building boom within an oil boom.

Their new apartment building opened in August near Williston’s almost-done, $70 million recreation center. Their top-floor apartment is 728 square feet — nearly twice as roomy as their man-camp cave, It rents for a third less, $1,250, including the $100 fee for Gulliver and Juno.

Nate’s salary, meanwhile, has jumped nearly 20 percent to $50,400.

“The perception is everyone’s rich out here, but I’m still making about half the median ­salary of $88,000,” he said. “But it’s an opportunity for me, and I am excited to share the lifelong gift of music.”

Trisha has landed a support job at a school here.

“It’s better,” she said. “But it’s still Williston.”

Plenty of danger with the paychecks

Spencer Logan was in Hour 16 of his day as a Halliburton safety lead on a hydraulic-fracturing site. It was raining, cold and “the site was just a mud hole and I was just concerned about getting the hell out of there.”

He failed to look up and see a wire line still on, which should have prompted him to open a value and release 4,500 pounds of pressure. The screw-up left live explosives — known as guns — 4 miles down in the ground, costing his company “lots of money” and nearly getting him fired after four years working his way up the Halliburton ladder.

“I was in too big a hurry,” said Logan, 45, who grew up in Red Wing and lives in California when he’s not fracking for oil in North Dakota.

He’s just glad no one got hurt.

“There are chemicals and explosives, lots of high pressure and so many different things that can get you killed that you’d better know what you’re doing before you step on a site.”

Of the 70 death investigations the Occupational Safety and Health Administration has conducted in North and South Dakota since Oct. 1, 2009, more than half (37) have stemmed from the oil fields of western North Dakota.

Logan remembers one of those deaths with an overwhelming tinge of sadness.

Mike Krajewski, a 49-year-old father of three daughters from Duluth, was killed when a pipe from a high-pressure line fell and struck his head while fracking in January. OSHA fined Halliburton $14,000 — the first time the oil-field servicing giant has been cited with workplace safety violations in North Dakota.

“I always wondered why he just didn’t look up,” recalled Logan, who witnessed what he called a “tragedy.” He knew Krajewski personally as “a great friend.

“He thought it was time to go out there and bleed off the fluid from the joints so it would slowly flow out,” Logan said. “He just didn’t look up and see the wire line on there. It’s all about being in a hurry. The thing flew up like a rocket as soon as he opened it up, and he got flown into the wellhead and it crushed the back of his head.

“It’s just a reminder how dangerous this work can be.”

‘I hope I’m out here another 20 years’

It’s 6:40 a.m. and a dramatic flaming sunrise illuminates the hilly prairie around “Raven Rig No. 1,” one of nearly 200 towering oil rigs drilling around the clock, every day, in western North Dakota.

Billy Peterson and Ivan Welch greet you with a cram course in the nomenclature, the distinct language of an oil rig. Peterson, 36, is the tool pusher, a not-so-lofty title for the rig boss. Welch is the company man, in charge of the site.

The other 20 crew members living in ­trailers around the 152-foot-tall rig include rock hounds (geologists), derrick hands, mud hands, drillers, floor hands, motor hands and directional drillers (who take umbrage when mistaken for rock hounds).

“Go on up,” Peterson says.

So you climb a 31-foot ladder, slick from dew and grease, to the rig floor — a slippery metallic beehive of activity offering a view that stretches for miles. Sparks fly and an acrid smell comes from the burnt steel cable being soldered and unsnaked to prepare for today’s drilling.

Scott Berreth, a 35-year-old derrick hand from Billings, Mont., steps into a harness and is hoisted up like a circus acrobat, using a wrench to bang things in place some 10 ­stories up at the rig’s crown. Soft light filters in on a series of dangling black pipes, hanging like oversized salami in a deli.

When everything is ready, a huge overhead piece of machinery swings into place. Floor hands Ray Gerrish from Utah and Texan ­Russell Girsh slather the pipes with grease and connect them.

Grinding noise from the drill brake signals that drilling is underway, spinning a drill bit 2 miles deep in the Three Forks formation below the North Dakota prairie. The drill bit will eventually twist and veer off horizontally.

When the holes are set in a few weeks, the entire rig will be lifted on its four feet and moved one-third of a mile, making two turns, to its next drilling site.

Then dozens of fracking trucks will come in and pound in water, chemicals and round silica sand from Wisconsin and Minnesota, exploding the shale for oil extraction. Eventually, pumps come in and pull the oil out and deposit it into tanks until trucks and trains move it to fuel-thirsty consumers.

The scene, with rigs drilling holes before frack operators get the crude flowing, repeats itself at roughly 200 sites across the prairie — producing nearly a million barrels a day.

“I hope I’m out here another 20 years,” says Peterson, who works two weeks on and two weeks off, returning to six kids a dozen-hour drive away in Wyoming. He’s been working on drilling rigs since he was hired as a maintenance roustabout at 17.

“When the days are going good, I ain’t got a whole lot to do and might even take a nap,” the tool pusher says. “When days are going bad, I can be up for three days straight.

“It’s good for us workwise, and good for the country,” he says. “Maybe we can start making some money off this stuff instead of buying it all the time.”

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