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Page added on January 31, 2014

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Commuting To Distant Oil Fields: Good Money, At A Price

Commuting To Distant Oil Fields: Good Money, At A Price thumbnail
A train at the station in Williston N.D., prepares for departure. (Annie Flanagan for NPR)

Credit: A train at the station in Williston N.D., prepares for departure. (Annie Flanagan for NPR)

Think your commute is bad? Try 580 miles, one-way.

Door to door, that’s how far Rory Richardson travels between his home in western Montana and his job on the oil fields near Williston, N.D. Often, he makes the trip on a plane his company charters to shuttle workers between here and the Northwest.

“It’s no fun coming over to North Dakota,” he says, clutching a duffel bag and a cooler of food as he walks out of Williston’s one-room airport and into the biting North Dakota winter.

But this is Richardson’s new life.

North Dakota is now the second-largest oil producing state in the nation, and thousands of workers like Richardson have been flocking there in recent years. Some are settling in and planting roots, but many more are in his position, commuting from surrounding states where good jobs are scarce.

“Probably three-quarters of the people that I know and talk to are the same way,” he says. “Got their family back at home, and commute back and forth.”

Back home, Richardson says, “there’s very little jobs, and they’re all kind of that minimum-wage-type stuff — you know, $8-, $10-an-hour jobs. You can’t really make it on that, especially [with just] one person working.”

The small streets of Williston, N.D., are bustling with trucks early in the morning.

The small streets of Williston, N.D., are bustling with trucks early in the morning.

Annie Flanagan for NPR

Two Weeks Straight, One Week Off

Richardson lost his job at a Montana paper mill four years ago when it abruptly shut its doors. He decided to go back to school and get his business degree. That took two years. He spent another year looking for work. He would either never hear back, or employers would call to tell him he was overqualified.

“I tried to avoid coming over here, best I could,” Richardson says. “I didn’t want to … but it’s one of the only spots where it’s really booming and there is opportunity over here.”

But with a wife and 2-year-old son to support, he says his family ran out of options.

Last summer, Richardson easily found work in northwestern North Dakota as a cement operator, putting casings on new oil wells. He has a bed in a “man camp” on the outskirts of Williston, but with so much drilling going on he rarely goes there, even at night.

He usually works 18 to 24 hours straight, sleeping when he can in the back of a giant Kenmore rig that he drives from one drill site to the next.

“It’s pretty tough, trying to adjust to living in a truck, working on the job site on location, 24 hours a day, for three, four days at a time before you make it back to camp,” Richardson says.

His typical shift is two weeks straight, then one week off. With the two travel days back and forth, including a three-hour drive to the airport, it’s really more like five days off. But he feels lucky that he can usually fly. When he has to drive, it’s typically 14 or 15 hours back to his home near the Idaho border.

The long commute and being away for so long is taking a toll on families like Richardson’s. But he knows he’s not alone.

At least 20 of his former co-workers from the Montana mill are also commuting here. And three of the four families around his home west of Missoula are in the same position: One or both spouses commute back and forth to the Bakken oil fields. (Full disclosure: The family that does not commute are this reporter’s parents.)

Rough, But An Improvement

“I’m basically a single parent,” says Jennifer Richardson, Rory’s wife. She and the couple’s son, Colton, were home alone over the Christmas holiday.

“I have no help. I’m it. I’m the only person that does all the disciplining, the raising, everything, all the caretaking,” she says. “He comes home once a month, for a week. It’s not easy, that’s for sure.”

And when Rory is here, he’s wiped out, Jennifer says. “He comes home, and he wants to spend time with his family, he wants to hunt, and he wants to do fun things; but my dishwasher needs to be fixed, and he needs to put a new transmission in my car.”

And when her husband’s home, Jennifer says, “It’s all about Dad, I tell you. Colton doesn’t even want me around. He tells me to go to work,” she laughs.

Jennifer says this long-distance commuting arrangement is far from ideal, but life is better now than it has been these past four years. She remembers when Rory and more than 400 others were abruptly laid off, when the last of the area’s three timber mills closed.

Rory heard the news on the car radio. He had just finished his shift at 6 a.m. and was heading out hunting with a friend.

“They were driving around and next thing you know on the radio it says Smurfit-Stone [Container Corporation] was closing their doors,” Jennifer says. “Didn’t even tell them at work. … They just fired him right there in his truck, on the radio.”

Jennifer says emphatically that moving to Williston, where she grew up, is not an option. Her family moved there during the last oil boom in the 1980s. With all the crime and other social problems that have come with this latest oil rush, she says, she doesn’t like the idea of raising their son there now.

Besides, their home, their horse, their dogs — their lives — are all here on three pristine acres in Montana.

Always Thinking About The Next Move

Back in his truck in North Dakota, Rory Richardson says being gone so much is taking its toll on his family — even just six months in. The money’s good, but after factoring in commuting and housing costs, it’s basically what he made back at the Montana mill.

“Two weeks is a long spell,” he says. “A lot of things can happen in those two weeks when you’re gone.”

For now, Richardson says he’s hoping to switch schedules to get two weeks off at a time. And alone and weary out on the job site, he’s always thinking about his next move.

“Do you try to find a lower-paying job back at home, or do you move your family over here?” he says. “And how long is this oil boom going to last? You know, it’s a big commitment to come over here and resettle, [just] to have something happen in four or five years.”

NPR



7 Comments on "Commuting To Distant Oil Fields: Good Money, At A Price"

  1. rollin on Fri, 31st Jan 2014 12:28 pm 

    I would guess that Rory could no longer wait for the money given to the fat cats to trickle down as was promised.
    Trickle is overstating it, drip is more like it.
    “And how long is the oil boom going to last?”
    Some say it peaks this year, others in four or five. I give it an upper limit of ten, probably less. Enough time for Rory to figure out how to move on.

  2. rockman on Fri, 31st Jan 2014 6:54 pm 

    I’m sorry if I seem unsympathetic to Rory but he can kiss my hairy white ass. LOL. A 580 mile commute one way? How about my 10,000 mile, 30 hour one way commute to the west coast of Africa.
    And working several days without a break? My longest hitch working 14 hours a day on a piece of crap Russian drillship was 43 days. Normally a 28 rotation but my relief’s wife was about to have a baby so I volunteered to work over.

    And how much did that bother me? Not one bit. I work for a living to make a living. The pay was good. No one made me take that contract. I was damn glad to be offered it. There are 25,000+ hands in the Gulf of México that work at least 7 days offshore at a hitch and commute many hundreds of miles…some of which might include 10 hours in crew boat in rough seas. Seldom do any oil patch rotational hands complain in front of each other. If they did someone would likely quickly tell them to shut the f*ck up…get another job if they don’t like the one they have. It isn’t that us old farts enjoy this duty. But we really don’t care to hear a hypocrite bitch about it.

    When the bust in the 80’s came I would get up at 3 am to deliver produce to restaurants because I could only find a few days a month consulting. Compared to that I was very happy on that drillship…even taking into account my two cases of food poisoning. LOL.

  3. Northwest Resident on Fri, 31st Jan 2014 7:46 pm 

    rockman — the more I learn about the oil business from you, the more I come to realize that oil workers are a very tough bunch of buzzards. Previously, the only thing I “knew” about oil workers and the oil business is what I learned from watching that movie with Bruce Willis — “Armageddon”.

  4. paulo1 on Fri, 31st Jan 2014 8:33 pm 

    I worked 100 days straight and lived in a renovated bunkhouse. (I did the renovation). I did this for three years earning in those 100 days what my other job would offer in 12 months. We were paid piece work and it was very lucrative. It was terrible working away from home, but it allowed my wife to stay home with the kids for the first 13 years of our marriage. When I returned to town I went back to my old job. You want to get ahead you have to make a few sacrifices along the way.

    regards….Paulo

  5. rockman on Fri, 31st Jan 2014 9:46 pm 

    NR – I’m not sure I would rank us as tough as we are ambitious. Lots of folks have rougher jobs for a lot less money. One reason I enjoy giving wait staff a good tip when they deserve it. And some of us, like the Rockman, aren’t so much ambitious as we lack other marketable skills. LOL. Paulo was ambitious for a great reason…his family. When you lean on such goals it makes the going easier…at least mentally. Granted it was difficult to remember working on my daughter’s college tuition while I was puking my guts up from the food poisoning on that drillship. LOL.

  6. Keith_McClary on Sat, 1st Feb 2014 12:42 am 

    “Kirk Penney has endured commutes of eight-hour flights and one-hour refuelling stops between his home in Charlottetown, Newfoundland, and Canada’s booming oil industry out west for the past five years.

    The 30-year-old electrician works 14 days in and seven out at Alberta-based Suncor Energy Inc.’s Firebag oil-sands project for contractor URS Corp., nearly tripling his pay to around $150,000. He stays in touch with morning phone calls to his two young children and night calls to his wife.”

    http://business.financialpost.com/2012/08/01/long-distance-commutes-the-new-normal-for-many-canadians/

  7. rockman on Sat, 1st Feb 2014 3:27 pm 

    Keith – Too bad we don’t have so more old time rotators here. They can tell us about the bad olé days when you spent 8 – 12 months on an overseas post before rotating back. Or when you worked on an offshore rig from spud through completion…30 days..60 days…whatever. That still happens in some specialties: when I worked as a pore pressure analyst on Deep Water wells I never rotated out…they wanted continuity since it was as much art as science.

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