Faces of the Boom: Longtime Williston resident welcomes newcomers with hot meals

Terri Sorenson and her son, Raef, serve food Feb. 18 in Williston, N.D., to job-seekers who have moved to the area. Amy Dalrymple/Forum News Service

WILLISTON, N.D. – The experiences of oil boom workers moving to Williston are familiar to Terri Sorenson.

She lived it in 1980.

Now the longtime Williston resident is trying to make newcomers to town feel welcome by preparing hot meals for them.

“I know what it feels like to be called oilfield trash and have people not like you being here,” Sorenson said.

Terri and her husband, Kevin, both formerly of Grand Forks, moved to Williston in 1980 for job opportunities during that oil boom.

They landed in the Oil Patch after a cement construction job Kevin had lined up in Seattle fell through.

“We had to go someplace to go to work, so Williston was the place,” he said.

Kevin did seismograph drilling for oil exploration. Housing was scarce and prices were high, so they lived in a 27-foot trailer for three years.

The couple then found a home to rent in Epping and later bought a home in Williston after the boom went bust and prices dropped.

Kevin transitioned to drilling water wells and owns and operates S and S Drilling that serves Williston and the surrounding area.

“We have so much work to do we don’t get out of town much,” Kevin said.

For the past year, Terri has been preparing hot meals every two weeks for job-seekers. Last Monday, Terri and her son, Raef, served chili to about 30 newcomers who are sleeping on cots at Williston’s Concordia Lutheran Church.

Terri works across the street from the church at Kotana Communications and was struck by the number of young men similar in age to her three sons she’d see sleeping in their cars or staying at the church. That’s when she decided to help.

“You can’t make rent cheaper. You can’t find everybody a job. But you can make them food,” Terri said.

Williston church hosts popular lutefisk dinner

Byron Trowbridge eats a plate full of lutefisk Saturday in Williston, N.D. Amy Dalrymple/Forum News Service

WILLISTON, N.D. – First Lutheran Church in Williston hosted what organizers believe is one of the largest lutefisk dinners in the state this weekend.

The church served one ton of the Norwegian delicacy Saturday to locals, new residents to the oil boom community and people who traveled from afar for the codfish.

“People just come from all over for it,” said Ron Lund, a longtime cook for the event.

The event typically raises about $15,000 that goes to support community causes, such as the local food bank and scholarships to Concordia College in Moorhead, said co-chairman Ken Kjos .

Dr. Bob Olson, left, and Ron Lund have worked at First Lutheran’s lutefisk dinner for decades.

Byron Trowbridge, better known as Hambone the Mailman, ate two plates filled with lutefisk and followed it up with meatballs and potatoes for dessert.

“I never used to like it but I kept eating it and boy I really like it now,” he said.

Visitors immediately noticed the smell of the codfish prepared with lye as they entered the church Saturday night. In recent years, the church replaced its air exchange system, so the smell goes away within a week, Kjos said.

“Before that, it used to last about a month,” he said.

Another set of Hollywood producers eye North Dakota for TV show

TV producers Adam Fox, center, and Evan Stone interview geologist Sid Newstrom Thursday at a rig location south of Williston, N.D. Amy Dalrymple/Forum News Service

WILLISTON, N.D. – The creators of an upcoming reality TV show called “Guntucky” are in North Dakota looking for their next show.

Evan Stone and Adam Fox, executive producers for the show that’s scheduled to begin airing this spring on CMT, are spending a week filming in the Williston area. Stone said he wanted to check out North Dakota after hearing a radio news story about the oil boom.

“It just seems like this is really what America is all about,” Stone said. “Opportunities are here.  You’ve got to be a hard worker and you’ve got to come and create that dream and it will pay off.”

Stone and Fox are developing a short “presentation tape” that they’ll pitch to production companies. If they’re successful, the next step would be to develop a pilot.

The Los Angeles producers still have three more days to film, but as of Friday, they said they envision the show centering around the boomtown of Williston driven by personalities of different characters.

“This is about real people and their real stories,” Stone said.

I took a couple of days off from newspaper reporting this week to work with them, finding people for them to talk to and lining up interviews.

Many people we encountered said don’t make another “Black Gold,” a show on truTV about drilling rigs in Texas where apparently protective equipment is not required and shirts are optional, if you believe what you see on TV.

“We don’t want to do a show like ‘Black Gold,’” Stone said. “We’d love to meet real roughnecks who work 14 hours a day and are not interested in their tan or their tattoos or how many girls they can get.”

North Dakota’s Oil Patch has been getting a steady stream of attention from the outside world, including the The New York Times Sunday Magazine and National Geographic.

I ran into some Swedish reporters in Williston on Monday.

About two weeks ago, a reporter from the UK publication The Sun was in town looking to interview single men. Oddly enough, she was having difficulty finding men to interview and asked me for suggestions.

HLN, formerly known as CNN Headline News, will air an episode of “American Journey” about Williston at 7 p.m. Central on March 16, according to a Williston resident who was interviewed for the show.

Look out for a North Dakota episode of Larry the Cable Guy’s “Only in America” show on The History Channel. The last word I got from a producer is the series will begin airing in April.

Stone and Fox are trying to use the Oil Patch to build on their success in Kentucky.

Stone and Fox said they developed the presentation tape for “Guntucky,” a show about a family-owned gun range. Leftfield Pictures, the same company that does “Pawn Stars” and many other popular shows, produced 10 episodes of the show for CMT. It was set to begin airing this January but was postponed to April after the shooting in Newtown, Conn.

Big Fish Casting of California also is interested in a show about the Bakken and has done interviews with people in North Dakota via Skype.

About a year ago, a trailer for a proposed reality show called “Boomtown Girls” went viral, focusing on five sisters living and working in Williston.

Kelsy Nehring, one of the sisters, told me this week they decided not to move forward with the project.

“If they could have worked around our schedules and not been so demanding, it might have been something we would have thought about,” said Nehring, who worked as a bartender at the time the trailer was made but now works as a mechanic for an oilfield company.

In addition, the sisters didn’t feel comfortable with some of drama that producers introduced into the show and comments that were taken out of context, Nehring said.

“I’m not going to be fake for anybody,” Nehring said. “I’m me. I’m going to be me all the time.”

Delta receives first Bakken shipment

Delta Air Lines has received its first shipment of Bakken crude oil at its refinery in Trainer, Pa., Gov. Jack Dalrymple announced Tuesday.

The crude oil will be refined into jet fuel for delta’s fleet of airplaines. Delta’s subsidiary, Monroe Energy LLC, was forced to slow production at the 185,000-barrels-per-day plant last November, but is now receiving crude shipments from the Bakken rather than importing foreign crude at a higher cost.

“Delta is a great example of how Bakken crude is expanding our country’s domestic oil production and reducing our dependence on foreign oil,”  Dalrymple said in a news release.

Faces of the Boom: N.D. puts man’s life back on the rails

Scott Steskal works on Friday as a locomotive engineer for an oil transloading facility in Epping, N.D. Amy Dalrymple/Forum News Service

EPPING, N.D. – Scott Steskal hitched rides on freight trains to get to North Dakota’s oil boom.

Now the 51-year-old drives a train at a crude oil transloading facility and is getting his life on the right track.

“Until I got up here, my life was pretty much a wreck,” he said.

Steskal was living in Las Vegas with no job and no transportation when family members encouraged him to look into job opportunities in North Dakota.

He researched how to ride freight trains and found someone to mentor him on how to do it safely.

Steskal left Las Vegas in December 2010 and became what he calls a tramp, hopping on and off freight trains through several states to travel north. People he met during his trip gave him the “track name” of Jesse James.

“It’s really a whole culture,” Steskal said.

He spent a few months in Pasco, Wash., and later Denver doing day labor work before he decided to take a bus to North Dakota. He hitchhiked from Dickinson and arrived in Williston in September 2011.

But he quickly found that getting an oil job with no experience was not going to be easy.

“Nothing was biting,” Steskal said.

Steskal estimates he’s been homeless eight to 10 times in his life, so it wasn’t hard for him to find places around Williston to sleep.

“Pick a bush. I slept there,” Steskal said.

After two weeks, Steskal was about to hop a train out of Williston when Walmart called and offered him $14 an hour to do maintenance.

“They gave me the opportunity to get on my feet,” Steskal said.

In six weeks, he had purchased a car and a camper from someone he met at Walmart.

He continued to look for an oil job, and after about eight months was hired to work for Strobel Starostka, a contractor for the Inergy Crude Logistics oil transloading facility in Epping.

Steskal was back with trains, this time loading cars with crude oil. He has been promoted to locomotive engineer and now drives the train at the facility.

“He’s extremely dedicated and he loves his job,” said terminal manager Bill Baker.

Steskal said he makes $28 an hour with plenty of overtime. He’s now planning a trip to the Bahamas and sending money to his parents and other family members.

“I got here. I had nothing. Now I’ve got something. It’s a share thing,” Steskal said.

On his days off, Steskal often buys meat and cooks for other crew members.

“He’s a microwave chef,” Baker said.

Steskal’s parents, Robert and Joyce Steskal of Arizona, said they had “just about given up on him,” but he’s changed his life 180 degrees since moving to North Dakota.

“He has made such an adjustment with his life,” Joyce Steskal said. “He’s so proud of himself and we’re so proud of him.”

Steskal still lives in a camper but is starting to look for some land to make his home more permanent. He hopes to retire in North Dakota.

“I never pictured myself actually retiring because my life has been in such disarray,” Steskal said. “I feel so lucky to be in the place I’m at.”

N.D. oil production ‘back on track’ with 4.6 percent increase

A train waits to be loaded with Bakken crude oil Friday in Epping, N.D. Amy Dalrymple/Forum News Service

BISMARCK – North Dakota’s oil production got “back on track” in December following a dip in November, and drilling activity is expected to ramp up again this spring, the Department of Mineral Resources said Friday.

The state produced 768,853 barrels per day in December, a 4.6 percent increase from the previous month and a new all-time high, according to preliminary figures from the department.

Director Lynn Helms said the state added 123 new producing wells in December, enough to increase production as well as make up for November’s 2 percent drop in production, the first decline the state reported in 19 months.

“It was exciting for us to see that the November production decline was not repeated in December,” he said.

Helms said he now can estimate that it takes about 90 new wells per month to sustain North Dakota’s current oil production and 100 or more new wells per month to increase production.

“That’s an important barometer for people who are looking at tax revenues and economic growth in the west,” Helms said.

Major operators in North Dakota have indicated they plan to bring 15 more drilling rigs into the state, likely beginning in May or June, Helms said.

That would increase the number of drilling rigs from Friday’s count of 182 to approximately 200. The record rig count was set in May 2012 at 218 rigs.

The number of idle wells waiting for hydraulic fracturing crews is now estimated at 413.

“Part of that is winter weather. Part of that is the impetus for operators to try to reduce costs,” Helms said.

Operators are putting pressure on service companies to reduce the cost of hydraulic fracturing.

This spring, Helms said he expects to see more fracking crews mobilizing to catch up and reduce the idle well count to closer to 200.

The amount of natural gas that is flared stayed at 29 percent for December, which was relatively good news considering oil production grew 4.6 percent, Helms said.

The amount of flaring, which was as high as 36 percent in September 2011, has been holding steady or ticking slightly downward every month while oil production increases.

“I do think we are on a downward trend, but we’ve just got so much work to do in this area to be where we want to be,” Helms said.

OSHA pushes safety across the oilfields

WILLISTON, N.D. – The regional administrator for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration urged North Dakota oil and gas operators to take a safety “stand down” seriously and stop fatalities in the oilfield.

“The nation’s eyes are on you. You really have the opportunity here to make us a leader in oil and gas in the United States, but we don’t want to do it at any expense,” Gregory Baxter said Thursday. “We need to stop the injuries, illnesses and deaths. No one should lose their life for a day’s wage.”

Baxter presented from Minot during a three-hour safety discussion that kicked off what the industry calls a safety stand down. Over the next month, companies are asked to shut down operations for a period of time to conduct inspections or provide safety training.

The call for action was prompted by recent deaths in North Dakota’s oil and gas industry, which now make up half of all workplace fatalities investigated by the Bismarck area OSHA office, said Director Eric Brooks.

The event began with a video highlighting some recent oilfield fatalities in North Dakota, from a 22-year-old who fell 75 feet to his death to a 38-year-old who died after an explosion in a boiler to a 52-year-old who died from a fall during a rig move.

Brooks noted there have been two more oilfield deaths in North Dakota since he completed the video.

Baxter said he gets questions from Washington, D.C., about why North Dakota has so many fatalities.

“We can stop this terrible loss of life and these serious injuries,” Baxter said.

The voluntary stand down is organized by OSHA and the MonDaks Safety Network, a local chapter of the National Service, Transmission, Exploration & Production Safety Network.

Workers participated in the event from Minot as well as centers that aired a webcast in Williston, Dickinson, Stanley and New Town.

Dustin Austin, chairman of the MonDaks Safety Network, said nearly 800 people registered for the event and more participated without registering. The kickoff event provided resources to help companies conduct inspections and training.

Austin said a main goal of the event was to bring companies together so they can work as a community to address safety issues.

“It will take all of us to improve safety up here,” Austin said.

Oil, gas operators to review safety procedures

MINOT, N.D. – Recent fatalities in the Oil Patch have prompted oil and gas companies operating in North Dakota to meet today to review safety procedures.

A “stand-down” for safety will be led today by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the MonDaks Safety Network, a local chapter of the National Service, Transmission, Exploration and Production Safety Network.

Half of the workplace fatalities investigated by the Bismarck OSHA office come from the oil and gas industry, said Eric Brooks, area director of the Bismarck OSHA office. There were two oilfield fatalities in January.

Dustin Austin, chairman of the MonDaks Safety Network, said he expects more than 500 people to participate in the three-hour event, either by attending the event in Minot or watching a webcast online.

“We want to show North Dakota and the public that we’re serious about safety,” Austin said.

Residents pack up from camp forced to close by annexation

Bryan McCoy moves out of an RV park in Williston, N.D., on Monday after he was told it is closing. Amy Dalrymple/Forum News Service

WILLISTON, N.D. – Residents of about 30 RVs are abruptly moving out this week after the owner told them he’s closing the camp because it was recently annexed into city limits.

Owner Kenny Willard said he told residents they need to start moving out of the camp that’s adjacent to his home in northwest Williston. His property is now within the city limits of the oil boom town, where living in an RV is illegal and subject to a $500 per day fine.

Williston Mayor Ward Koeser said city leaders have not taken any action to force the campers to move or to begin enforcing other ordinances in the recently annexed area.

“We’re going to give people time to respond if they need to make changes,” Koeser said. “Until we get a chance to review a number of issues, we probably won’t be doing anything.”

But Willard said he feared he would be subject to fines if he didn’t remove the campers from his property.

“I’m not going to put myself into that predicament,” Willard said. “I can’t put myself into the jeopardy of losing everything that I worked for all my life because I tried to help someone.”

Willard said he gave residents varying levels of notice to move out, ranging from 24 hours to 30 days, depending on when they had paid rent.

Many residents said Willard didn’t warn them about how the annexation would affect the camp, but Willard said, “Everyone has been talking about it for six months.”

Resident Bryan McCoy who moved from Grand Forks to Williston for “money, just like everybody else,” said he was aware of the annexation, but Willard told him the camp would stay open until spring or summer. McCoy said Willard also indicated he was going to open another camp and that McCoy was going to be one of the first ones to live there because he always paid rent.

McCoy had several days before he had to move out, but he has already quit his job working for an oilfield service company, given away his camper. He left Williston on a train Monday.

“It’s a joke,” McCoy said.

Residents paid $700 a month plus utilities to rent a space that did not include water or sewer hookups. The park had two portable toilets and residents could shower, wash dishes and do laundry in Willard’s home during designated hours. A series of extension cords powered the park and McCoy said the power often went out.

A series of extension cords powers about 30 campers in an RV park in Williston, N.D., that is closing. Amy Dalrymple/Forum News Service

City officials became concerned about sanitation and safety within RV camps that popped up throughout Williston as it grew rapidly with people looking for oil-boom related jobs. Those concerns prompted the city to make it illegal to live in campers within city limits. The ordinance took effect Sept. 1.

Single mother Jess Dougherty said she received one day’s notice to move out with her son, Tyler, a high school sophomore.

“We didn’t get any warning,” Dougherty said.

Dougherty, of Idaho, works as a janitor and for a cleaning service but can’t make ends meet in Williston, even with two jobs.

“We’d be living like kings anywhere else,” she said.

Dougherty said she wasn’t sure where she and her son would move.

“We’re going to try and fight it but it’s tempting to go back home or anywhere else,” Dougherty said.

Resident Ryan Greenwood, who was helping his neighbors move out, said he has until today to leave the camp. The Montana man said he had to abruptly move once before when he was living in a camper in the county.

“It’s a fact of life in Williston,” Greenwood said.

Ryan Greenwood, left, and Tyler Dougherty work on moving a camper out of an RV park in Williston, N.D., on Monday. Amy Dalrymple/Forum News Service


Faces of the Boom: Company man is a woman

Drilling consultant Jennifer Olsen, right, talks to driller Mike Wipf on a drilling rig near Arnegard, N.D. Amy Dalrymple/Forum News Service

ARNEGARD, N.D. – Newcomers to the drilling rig Jennifer Olsen supervises are surprised to see a woman sitting in the company man’s chair.

“Every time someone opens that door, they’ll say ‘Where’s the company man? Or they’ll say ‘I have the wrong trailer,’” she said.

Jennifer, 31, Billings, Mont., works as a drilling consultant, most often referred to as a company man, a position rarely held by women.

She’s following in the footsteps of her father, Eric Olsen, who also is a company man and has worked in the oil industry for 30 years.

After she earned a petroleum engineering degree and got experience through internships and working for an oilfield service company, she began working with her father.

“He just threw me on some rigs and said call me if you have any questions,” Jennifer said.

She’s supervised drilling operations around the country, both with her dad and on her own.

They’ve been working together in the Bakken for True Oil for about a year, with Eric working the day shift and Jennifer taking over at night.

“She’s real proficient,” Eric said. “She knows what she’s doing and she knows how to handle the guys out there.”

As a college student at Montana Tech, Jennifer was one of the few women in her engineering classes. She said she had one professor who advised her to get out of the program because he thought women would not do well in petroleum engineering.

“It just made me work harder,” said Jennifer, who earned an A in that professor’s class.

Other women who graduated with her ended up taking office jobs.

“That life’s not for me,” she said.

Jennifer lives on the rig location in a two-bedroom trailer she shares with her father, sleeping during the day wearing ear plugs designed for drummers so the noise of the rig doesn’t wake her. She takes over operations at 6 p.m., with her German shepherd by her side, and ensures that everything runs smoothly until 6 a.m.

Jennifer Olsen and her father, Eric Olsen, both drilling consultants, work together in the command center of a drilling rig near Arnegard, N.D. Amy Dalrymple/Forum News Service

Occasionally a service company will have a woman crew member, but for the most part, Jennifer supervises all men.

“They all work really well with me out here,” she said.

Some try to call her company woman or company person, but Jennifer said she prefers company man because that’s what the position is called.

“We just call her the boss,” said Mike Wipf, a driller on the rig Jennifer supervises.

Jennifer and her father work two weeks and then have two weeks off. During her off weeks, Jennifer spends time with her boyfriend, an electrical engineer, and keeps busy as chairwoman of the Republican Party of Yellowstone County in Montana.

Her brother is about to graduate with his petroleum engineering degree and plans to work with them as an intern.

“If you grow up with an oil guy, you kind of get stuck with it because you hear about it every day,” Eric said.

Jennifer hopes that being a female company man won’t always be rare.

“There needs to be more of us out here,” she said.