Faces Of The Boom: Workers Adjust To Meet Changing Demands In ND’s Oil Fields

WILLISTON, N.D. — In Karolin Jappe’s first year as emergency manager in McKenzie County, she responded to five explosions at oil and gas facilities.

Most concerning to Jappe was that four of the five companies did not have emergency plans.

“It’s hard to work with a company when they don’t have a plan,” she said.

Now three years into her job in North Dakota’s busiest oil county, Jappe routinely participates in training exercises with oil companies to prepare for emergencies. She’s also established a list of local contacts for most companies in the event of an incident.

“That’s critical, to have that relationship with the companies,” she said. “It’s totally turned around from my first year.”

Forum News Service revisited three people featured during the Faces of the Boom series to see how much has changed in the Bakken and what they expect for northwest North Dakota as oil activity picks up again.

North Dakota State University graduate Kevin Black left a job with a global oilfield services company right before oil prices dropped to launch a new business with his cousins.

Starting a company during the downturn made them nervous, but an innovative truck design that Black says came from “North Dakota ingenuity” helped the business expand while other companies were downsizing.

“In a way, the timing really helped our company grow because we were filling a gap and a need in the market,” said Black, who is company president.

Pat Bertagnolli, a human resources manager for the oil industry, has seen firsthand the ups and downs in the Bakken. Now as the region is again facing a workforce shortage, he’s helping develop strategies to recruit employees.

“I think it’s going to be competitive out there with what’s going on around the country,” Bertagnolli said.

Karolin Jappe, McKenzie County emergency manager, is pictured Friday, May 12, 2017, near Watford City, N.D. Amy Dalrymple / Forum News Service

Better prepared

Since Jappe started working in McKenzie County in 2014, she’s seen the risks in the oilfield decrease.

“Today I think there’s a lot more experienced people than there were three years ago, by far,” Jappe said.

She’s also seen the community become safer. During her first month on the job, a tornado hit an RV park south of Watford City where many oilfield workers and their families lived.

Since then, the community has added tornado sirens and developed an emergency alert system to contact landlines and cell phones.

“I just think we’re better prepared,” said Jappe, a native of western Montana.

She also does outreach to educate people on how to prepare for North Dakota’s extreme weather, particularly if they are new to the area or live in temporary housing.

“The straight line winds alone will take campers and push them right over. I’ve seen that several times,” Jappe said.

Highway fatalities in McKenzie County have dropped significantly since the height of the oil boom — eight deaths last year compared to 25 a few years ago — thanks to new highway bypasses and other road improvements.

Jappe continues to worry about environmental damage from brine, a waste byproduct of oil and gas production, but she’s seen an increase in pipeline monitoring.

“If you have a brine pipeline, you have to watch that probably more than your oil pipeline,” she said.

Kevin Black, pictured Wednesday, May 17, 2017, in Williston, N.D., founded Creedence Energy Services with his cousins and grown the company to 11 employees. Amy Dalrymple / Forum News Service

‘Doctors of the oilfield’

Black and his cousins, Wyatt Black and Malachi Black, founded Creedence Energy Services in late 2014 to focus on what they saw as a niche opportunity in the oil industry.

As oil wells age, mineral deposits develop and build up, potentially causing wells to fail. Black said it’s similar to scum building up on a shower drain, but on a much larger scale.

“This is a problem that all fields face to one degree or another, but it is certainly a significant problem in the Bakken,” he said.

Their business, with a shop in Williston and administrative office in Minot, helps companies prevent problems by testing wells and prescribing chemicals to reduce failures.

“We’re kind of like the doctors of the oilfield,” Black said.

They also found a way for oil companies to cut costs and improve safety with a unique pump truck design.

Instead of sending three to five pieces of equipment to a well site, their design allows them to send a single truck. In addition, their truck is engineered so chemicals no longer need to be transferred from drums or totes out in the field.

“It significantly reduces risk to spills and exposure to chemicals,” Black said.

By helping oil companies become more efficient and reducing environmental hazards, Creedence Energy Services grew during the downturn, now employing 11 people.

The company recently hired its second graduate from the University of North Dakota’s petroleum engineering program.

“We’re very excited to be bringing young talent from the universities back out to Williston,” Black said.

Pat Bertagnolli, right, discusses ideas for a human resources presentation with Brittany Kilgore on Wednesday, May 17, 2017, in Williston, N.D. Amy Dalrymple / Forum News Service

Skeptical labor force

As human resources director for B&G Oilfield Services, Bertagnolli said his best recruiting tool was focusing on making sure workers have a good experience in North Dakota.

“All we really did was turn our employees into recruiters,” Bertagnolli said. “If we find an experienced pipeliner, he’s got 20 experienced buddies.”

With oil activity picking up again in North Dakota, experienced workers are again in demand. But many are nervous after losing jobs or seeing reduced hours during the downturn.

“The labor force that we need out here is skeptical,” said Bertagnolli, who moved to Watford City from Helena, Mont., in 2011.

He says communication and transparency with workers is key so they feel secure about their jobs.

“If employees see a situation where they feel like their hours are going to be threatened, they’re jumping,” he said.

Bertagnolli recently left B&G to join the human resources department of an oil company in the Bakken. He continues to serve on the state’s Workforce Development Council and says the early hires that come to North Dakota will be important.

“That group is critical to us right now, to make sure they have a good experience,” Bertagnolli said. “Because they’re the ones that will say, ‘This is real, come out here.’ If we are successful as a state with that, more people will come.”