Pipeline spills have state leaders looking for answers

Workers tethered to an air boat for safety squeegeed oil into holes or slots in the ice-covered Yellowstone River near Glendive, Mont., on Monday, Jan. 26, 2015. The oil was then scooped up into hand buckets or via a 2-inch suction line. Kathleen J. Bryan/Forum News Service

By Katherine Lymn and Amy Dalrymple
Forum News Service

BISMARCK – The North Dakota Industrial Commission called Wednesday for better monitoring of pipelines and higher standards for those that cross major bodies of water as crews continue cleaning up two major pipeline spills that affected the state’s waterways.

Gov. Jack Dalrymple, Industrial Commission chairman, also said the state should speed up research on new technology that could prevent pipeline leaks.

A pipeline rupture spilled nearly 3 million gallons of brine near Blacktail Creek north of Williston this month, also affecting the Little Muddy and Missouri rivers. In eastern Montana, a pipeline leaked oil into the Yellowstone River, affecting the water supply for the town of Glendive, Mont.., and threatening drinking for downstream communities, including Williston, N.D.

“I think everybody is really concerned about the last couple of spills. And the saltwater line in particular,” Dalrymple said. “We are in the process of developing a comprehensive set of rules regarding that type of line but we maybe want to accelerate a couple of pieces of that.”

The Industrial Commission now has oversight over about 20,000 miles of small, gathering pipelines, such as the 4-inch saltwater line in the Williston spill, and other pipelines that gather oil, natural gas and other liquids. The commission implemented new rules last year in response to a bill approved by legislators two years ago.

The Industrial Commission now has funding for three pipeline inspectors who would monitor such gathering lines, but oversight of the pipelines has been minimal because there have not been qualified applicants for the jobs.

Lynn Helms, director of the Department of Mineral Resources, said the legislative action years ago was a first baby step, but significantly more needs to be done.

Senate Bill 2374, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner of Dickinson, would require more safeguards for gathering pipelines installed after June, 30, 2017, specifically flow meters, automatic shutoff valves, and pressure cutoff switches. The bill also would require that all pipelines be permitted and bonded.

Helms said the bill moves the discussion in the right direction, but he was concerned about requiring specific safeguards in the law when better technology may be available.

“What I don’t want the legislation to do is lock us into 20th century technology,” Helms said.

The saltwater line that leaked had the safeguards being proposed in the bill, Helms said.

Helms also said requiring a permit for all small pipelines does not make sense to him and would require his office to add staff, but requiring permits for pipelines that cross bodies of water or are near water “would be absolutely appropriate.”

“Whether it be the Yellowstone River or a sizeable creek, that’s when we’re vulnerable to the impacts of a spill. Most vulnerable,” Dalrymple said. “In the case of water supply, I think we really need to talk about an even stronger standard in those locations.”

After the spill in the Yellowstone River water had to be trucked in for residents of Glendive until it was deemed safe.

Dalrymple said the Williston saltwater spill, which involved a pipeline that was only 6 months old, raises questions for him about materials that are used for pipelines. He said inquiries into the materials ought to be accelerated as well.

The pipeline that ruptured is constructed of a composite material called Fiberspar LinePipe.

“The material from this latest spill has been used all around the country but it may be a problem in our climate,” Helms said. “We just don’t know. The investigation’s not complete.”

Helms said it may be a good idea to work with the Energy and Environmental Research Center at the University of North Dakota to build sections of pipe to test materials and study technologies.

Dalrymple also said the bill is a good start, but the language about technology may need to be more general.

“We’ve all heard about some new things that are just appearing, sonar and other methods of (leak) detection. We need to be on top of those opportunities,” Dalrymple said.

Enbridge project director: Sandpiper pipeline plan could be in jeopardy

By Robb Jeffries
Forum News Service

ST. PAUL – Regardless of environmental feasibility, the Sandpiper pipeline project might not happen if the originally proposed route is not followed.

Paul Eberth, Sandpiper’s project manager, testified Tuesday at an evidentiary hearing for the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission that the North Dakota Pipeline Company, a subsidiary of Enbridge, may scrap their application for the roughly 616-mile pipeline if it doesn’t follow what the company deems as critical factors in the application — a pipeline that stretches from near Tioga, N.D., to Clearbrook, Minn., and on to Superior, Wis.

Eberth was asked if a pipeline built along one of the eight proposed “system alternatives” — routes proposed by entities other than NDPC, most of which do not pass through Clearbrook or Superior — could benefit the local economies of towns near the route.

He agreed towns along system alternative routes would benefit financially from having a pipeline near them, but said he doesn’t think any pipeline outside of Enbridge’s preferred route would actually be built.

“I personally don’t think those benefits would be realized because there isn’t economic support for the system alternatives,” Eberth said.

Economic support comes in the form of shipping agreements, and Eberth said the agreements Enbridge have secured hinge on the Sandpiper’s route passing through Clearbrook and Superior.

“The system alternatives proposed by others are fundamentally different projects,” Eberth said after Tuesday’s session. “Connections at Clearbrook and Superior are the underpinnings of our contracts with shippers and our approved Federal Energy Regulatory Commission rate structure. There is no commercial support for the system alternatives.”

That particular route gives Enbridge a high degree of interconnectivity to existing terminals and pipelines. Oil could be sent from the Clearbrook terminal to Twin Cities refineries, while Bakken crude sent to Sandpiper’s proposed terminus could be sent south to refineries in Illinois. Routes that do not hit those two terminals give Enbridge’s clients, the oil companies shipping the crude oil from the Bakken, fewer options on where to refine their product, Eberth said.

The evidentiary hearing will continue daily at 9 a.m. through Friday in St. Paul. Administrative Law Judge Eric Lipman, who is presiding over the hearing, will submit a report to the PUC in April, with a final decision on the project’s certificate of need coming from the commission in June.

Pending approval of the certificate of need, the tall task of approving a route will be the next order of business for the PUC.

Warm temps hurt spill cleanup near Williston

Crews work to recover oil from Blacktail Creek north of Williston, N.D., on Sunday, Jan. 25, 2015, after a pipeline leak released nearly 3 million gallons of saltwater that included some oil. Photo courtesy of Environmental Protection Agency

WILLISTON, N.D. – Temperatures that reached into the 50s here Tuesday hampered cleanup efforts at the site of a massive pipeline leak, making the contamination spread more quickly into the state’s waterways, officials said.

Melting snow and increased flows made it difficult for cleanup crews to collect some of the contamination in Blacktail Creek, said Dave Glatt, chief of the North Dakota Department of Health’s Environmental Health Section.

A pipeline leak discovered Jan. 6 by Meadowlark Midstream spilled an estimated 70,000 barrels, or nearly 3 million gallons, of saltwater near Blacktail Creek about 15 miles north of Williston. A significant but unknown amount of the contamination spilled into Blacktail Creek, which runs into the Little Muddy River and eventually the Missouri River, Glatt said.

“When things start melting and things start flowing fast, it’s difficult to collect that water,” Glatt said. “The good thing is it’s dilution water, but it’s also taking some of the contaminated water along with it.”

The saltwater, a waste product of oil and gas production, contained a significant amount of oil as well, roughly estimated to be about 60 barrels, or 2,520 gallons, Glatt said.

An estimated 4 million gallons of water has been removed from the site, a combination of contamination, snow melt and other water, he said.

Impacts to the surface water quality have been observed as far as the Little Muddy River near the confluence with the Missouri River, said a report from the Environmental Protection Agency, which is also involved in the spill cleanup, along with other state and federal agencies.

No drinking water has been affected. Crews will continue monitoring groundwater in the area, as well as take samples in Lake Sakakawea, Glatt said.

Meadowlark, a subsidiary of Summit Midstream, has hired remediation consultant Stantec to oversee the cleanup.

Crews had removed truckloads of water from the creek and constructed dams in some areas to collect contamination before it moved downstream. But the unseasonably warm temperatures in recent days caused snowmelt and other water to flow over those dams, said Kent Luttschwager, a representative of the North Dakota Game and Fish Department who visited the site Tuesday.

“There’s so much water coming at them compared to what they were dealing with that it’s making their cleanup operations very difficult,” Luttschwager said.

An assessment of the impact to wildlife will be difficult until after the ice melts, said Luttschwager, wildlife resource management supervisor.

“It will be significant,” Luttschwager said.

The levels of chloride and ammonia detected near the pipeline rupture are “acutely toxic” to fish, Glatt said.

Chloride levels near the pipeline rupture were estimated to be as high as 90,000 parts per million, compared to a typical level of 10 to 30 parts per million, Glatt said. Ammonia levels were estimated as high as 400 parts per million compared to a typical level of less than 1 part per million, he said.

Officials are still investigating how long the pipeline had been leaking before the rupture was discovered Jan. 6, Glatt said. Right now investigators are considering a window of between Dec. 24 and Jan. 6 to try to determine how many days it was leaking, Glatt said.

The section of pipe that ruptured is being analyzed to determine what caused the leak. The pipeline had a hole in the top portion of the pipe, Glatt said.

Health officials have told Meadowlark they plan to take enforcement action in this case, but a notice of violation won’t be issued until more information is gathered, Glatt said.

The North Dakota Industrial Commission, which oversees pipelines such as this 4-inch line, also is investigating the spill and could take its own enforcement action, spokeswoman Alison Ritter said.

Luttschwager said Tuesday the spill highlights the need for better spill prevention for pipelines.

“The volume of water that was lost is alarming,” Luttschwager said. “We just can’t have these significant releases like this ongoing for an extended period before they’re noticed. … I think we have to be really cognizant of effects of multiple spills and what will that do to our fish and wildlife resources.”

Hess will cut spending but keep drilling in Bakken

WILLISTON, N.D. – Hess Corp., one of North Dakota’s largest oil and gas producers, will cut spending and operate fewer rigs in the Bakken this year, but plans to drill almost as many wells as last year.

Hess plans to operate an average of 9.5 rigs in North Dakota in 2015 and bring an additional 210 oil and gas wells online, the company announced this week.

In 2014, Hess operated 17 rigs in the Bakken and added 238 new wells.

Hess plans to spend $1.8 billion in the Bakken in 2015, compared to $2.2 billion in 2014.

“Hess has some of the best acreage in the Bakken, and we will continue to drill in the core of the play which offers the most attractive returns,” Greg Hill, president and chief operating officer, said in a news release.

The number of wells drilled in 2015 will not change significantly, despite the lower rig count, due to efficiencies and improvements Hess has made to drilling and completions, spokesman John Roper said.

The company has not laid off personnel and has no plans for layoffs, Roper said.

The bulk of Hess’ budget in the Bakken will be spent on drilling and completion, pad level facilities and low-pressure gathering lines. About $350 million is planned for major infrastructure projects, including a high-pressure pipeline and compressor project that will improve gathering of natural gas and further reduce flaring.

State inspectors missing from the pipeline puzzle

WILLISTON, N.D. –  State oversight of more than 20,000 miles of underground pipelines has been “very, very minimal” as it struggles to hire qualified inspectors, a spokeswoman for the North Dakota Industrial Commission says.

New rules approved by the Industrial Commission that took effect last year govern small gathering pipelines such as the pipeline that spilled nearly 3 million gallons of saltwater near Williston this month, the state’s largest spill on record.

Meadowlark Midstream, a subsidiary of Summit Midstream Partners, learned of the rupture of a 4-inch pipeline on Jan. 6 and last week estimated the spill amount to be 70,000 barrels, or nearly 3 million gallons. Some of the produced water entered Blacktail Creek and eventually the Little Muddy River. Cleanup efforts are ongoing.

The installation of that pipeline last June was not inspected by the state, said Alison Ritter, spokeswoman for the Department of Mineral Resources.

Although the new rules related to such pipelines took effect last April, funding for three pipeline inspectors did not become available until after that pipeline was installed, Ritter said. The department began advertising the positions in late July, but has been unable to fill them, she said.

“We just have not found the right people to hire yet,” Ritter said.

If the Industrial Commission were fully staffed, state pipeline inspectors would visit the sites, talk to company representatives and observe the installation process, Ritter said.

“Being there to see what’s going on is a big piece of the puzzle that we don’t have right now,” Ritter said.

One Department of Mineral Resources field inspector has assisted with monitoring pipelines, but inspections of pipeline installations have been “very, very minimal,” Ritter said.

Field inspectors who do routine inspections of oil and gas wells and saltwater disposal wells check for disturbances on the surface that may indicate a problem underground, Ritter added.

Under the new requirements, pipeline operators are required to submit an affidavit stating that the pipeline was constructed in compliance with state rules. Companies also are required to submit information such as how deep the pipeline is buried, what leak or spill monitoring methods are in place and the type of fluid it carries.

The rules apply to underground gathering pipelines that transfer oil, gas, saltwater and other liquids and are not monitored by other state or federal agencies.

“Most companies that I’ve heard from say the best form of prevention starts with installation practices,” Ritter said.

Some legislators pushed unsuccessfully for additional safeguards for saltwater lines during the last legislative session. Derrick Braaten, a Bismarck attorney who represented landowner groups, said Monday the Industrial Commission’s new rules did little to prevent major spills.

“They’re kind of meaningless rules, in my opinion,” Braaten said.

A bill introduced late Monday would require all pipelines installed after June 30, 2017, to have flow meters, automatic shut-off valves and pressure cutoff switches.

“It’s very difficult to know when one of these pipelines ruptures and how to prevent a small spill from becoming a catastrophic spill,” said Assistant Minority Leader Corey Mock, D-Grand Forks, one of the bill’s sponsors.

Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner of Dickinson is the prime sponsor. The bill also would require all pipelines, including saltwater lines, to be permitted and bonded. In addition, it requires a study of technology to detect or prevent pipeline leaks.

Information about what safety mechanisms were in place on the Meadowlark pipeline that ruptured was unavailable Monday.

The pipeline had a metering system in place, but Industrial Commission officials were still assessing Monday what kind of technology and procedures Meadowlark had put in place, Ritter said.

Meadowlark met the state requirements by submitting the required information within 180 days that the pipeline went into service, Ritter said. However, that information is not available to the public other than landowners, a stipulation that was approved by legislators.

The pipeline that ruptured is constructed of a composite material called Fiberspar LinePipe, the company says on a website to update the public about the spill, www.meadowlarkupdate.com.

The state currently has jurisdiction over about 20,000 miles of gathering pipelines, Ritter said.

Lynn Helms, director of the Department of Mineral Resources, has said he anticipates the state will have nearly 50,000 miles of such pipelines in the future.

Helms and Gov. Jack Dalrymple, chairman of the North Dakota Industrial Commission, were not available for comment Monday. The North Dakota Industrial Commission is set to discuss pipeline safety at its meeting on Wednesday, scheduled for 1 p.m. in the Governor’s Conference Room.

The North Dakota Public Service Commission also struggles to recruit and retain pipeline inspectors, Chairman Brian Kalk said Monday.

The PSC has two pipeline inspectors to oversee natural gas pipelines, but one position has been vacant for several months, Kalk said. For the past several years, the PSC has had a “revolving door” of pipeline inspectors who typically leave for better-paying industry jobs, he said.

“It’s not just a North Dakota problem. There’s not enough certified, qualified inspectors in the country,” Kalk said.

The PSC is now advertising a monthly salary of $5,000 to $8,000 for the inspector position and is considering retention bonuses, Kalk said. Even after increasing the monthly salary to up to $8,000, the PSC has not had any applicants, Kalk said.

The North Dakota Industrial Commission is advertising a monthly salary of $3,400 to $4,400 for pipeline inspectors, plus a potential recruitment bonus for external candidates. The three vacant positions are in Williston, Minot and Dickinson.

N.D. workplace deaths examined in TV report

DJ Allred contemplates the explosion that tore apart this tanker in October 2014 and took the life of his best friend Dustin Payne, a Marine Corps veteran who worked in North Dakota’s oilfields. Josh Rushing / Fault Lines

WILLISTON, N.D. – Before North Dakota oil worker Dustin Payne died last fall, he sent text messages to his girlfriend about safety conditions on the worksite.

“I’m literally going to be welding something that’s full of oil. … Don’t (feel) comfortable welding this at all. Dangerous as (expletive).”

Payne, a 28-year-old Marine Corps veteran from Alabama, died from injuries he suffered last Oct. 3 when a tanker he was welding in Williston exploded.

An investigative report airing Monday on Al Jazeera America featuring interviews with his family and friends shows that Payne had voiced concerns to his employer about safety conditions, and a legal investigator interviewed by “Fault Lines” says the death could have been prevented.

Correspondent Josh Rushing and his team spent six months investigating working conditions in the Bakken, including traveling around the country to interview families of men who died in North Dakota and injured workers who are recovering.

Other findings in the episode, “Death on the Bakken Shale,” include:

– A North Dakota oil worker tells Rushing he has spent as many as 69 hours straight on a job site and has fallen asleep in a crane while operating it. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration does not regulate how many hours employees work.

– OSHA has nine full-time compliance officers assigned to the Bismarck area office, and some estimates show it would take decades for OSHA to inspect every workplace in North Dakota.

– OSHA fines for oil companies with safety violations are often not substantial enough to be punitive.

Payne’s death is still under investigation by OSHA, Scott Overson, assistant director of the Bismarck area OSHA office, said Friday in an interview with Forum News Service. Payne worked for Nabors Completion and Production Service, Overson said.

Payne’s family learned that he had been asked to weld on a tanker that had contained salt water, a byproduct of oil production that contains hydrocarbons, the “Fault Lines” report says.

“What happened to Dustin unfortunately was very avoidable,” Ross Rolshoven, investigator for Great Plains Claims, says in the episode. “The truck should have been put outside for 24 hours and checked for flammable gas.”

Nabors did not comment for the TV program, and a message seeking comment for Forum News Service was not returned Friday.

The recent report by the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations that found North Dakota to have the highest fatality rate in the nation prompted the journalists to investigate the Bakken, Rushing said last week in an interview with Forum News Service.

Understanding the dangers of the working conditions in the Bakken required Rushing and his team to travel around the country to talk to family members and injured workers who are recovering.

“It really became this national story,” Rushing said. “The idea that these workers come from everywhere but there (North Dakota) is very important if the situation is ever to be changed.”

The program airs at 8 p.m. Central Monday, Jan. 12, on Al Jazeera America, which is Channel 158 on Midcontinent. More information is available at the show’s website.

Record numbers of births reported in Oil Patch in 2014

MINOT, N.D. – Hospitals in the three hub cities in North Dakota’s Oil Patch set records in 2014 for the number of babies born.

Trinity Health in Minot recorded 1,713 births in 2014, up 83 from the previous year. That set a record for Trinity for the second year in a row.

Sevda Raghib, women’s and children’s services director, said a few of the births were multiple births, so the number of babies born was actually higher.

In addition, Trinity had 265 admissions into its Newborn Intensive Care Unit, also a new record.

“This consistently busy pace has been the new normal as the city continues to grow,” Raghib said.

In Williston, Mercy Medical Center recorded 804 babies born in 2014. That’s an increase of 54 from the record Mercy set in 2013.

In Dickinson, CHI St. Joseph’s reported 611 births in 2014, an increase of 71 deliveries over 2013. Deb Bolin, director of obstetrics, said the Dickinson hospital has had a steady increase of deliveries each year since 2010.

Census estimates list the three cities as some of the fastest-growing communities of their size in the nation.

Faces of the Boom: Mobile unit brings quick relief to health care shortage

From left, nurse practitioner Paula Moch, Deb Spurgeon, nurse coordinator, and tech Zach Bruner pose in front of Sanford Health mobileMED unit in Watford City, N.D., Monday, Dec. 29, 2014. Kathleen J. Bryan/Forum News Service

By Kathleen J. Bryan
Forum News Service

WATFORD CITY, N.D. — The finely tuned trio of health care workers on board a rig here provide medical services on the front lines in North Dakota’s oilfields.

The rig is not a towering structure high above the prairie. Instead, it’s a 45-foot-long Sanford Health mobileMED unit on wheels, which serves oil-producing companies and other companies supporting the energy industry.

Since the unit opened in July, nurse practitioner Paula Moch, Deb Spurgeon, nurse coordinator, and tech Zach Bruner have seen on average between seven and 10 patients a day, with 98 percent male, ages 19 to 60.

The trio provides a range of services including drug and alcohol screening, treatment of injuries and illness, and pre-employment exams and state Department of Transportation certification on Monday through Friday in a self-contained rig equipped with a small reception area, a lab, a restroom and two exam rooms.

The ability to contact any doctor within the Sanford Health system using telemedicine also ensures greater access to clinical health care despite the distance in rural communities in the Oil Patch.

Sanford invested $1.12 million in two mobileMED units for the Oil Patch, according to a company spokesperson. The second one operates in Tioga.

Bruner, a Mandan native and former farm worker, has worked with Sanford for nearly a year and said he welcomes the opportunity to work with out-of-staters — and women.

“Oh, I like it. It’s different. I’m used to working with guys,” he said. “I think it’s a good thing to have people here to work, to see that it’s not just desolate North Dakota.”

Spurgeon came to western North Dakota in November 2013 to be with her husband, a truck driver for Belfield-based MBI Energy Services. The couple, who own a house and farm in Jackson, Mo., live in an RV in Belfield, west of Dickinson.

Spurgeon said her colleagues have “become a second family,” with stays at a local hotel during their three-day, 12-hour shifts giving them ample time together.

“Everybody just seems to get along really well. Everybody works together,” she said.

Moch, whose husband is a third-generation farmer near Linton, said their busiest times are mid-morning and after 3 p.m. They see a lot of back and knee injuries, mostly due to overuse.

“People are not used to the hard labor required on the [oil] rigs,” she said, adding workers in second-growth businesses such as the food and hospitality industry and taxicab drivers have also sought medical help.

With the 21-year-old Bruner as the official driver, the mobile unit can also travel to a work site or company location to help expedite new worker testing and screenings, and to provide treatment to ill and injured workers. Bruner also is trained to do many of those services.

Moch said the med unit helps to take the pressure off emergency rooms, to not bog down primary care. Citing initial response by some as direct competition, she said the unit is meant to augment, not take business from other providers.

“We’re committed to this area and we have the budget to be here. We’re here to work and we’re here to be a presence in the state despite the changes that come with oil,” Moch said.

Faces of the Boom: Authors paint a picture of a previous boom

Authors Quinn O’Connell Jr., left, and James J. Patterson hold a copy of “Roughnecks,” a story chronicling O’Connell’s year working on oil rigs in the Williston Basin. Washington, D.C., Monday, Dec. 22, 2014. Photo courtesy of the authors.

By Kathleen J. Bryan
Forum News Service

WASHINGTON — It was late summer in 1979 when Zachary Harper drove into Watford City in a dirt-covered Jeep, looking for work on an oil drilling crew.

He had a name — just one name to go on — and his cousin’s voice urging caution as he walked into a bar in the small outpost in western North Dakota.

So begins the story of 27-year-old Harper, the alter ego of Quinn O’Connell, Jr. of Chevy Chase, Md., who along with James J. Patterson of Bethesda, Md., wrote the newly released “Roughnecks,” a novel based on O’Connell’s year working in the oilfields of eastern Montana and North Dakota.

“As an East Coaster, it was a spiritual experience for me. … venturing out to the unknown. I was looking at my inner soul and what really matters in life,” O’Connell said.

The two 62-year-olds met in fourth grade at a Catholic school in Washington, D.C., their native city. They served as altar boys at the local church and bonded over summer vacations.

“Quinn became like a brother and a part of the family,” Patterson said.

O’Connell’s roots in the Dakotas include ties to the Hustead family and their iconic Wall Drug in Wall, S.D., where he worked in the summers.

He worked alongside cousins Ted and Jon Hustead. Ted would go on to have long career in the oilfields, first in Gillette, Wyo., then eventually making his way to the North Slope of Alaska.

After college, O’Connell worked at a Washington, D.C., bank, where he applied his studies in international banking and Arabic.

But his cousin’s tales of working on the oil rigs, coupled with a desire to understand his purpose, set in motion an adventure O’Connell considers defining and one of self-discovery.

“I really wanted to reflect upon my experience at the bank and in the corporate world and look inward. Why am I here, and what am I here for?” he said.

Like the character Zachary Harper, O’Connell visited his cousin (Ted) in Grand Forks, N.D., where he was attending college, then headed west to Watford City with “$100 in my pocket” and the name of a man who could possibly help him find work in the oilfields.

O’Connell kept a diary — sporadically — during the year he “punched two holes in Scobey, Montana,” then back to the Watford City area, which he said was a “frenzy of activity — nothing on the scale as now.”

O’Connell and Patterson would spend a year working on the book after O’Connell left the oilfields.

Patterson made three trips to the region in the early ‘80’s through the mid-’90s, logging hundreds of interviews, doing research and writing down “everything I saw.”

He estimates he spent seven years over a 33-year period working on the novel that Patterson calls a “coming-of-age, find yourself story — a quest.”

“We all come from a generation of the great American novel, where a person goes out one way and comes out a completely different person,” Patterson said, adding the depictions of Scobey and Watford City are accurate, however, many of the book’s characters are composites of  multiple individuals.

O’Connell, who now owns a law practice in, said his lifelong friend “did a masterful job of capturing” a window in time, of his “new reality” that, at times, was frightening and scary. It was a world in which men put their lives in each other’s hand and a person’s word could mean life or death.

“A person’s word is his life. … These roughnecks, these oilfield men, are gifted on so many fronts. They can conquer the most indomitable tasks,” O’Connell said. “There was nothing better than the moments when we were on fire as a crew.”


To learn more about author James J. Patterson, vist http://jamesjpatterson.com

Faces of the Boom: California journalist sets out to document life in the Bakken

From left, photojournalist Brad DeCecco, journalist Blaire Briody and documentary filmmaker Ashley Panzera pose in front of the trailer they pulled from California to Williston, N.D., Aug. 25, 2013. Courtesy Brad DeCecco

By Kathleen J. Bryan
Forum News Service

WILLISTON, N.D. — It was in her senior year of college that Blaire Briody fell in love.

The 30-year-old native Californian had wanted to be a writer since she was a child, but it wasn’t until she took a journalism course that she considered it a potential career.

“I really fell in love with journalism. I don’t think I had ever conceptualized it as a job that I would ever have. … it inspired me to try it out as a career,” Briody said.

After graduating in 2006 with a degree in international relations, Briody headed east to The Big Apple where she worked as a writer and editor at The Fiscal Times, an online platform for financial policy, economic and consumer issues.

But around 2011, Briody heard about a boom — an oil boom — that would eventually compel her to resign her position, pull up stakes and drive her parent’s trailer to Williston in July 2013.

“It reminded me of the Gold Rush or some big event. The remote, harsh area really fascinated me at the same time the recession was happening everywhere else,” she said.

Briody, along with photojournalist Brad DeCecco and documentary filmmaker Ashley Panzera, raised about $10,000 through an online crowdfunding campaign for a multimedia project to document a modern-day boom and explore the lives of people living and working in the Oil Patch.

The trio provided daily updates via their blog and set about making a short documentary, “When the Land Turned Black,” which, Briody said, is currently making the circuit of film festivals.

During her two months living in her parent’s trailer north of Williston in 2013, Briody said she conducted about 100 interviews and thought the stories, as well as the “controversial” practice of hydraulic fracturing, “could be a book project.”

“It’s been something I’ve been wanting to do for a long time,” she said.

By last March, Briody’s book proposal was accepted and sold to New York City-based St. Martin’s Press.

She said the narrative, non-fiction book will focus on several real-life characters: a farmer with a connection to the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation, a Williston local, an oilfield crew, a man who has been living intermittently in his car and a family.

“The New Wild West,” Briody said, will be a case study on how new drilling technology (including fracking) affects a region, incorporating personal stories of hardship, environmental impacts and what it’s like for workers in the oil fields.

“They’re all very compelling in their own way. … Everyone has a fascinating story and they’re in fascinating circumstances,” Briody said. “It takes a certain person to come out here — or to stay out here.”

With three additional one- to two-week visits to western North Dakota from her home in Santa Rosa in northern California, she said she’s written about 30 to 40 percent of the manuscript. A book advance and earnings from freelancing writing allow Briody to spend as much as 90 percent of her time working on the book.

The plan is to submit the manuscript next summer, with a publication date in 2016.

Envisioning the day she holds the book in hand will be a dream come true.

“It’s like a lifelong dream. That will be a pretty incredible moment, I’m sure,” Briody said.

To read more about The Oil Men multimedia project and Briody’s upcoming book, visit  http://theoilmen.wordpress.com or www.facebook.com/TheOilMen