North slope conditions test workers: days and nights in Deadhorse and the oilfields.
It takes folks of the hardiest mettle to handle working and living inside Mother Nature's cold, dark, Arctic icebox all day and night for weeks at a time. But every day--and every night--thousands of people get up and go to work in Alaska's remote North Slope oilfields. They work 12 hours a day, seven days a week, for two-, three-, four- or six-weeks at a time.
They endure brutal weather where the mercury can sink to minus 68 degrees with a wind chill of minus 115 or colder for days or weeks. They cope with nearly two months of darkness when the winter sun never crests the horizon, and 75 days in the summer when the sun never sets.
Yet the wealth generated by these 4,000 or so hardy souls generates one in three jobs in Alaska, most State tax dollars and the Permanent Fund Dividend, according to a study by the Institute for Social and Economic Research. Alaska currently supplies 12 percent of the nation's domestic oil production, 3.4 percent of the country's oil consumption, according to U.S. Department of Energy data published in June.
'WE DO IN ONE WEEK WHAT MOST PEOPLE DO IN TWO'
It's June 1 and breakup season is nearing its end. The thermometer in Deadhorse reads 32 degrees. But the birds are coming back, and soon the water, grass and musk ox will follow.
"We do in one week what most people do in two," says Celeste Rose, expeditor for CH2M Hill Construction.
For the next 21 days, she'll work from 6 a.m. to 6:30 p.m., picking up materials and people in Deadhorse and driving them down the 16-mile dirt road to BP's Liberty Field. Speed limits on the road vary from 25 to 45 miles per hour and are strictly enforced, Rose said.
She's one of two expeditors for CH2MHill Construction that make about four trips a day ferrying materials and people back and forth between Deadhorse and Liberty.
"We're construction. We're here to do the project and when it's done, we're out of here and on to the next one," Rose said.
In her former life, she was a nurse's aide at Providence Hospital for five years. She got her first taste of construction work two summers ago working for Quality Asphalt Paving.
"I really enjoyed being outside and doing physical work, so I started applying for Slope jobs," Rose said.
She's worked on the North Slope for two years. And like the rest of the people here, Rose works more overtime hours in a pay period than she had of regular time when she worked for Providence.
"We work 84 hours a week," Rose said. "And everyone but the 18- to 22-year-olds are in bed by 8 p.m."
CAMPS INCLUDE VARIETY OF AMENITIES
Field operators like ConocoPhillips, BP Alaska and Pioneer Natural Resources Alaska Inc. provide comfortable living quarters and good food to help ease the stress of rotating shifts and the restless, hemmed-in feeling workers can experience in the dark, sub-zero winter, according to Paul Dubuisson, manager of North Slope operations for ConocoPhillips Alaska.
The majority of workers are housed at oilfield camps at Prudhoe Bay, and at Kuparuk, Alpine, Milne Point, Endicott, Northstar and Badami. All of the camps include dining rooms, 24-hour snack centers and a television lounge with satellite TV.
Dubuisson said camps also include a variety of recreational facilities, ranging from exercise rooms and saunas in even the smallest facilities to movie theaters, basketball courts and a swimming pool at the largest facility.
However, some contract companies like CH2MHill Construction and Carlile Transportation Systems house their employees outside of the field operations areas at the Prudhoe Bay Motel, Arctic Oilfield Hotel, the Arctic Caribou Inn or at Deadhorse Camp.
Rose gets a different lodging assignment each time. She said workers usually share a room with a person who works the opposite shift and share a bathroom with the room next door. Or, in some cases, use a common dormitory style bathroom.
"You have to pay for nothing," Rose said. "The only thing you'd have to buy is if you forgot your toothpaste or underwear."
When that happens, Brooks Range Supply is the only store in Deadhorse and sells everything from necessities to souvenirs. For many years, it was also home to Denver, the camp's only cat.
IN THE ZONE
When Barbara Stoll flew out of Deadhorse in May, it was zero degrees and there was snow and ice everywhere. As she was leaving, she noticed a few geese huddled together in the snow for warmth. When she returned two weeks later at the end of her time off, the snow was almost gone and geese were everywhere.
People headed back to work packing small, folding fishing rods is another sure sign of spring, Stoll said. For the next few weeks, these determined anglers will spend their free time fishing for Dolly Varden.
"Deadhorse isn't really a town. It's a camp. It's where we work," said Stoll, warehouse manager for Carlile's Deadhorse terminal.
She shares a room at the Prudhoe Bay Hotel with the other warehouse manager who works the opposite two-weeks-on and two-weeks-off schedule. And their room shares a bathroom with the room next door.
Stoll said she is lucky to have luxuries like her own room, a coffee pot, Internet and cable TV.
"I'm in my own room, but I'm not home. I'm not sleeping in my own bed."
She's up by 4:30 a.m. And showered, fed and at work by 6 a.m.
By the time she gets off work at 6 p.m., her face is black from 12 hours of loading, sorting and reloading cargo for delivery to various North Slope clients.
Unless the weather is horrendous, Stoll walks the 100 yards from the Carlile terminal back to the Prudhoe Bay Hotel where she spends 30 minutes on the elliptical machine. She finishes her day with a salad, hot shower and bed.
"You get in a zone," Stoll said. "You get up. You go to work. Come home. Have supper. Every night you take the best shower you ever took. And in the morning, you get up and do it all over again."
That's been her schedule for the past two-and-a-half years. Before that, she worked at Fred Meyer for eight years as the food-receiving clerk.
"I needed something new to do," she said. "And I wanted the two weeks off thing."
She does similar work in Deadhorse, but with an added element of adventure and 44 hours each week of overtime.
"Normally, it's really hard to get a job up here," Stoll said. "You have to know someone or be lucky." She said some job openings receive 300 to 400 applicants.
'IT'S LIKE RUNNING A SMALL COMPACT CITY'
ConocoPhillips has learned a lot in the last 40 years about working in the Arctic's challenging conditions, according to Dubuisson, who spends three days a week at Kuparuk.
"Even the types of hoses used on the vehicles are different than you'd fend on cars in Anchorage," he said.
ConocoPhillips, Alaska's largest oil and gas producer, has self-contained camp facilities for its crews at Alpine and Kuparuk, Dubuisson said. The facilities have their own power, water and wastewater systems as well as medical staff, volunteer firefighters and emergency response teams, he said.
"It's like running a small compact city of 1,200 people or so."
ConocoPhillips has many employees who've worked on the Slope a long time and experience has taught the company that happy workers tend to stick around longer.
"We put a lot of focus on providing for the safety and quality of life of our personnel," Dubuisson said.
The main camps include amenities like aerobics, yoga and jazzercise classes, weight lifting, pool tables, a movie theater, one racquetball court and even a piano room at Kuparuk, Dubuisson said. Employees also organize events like racquetball tournaments and summer Fun Runs, he said.
And workers are invited to bring a TV and computer and use the GCI cable and Internet service provided in their rooms.
Feeding workers well is an important part of keeping them happy, Dubuisson said.
For Kuparuk alone, ConocoPhillips ships 9,000 to 10,000 pounds of food up the Haul Road each day, he said.
EXTREME WEATHER REQUIRES EXTRA SAFETY PRECAUTIONS
More women work on the North Slope these days than in the 1970s when the pipeline was built. Today there still are far more men than women who work in Alaska's oilfields.
From processing engineers to drillsite people, Dubuisson said ConocoPhillips has women working in every job classification. A wide variety of workers are needed to keep the North Slope oilfields functioning, Dubuisson said.
Jobs include administrative and IT help, expeditors, warehouse workers, housekeeping, food service, forklift operators, office assistants, accounting, bookkeeping, receiving clerks, materials coordinators, drillers, pipeline and drill-site operators, commercial truck drivers and a variety of support positions.
"There are more women then you think up here," said Stoll, warehouse manager for Carlile.
The percent of female employees in the North Slope work force varied among 7.2 percent, 10 percent and 17 percent with the three Alaska companies that responded to the question.
Rose offered cautionary words for women who think the wages and time off sound inviting.
"The women who work out in the field, the men don't cut you any slack," she said. "You get dirty. You work hard. You work in the weather. If you can't pull your weight, you don't belong out in the field."
Productivity in general can suffer when temperatures in the sub-zero icebox plunge to 65 below to 75 below and stay for a month, Dubuisson said. "It takes time to dress-up and dress-down."
North Slope employers provide employees with top-quality cold-weather gear and insulated boots, he said. "We've learned a lot about proper clothing over the years."
But even with the best gear available, crews can only be outside for 30 minutes at minus 50, Dubuisson said. "We have to take quite a bit of precaution to take care of people in those conditions."
ConocoPhillips has rules, called "phase conditions," that govern what kind of work can be done, depending on the weather.
Phase I--No work is done along roadsides and crews have to carry Arctic gear in their vehicles.
Phase II--Only essential work is done and all vehicles travel in convoys.
Phase III--No one travels except in an emergency, and then only as part of a convoy led by a piece of heavy equipment, such as a bulldozer.
SUBTLE NORTH SLOPE REWARDS
When it's 65 and it's been sunny in Wasilla for days, Stoll said it's hard to board her 90-minute Shared Services Aviation flight from Anchorage to Deadhorse.
BP and ConocoPhillips jointly own Shared Services Aviation, which flies parts, people and equipment to the North Slope. Operated by ConocoPhillips, Shared Services uses Boeing 737 jets and smaller aircraft exclusively to transport employees and the contract work force.
North Slope oilfields have a zero-tolerance, no drugs or alcohol policy. And it's strictly enforced.
"If you fly up with alcohol on your breath you'll be terminated; one guy was two days ago," Rose said.
For those who can handle the tough rules, remote conditions, long hours and unforgiving weather, working on the North Slope also offers some subtle rewards.
"If a goose is standing in the middle of the road you wait for it. This is the animals' land," Rose said. "Animals have the right of way here."
Stoll said sometimes drivers wait for an hour or more while caribou, musk ox, geese or other of the North Slope's abundant wildlife cross the road. When she drives out into the field this time of year, she said she sometimes sees newborn caribou and musk ox calves moving with their herds.
"Even if they block the road for hours, you have to wait until the animals move," Stoll said. "Most of the time you don't mind."
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|Title Annotation:||OIL & GAS|
|Comment:||North slope conditions test workers: days and nights in Deadhorse and the oilfields.(OIL & GAS)|
|Author:||Resz, Heather A.|
|Publication:||Alaska Business Monthly|
|Date:||Aug 1, 2010|
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