Saturday, February 25, 2006

More Alaska

Ready for the further adventures of “Scott of the Arctic?” Scott McKinley of ConocoPhillips continues his adventures in Alaska with this long letter. He sent his own photos – I couldn’t convert them to the appropriate files. Use your imagination or go here.

The North Slope (the northern coast of Alaska) contains huge reserves of oil and gas in a Tennessee-size area. Thousands of employees, contractors, and caribou travel to and from the slope to harvest its natural resources. Living and working on the Slope is an experience unlike any other.

Dave E. is one of those North Slope employees. He’s a drilling engineer at the Kuparuk oil field. Dave works twelve-hour shifts for two weeks straight, in some of the world’s harshest weather conditions, and then has two weeks off. Since Dave grew up and lives in Butte, Montana, he knows about harsh winters. But now he works ten miles from the Beaufort Sea, and “harsh winters” has a whole new meaning. The wind-chill the day I met Dave was -49ºF with a 20mph wind. Cold? Yes, but it doesn’t stop the experienced hands. Work continues unabated by the cold until ambient temperatures reach -35ºF, when company policy requires all outside work to cease. That’s why most everything on the North Slope is covered. Wellheads, process equipment, and drilling rigs are all encased for protection against the bitter temperatures far inside the Artic Circle.

To support oil-finding and producing activities on the North Slope, BP and ConocoPhillips jointly own two 727 jetliners to shuttle employees and contractors between Anchorage and the Slope. These planes are becoming the last of a rare breed….they are equipped to land on gravel runways. The pilots are also a rare breed…landing a fully-loaded jet in subzero temperatures on a single ice-covered gravel runway is not in most pilots' job description. As we landed, I didn’t look at the other passengers. But I was holding my breath as the pilot heavily applied the wheel brakes, tilting my torso forward, thinking we were about to skid off into the frozen tundra.

While at Kuparuk (America's 2nd-largest oil field) up to 1,200 company and contractor staffs are housed within the Operation Center’s three-story dormitories. Each room has a bed, a sink and a desk; sharing the bathroom with the bedroom next door. The room measures 8 feet x 15 feet, obviously not designed for employees’ leisure time. The facilities are relatively nice for being in the middle of an arctic desert: reading rooms, 24-hour café, exercise rooms, gymnasium, satellite TV, racquetball court, archery range, and a full-service cafeteria are a few of the amenities. Employees definitely don’t go for want of food here; it’s all you can eat 24 hours a day. Their real challenge is preventing extra layers of “insulation” forming.

Dave E. doesn’t sleep or eat at Kuparuk’s Op Center (KOC), even though his drilling rig is only four miles south. Drillers stay with the rig 24/7 until the hole is completed, so the drilling crew has its own small cafeteria and sleeping quarters. His bed is 35 feet from the door, in case the drill encounters unforeseen difficulty during his few sleeping hours.

After arriving at the KOC, I received my room assignment, dropped my travel bag, and headed out to talk with the operators at Central Processing Facility #3. Dressed up in my arctic gear, we checked out a vehicle from Dispatch (engines are kept running 24/7 to keep the vehicle viable for transportation) and drove the gravel road north. Reflector posts are spaced fifty feet apart on the roads, which comes in handy when everything is white; really handy when everything is blowing white. When conditions enter “Phase 2” (visibility of 50 feet) you have to drive in a convoy of two or more vehicles. When conditions enter “Phase 3,” all transportation is prohibited.

After completing our visit to CPF3, we drove three miles north to the Seawater Treatment Plant, on the Beaufort Sea.

I’d like to say I saw the rolling waves of the Beaufort Sea, but all there was to see was a continuation of white. White and blowing white. White plains. White rises. White drifts. White snow. White ice. And, while the white polar bears were miles further out to sea hunting seals or denning (we did a polar bear check before exiting the vehicle), I was fortunate see a small herd of caribou and a white artic fox that looked like a yip-yap dog on hair steroids.

If you’re getting a mental picture of a monochromatic, desolate place, devoid of conveniences and the lifestyle you’re accustomed to, then you’re getting an accurate picture. Thus so, why do people agree to work here? Some do it for the money. Some for the advancement opportunity it can yield. And some, like Dave E., do it because they’ve dreamed of it their whole life.

As Dave drove us around his drill site, he pointed to an idle rig in the corner of the pad. “See that rig over there?” Dave said as his active-motion hands paused in the direction of an idled steel structure encased in ice and snow. “I saw a picture of that rig when I was a sophomore in college. It represented the latest technology then, and I sooo wanted to drill with that rig someday. Now, I get to see that rig every day as I walk over to drill with its technologically superior successor. We’re drilling wells so complex, so cutting-edge, that suppliers are still trying to develop downhole tools to support them.” Dave E. is living his dream on the North Slope of Alaska.

So, I think, is Scott McKinley.

Photo of CPF3 © Deb’s Web.

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