Working the oil patch

| May 01, 2012

Profile — Oil Patch Trucking

Owner-operators are drawn to operations in North Dakota and Texas, where the potential reward is big money for dangerous work

By Max Kvidera

Booming in the Plains states is oil exploration, which presents an intriguing financial opportunity for truckers willing to endure risks and inconveniences.

Mark Kathrein and Wendy Wing working in North Dakota.

Mark Kathrein and Wendy Wing left the security of driving a big rig for FedEx Custom Critical to venture into the “Wild West” of oil patch trucking in barren Western North Dakota. It was a gamble for them, Kathrein says, because before they received their first paycheck, they didn’t know how much they were going to make, only that they heard truckers could make big money transporting oil.

“We were told we’d be netting after expenses in the $250,000-$300,000 range,” Kathrein says. “We were talking to guys who say they’re making that or better.”

The dream didn’t materialize for Kathrein and Wing. After just a few months transporting crude in North Dakota, they decided to turn to pulling a tanker in Texas. They plan to lease to a company where other former FedEx contractors are working.

Wendy Wing on a walkway at a North Dakota oil well tank.

In March, Kathrein said he was buying a new 200-barrel tank trailer. Owning his tanker gives him a better financial split, he says.

Kathrein calls the North Dakota experience a “nightmare.” A combination of revenue falling short of expectations and a dramatic shortage of truck and trucker services disheartened him and his wife. “One week we didn’t shower” to get more runs in, he says.

They usually made three to four runs of less than 100 miles a day each way. Kathrein says they could have logged more runs if the services and accommodations were better. Many of the drivers are employed by a contractor. They work 12-hour shifts before taking a 12-hour break to sleep and do laundry at a “man camp,” or building provided by their employer. Many others live in RVs that have electrical and sewer hookups.

Kathrein says he and Wing sacrificed runs because of time spent on personal needs. “Wendy and I lived in our truck,” Kathrein says, “and there [are] no facilities whatsoever. There is one truckstop that refers to itself as a co-op. It has truck parking and sells diesel and has two showers. We sometimes [had] to wait a couple of hours for a shower. There are no restaurants we have access to.

No two days are alike for Bobby Bordelon, who drives over a wide area of Texas and Oklahoma picking up and delivering at oil sites.

“The few mechanics up here are booked out two to three weeks,” he says. “We’re supposed to work three or four weeks on and one week off when we go home.”

The couple was dispatched to well sites where they measured oil in three to 12 tanks at a site. They measured temperature and the observed gravity of the oil with a hydrometer and recorded the information. The higher the gravity number, the better the quality and lighter the oil. Oil samples were taken and combined with mineral spirits in a centrifuge to record the amount of sediment and water. If the readings were low enough, they hooked up a hose and drew oil from the tank. They delivered the oil to a tank area or to a rail yard to load into rail tank cars.

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