Working the oil patch

| May 01, 2012
Mark Kathrein pumping crude into a tanker from a tank at a North Dakota well site.

“We [are] ‘buying’ oil,” Kathrein says. “We test it and sample it. We’re responsible for the quality of the oil. If we load bad oil [with water or sediment], we’re going to have to find someplace to dispose of it.”

Kathrein handled the ground work, while Wing did most of the driving. “I like the work and pretty much hate everything else,” Kathrein said before deciding he had had enough. “Before, we prepared and ate most of our meals on the truck, but every once in a while we’d get out and have a meal in a truckstop or take in a movie. There’s absolutely nothing up here. This is the most Godforsaken country we’ve run across.”

The job could be dangerous. Kathrein pointed out he sometimes was working on top of tanks in sub-zero temperatures and windy conditions. He wore a monitor to detect hydrogen sulfide gas, which can be lethal.

Although safety is stressed at orientation meetings, accidents can happen. Kathrein says he accidentally unhooked a hose that was pressurized and the fitting flew off, narrowly missing him. “If it had hit me in the head, it probably would have taken the top of my head off,” he says.

But the work is plentiful. An estimated 6,000 wells have been drilled and tens of thousands more are planned. Kathrein and Wing’s goal was to work for five years to make enough money to pay off their house in Missoula, Mont., and retire from trucking.

Kathrein and Wing plan to be leased on to Lessley Services of White Oak, Texas. Other former FedEx contractors leased to the oil services provider include Bobby Bordelon, a veteran oil patch hauler. Bordelon says he returned to hauling crude last November after leaving the industry in the early 1980s when the work dried up.

Now that the oil business is booming again, he and his wife, Terri, drive team in their 2008 Kenworth 660 and employ another team to drive his 2007 KW 600. They increase their revenue by hiring out their other rig.

“This is totally different from what I was doing before,” says Sterlington, La.-based Bordelon. “This is where the money is in trucking. We work till we want to take some time off. We don’t have to wait for loads.”

Bordelon says he drives over much of Texas and into Oklahoma, picking up at well sites and other industry facilities as needed. At 55, he figures he has several more years of pulling a tanker before he’s ready to retire.

Kathrein anticipates the Texas hauling experience will run more smoothly than the North Dakota experience. “At least there are truckstops and other services for truckers,” he says.

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