Working the oil patch

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.

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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