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BLM: taking the heat while making history: Drilling permits take up a lot of time for undersized Dickinson office

Press Photos by Katherine Lymn Bureau of Land Management petroleum engineer Allen Ollila discusses changes he's seen in the office over his more than 30 years there on Feb. 20. 1 / 2
Rick Rymerson, field manager for the Bureau of Land Management's Dickinson office, discusses his work there on Feb. 20.2 / 2

A small staff at Dickinson’s Bureau of Land Management office handles applications for permit to drill (APDs) from big-time operators interested in federal lands in the Bakken.

That means a big role in the boom and the history it’s making — not to mention a lot of heat, both from operators to get permits approved quickly and from Washington, D.C., to get work done on a slim budget and undersized office.

But employees at the office say being a part of history makes the work worthwhile, as long as they keep a balance between the hectic workday and their time at home.

Help from district office, Washington

From Washington, D.C. to Dickinson, efforts have been made to make the BLM more efficient with the resources it has, or to get it more resources.

The office gets remote help from fellow BLM workers in Montana, and is looking at other offices, too — these workers can look at some of the permit components online from their offices elsewhere.

Eastern Montana/Dakotas District Manager Diane Friez said she submitted a request last week for funding for six additional positions — five in Dickinson and one that could be in any of the district’s three offices.

An ongoing problem with the Dickinson office is getting qualified job applicants and then keeping them.

Industry jobs pay higher than public ones, and even for those interested in working at the BLM, the costs of housing and other living expenses here are enough to turn some off.

The Dickinson office is also looking at housing just a few miles away, near Patterson Lake. Originally planned to be duplexes, now it might be pads for trailers, in an effort to help employees that can’t pay the regular rents in or around Dickinson.

The work for existing employees keeps piling up — the hundreds of APDs the office handles each year don’t just go away once they’re approved.

“One of the things that many people forget about is that when a well is approved and drilled, I mean, there’s a lifetime of responsibility as long as that wells lives for us, as far as inspection and enforcement,” said Rick Rymerson, field manager for the Dickinson office.

The Bakken Federal Executive Group — which includes representatives from all federal agencies playing a role in the Bakken — also works together on how to solve staffing issues. It is “trying to bring the federal family together to work more effectively,” Friez said.

BLM wants more from Congress: right now, the $6,500 fee for each APD goes back to Washington and folks in Dickinson want some of that to come back to their office first, so that the funding for offices is proportionate to the work they’re doing.

Turnover is high, too — petroleum engineer Allen Ollila said he is one of only a few employees in the 40-person oil and gas staff there that was there 10 years ago.

“You have people retiring, you have people going to industry, you have people transferring to other offices,” he said.

Ollila said another idea is increasing locality pay for all federal employees in the Bakken — to assuage the housing and living costs that turn away potential staff.

Keeping morale up

When there is no light at the end of the tunnel — this boom is expected to be a long one, and the APDs keep piling up — Dickinson BLM employees must keep morale up to counter the stress.

“When we finish a task or we complete an APD, you know, there’s another one coming in,” Rymerson said. “So you can’t try to get it all done because it’s always gonna be there.”

Ollila said while the staff size hasn’t increased much, the level of work has increased by 10 times what it was before the boom.

Whether it’s exercise or watching sports, employees need an outlet — “so that when you are doing the work, you still feel refreshed,” Rymerson said.

“It’s finding that balance, and that’s different for everybody,” he said.

Sometimes, the staff unwinds together, like at barbeques — it helps to know coworkers outside of work, “just for people to try to forget their work and eat a hamburger,” Ollila said.

Friez said she tries to get to the Dickinson office from her Miles City, Mont., base once or twice a month, “to get the meet the employees and have face-to-face interaction.”

“We really try to help them understand what a difference they’re making and what an impact they’re having,” she said.

The common trait in the office is hard work, Rymerson said.

Ollila said the majority of staff voluntarily work overtime or take work home.

And with all that work on their plate, sometimes management needs to take the heat from angry customers.

“Not only do we deal with a large workload but we deal with a lot of individuals that get upset on a daily basis or companies that aren’t happy because we’re not approving their permit when they need it,” Ollila said. “Sometimes you get some really nasty phone calls.”

That’s when Rymerson, or other managers, can be a sounding board.

Rymerson said the employees shouldn’t have to deal with that, and offers to take the angry calls to help keep productivity and morale high.

“If we’re getting calls about why stuff is late, I will gladly take the heat,” said Paul Kopari, supervisory petroleum engineer.

Employees also stress that most of the time, a delay in approving a permit comes from another federal agency and is beyond BLM’s control — the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Indian Affairs sometimes have to OK a permit, for example, and that takes time.

Witnessing history

Being a part of history makes a job a lot easier — and that’s true for BLM too.

Ollila has been with the BLM since the Dickinson office opened in 1982 — and has watched the base move from the Gate City Bank building to a building on Villard Street and to one north of Walmart. Seven years ago, BLM moved to its current office on the west I-94 business loop.

“I’m a petroleum engineer … the way industry has changed over the last 20 years, we’ve gone from straight holes to horizontal drilling that goes out three miles in some cases,” Ollila said. “Being a scientist, I like learning that kind of stuff, so that makes it interesting to me.”

The pressure and excitement of having such an important role in the boom is not lost on the BLM.

“I think there’s a certain amount of pride in being under the microscope from everyone saying, ‘Look what we’re able to do with what we have here,’” Kopari said. “This group is able to do pretty impressive things.”