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With drilling’s decline, worker happy for job watching idle rigs

WILLISTON -- Oilfield worker Dean Bahley prefers to spend his days managing a drilling crew.But these days, the North Dakota native spends his time watching two dismantled drilling rigs stored in a field west of Williston, a job he describes as "...

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FNS Photo by Amy Dalrymple Oilfield worker Dean Bahley, pictured Feb. 25, was laid off last year as a rig manager, but he returned to work to keep watch over two drilling rigs that are stored in a field west of Williston.

WILLISTON -– Oilfield worker Dean Bahley prefers to spend his days managing a drilling crew.
But these days, the North Dakota native spends his time watching two dismantled drilling rigs stored in a field west of Williston, a job he describes as “loss prevention.”
The slowdown in the state’s oil industry prompted Bahley, 57, to take a voluntary layoff as a rig manager for Pioneer about a year ago.
North Dakota had nearly 200 drilling rigs operating in late 2014 when oil prices began to decline. The state now has fewer than 40 active drilling rigs for the first time since 2009, and the number is projected to drop below 30.
Many of those idle – or “stacked” - rigs remain in the state, some stored in the yards of drilling companies and others on leased land in western North Dakota.
Bahley, who lives on a farm near Manning, was happy to go back to work for Pioneer last fall. But instead of supervising a drilling operation, Bahley monitors the dismantled rigs to make sure the equipment stays secure.
He and other workers rotate 12-hour shifts for seven days in a row and then have seven days off.
“It’s lonely out here, but I’m just grateful Pioneer keeps me on doing this,” Bahley said.
Bahley, who got his start in the oilfield in 1978, has been laid off more times than he can remember.
One big difference Bahley sees between this downturn and the early 1980s is the drilling equipment is much more sophisticated. He said the drilling cabin of one of today’s drilling rigs is worth more than an entire rig would have been worth in the 1980s.
Today, drilling companies are taking security measures to protect the idle rigs, and Bahley said his presence has deterred anyone from trespassing.
Bahley used to be the rig manager, also known as tool pusher, for the rigs he now monitors. One of the rigs at one time held a record for drilling a 21,000-foot Bakken well in 10.8 days, a record Bahley is sure has since been broken.
“It’s a good job. I love it,” Bahley said. “This cold, lifeless iron, it’s not the kind of job a guy likes to see.”
Technicians maintain the equipment so it will be ready to go when oil prices improve.
But a turnaround is not anticipated anytime soon. Ron Ness, president of the North Dakota Petroleum Council, told attendees at a recent Northwest Landowners Association event that he expects the rig count to go below 30.
“This is going to be a rough year,” Ness said. “It’s rough and it’s getting rougher.”
Bahley passes the time by reading and buying parts on eBay for his hobby of restoring tractors. He walks around the equipment for exercise, sometimes going up and down the rig stairs when it’s too muddy.
“It gets to be long days sometimes, but it beats the alternative of not doing anything,” Bahley said.
Bahley hopes to be back managing the rig instead of watching it by late this summer.
“It’ll come back. It always does,” he said.

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