I get asked all the time by people I meet, "What's it like working the oil fields on the north slope in Alaska? The next question I'm asked is, "why do you do it?" I always answer with, "It's awesome and why not?"
The north slope life isn't for everyone but it's an excellent way to earn an honest living for some. Me included.
Yes, the weather can be unbearable in the dark cold winter. The mosquitoes are intolerable in the 24 hours per day summer sun. You're away from your family half the time. You work long hours. And last but not least, you have to travel all that way.
Yeah, and I never miss the plane to go back to work on Alaska's north slope.
As of now, there are several oil producers on the north slope. The ones that I'm familiar with are ConocoPhillips, ENI, Hilcorp and a new outfit that's still in the planning phase, Santos.
All the producers have one goal. Get as much oil into the Trans Alaska Pipeline as safely and environmentally sound as possible. They all do a pretty good job of that.
As good as the producers are, they couldn't do it without the help of contractors. There are a ton of contractors that make life easier and more efficient on the slope.
My Work & Second Home
My work is a blast. In the oil and gas business, you never know what the hitch will bring. Every hitch is different and that's what keeps it interesting. I've yet to have a normal hitch. As the saying goes, every day is a school day.
The arctic environment keeps it challenging in itself. Alaska's north slope has constantly changing weather. During the summer months it may be foggy in the morning, hot and sunny during the day and cold and rainy at night. The one constant is the continually circling sun.
I saw four days of snow flurries this July. Not a shocker, but it still amazes me.
The winters are filled with snow and ice. I've seen temperatures down into the -50s and -78 with the wind chill. Darkness settles in during the winter months.
Everyone wears layered flame-resistant clothing, gloves, balaclavas and the best work boots they can afford to stay warm during the freezing temps.
One hitch you may have a drilling rig moving from one location to the next. The next, as was the case in August, an electric vehicle road rally showing up to Oliktok Point, which is where I work.
West Of Prudhoe Bay
The camp that I live in while I'm on the slope has everything one would need. It's often considered the largest hotel in Alaska. My day consists of waking up, grabbing breakfast and lunch before I make my commute to the job site.
After returning 13 hours later, my free time kicks off again with dinner, a call to my wife, a hot shower and then off to bed. Then it's wake up, rinse and repeat for 14 days straight.
Not much free time, but it works.
Two hot meals are served for breakfast and dinner. There is a room with a salad bar, soups, sandwich making items, fruits and other snacks to pack for lunch. Special meals are cooked for the holidays and special events.
All the great food is prepared by catering contractors. Cooking would be the last thing you'd want to do after a 12-hour shift.
Safety & Environmental Stewardship Culture
I'm blessed to work for one of the best oil and gas companies on earth.
It was a culture shock to me when I first started working on the slope in 2010. I was used to the dangerous conditions at the refinery and a true sense of leadership not really caring about the workers.
Three things stood out to me right off the bat when I arrived on the north slope:
- The local leadership actually treated you like a person and generally cared about you as a person and your personal safety.
- The conscious effort made by the company to maintain a healthy relationship with the environment is evident with every decision that is made.
- Lastly, how the heck did they get all of this equipment up here on the slope.
My Actual Job Title
My job is in operations. I'm a production operator. When you tell someone you're an operator, they assume you answer a phone, drive a loader, or work in special operations for the DOD. It couldn't be further from those professions.
I view it like the infantry of the oil and gas business. In the Army, there was the infantry and then everybody else who supported them. Operations is responsible for all the daily crude oil production on the slope. Everyone else supports operations and ultimately makes it so operators can perform their work.
Operator jobs require an in depth understanding of the production process and the associated equipment in that process. As an operator, you'll never be able to optimize oil production, troubleshoot problems, and prepare equipment for maintenance activities unless you're in tune with your process.
Not only do I monitor processes, some days I'm a janitor, welder, and fabricator. With the job being so far removed from the resources needed for day-to-day operations, we find ourselves being resourceful and doing a lot of in-house projects to make life better. It kind of helps to be a jack of all trades.
With safety in our oil field being the top priority, operators are responsible for safe work practices in our areas of operation. Issuing permits to work, preparing equipment for maintenance and helping to write safety procedures are some of the ways operations ensures the safety of all the employees and contractor workers in the area.
Drill site operators-
All operators on the north slope where I work are required to be certified and capable to operate the drill sites. A drill site is a small pad with 18 - 30+ wells on it. This is where production is brought to the surface for processing. There are also injection wells to inject water and gas into the formation to maintain reservoir pressure.
Unlike the lower 48 states with pump jack operated wells, the wells around the north slope are mostly gas lifted wells. Drill site operators test the wells monthly to determine better ways to optimize them for better oil production.
Drill site operators interact with oil field services companies on a daily basis. Some are used for down hole and facilities maintenance and preparing for drilling rigs. Operators also perform post drilling rig maintenance to prepare for bringing on oil production wells.
Facility operators operate in facilities where oil and gas produced on the north slope is separated. Oil is separated from the gas, water and some solids and then shipped out as a salable crude oil. It then heads down pipelines until it gets to other gathering centers to be pumped into the trans-Alaska pipeline.
Travel To The Slope
The worst day of the month generally starts with an hour drive to the Denver airport. It's a drive through the chaos that is I-25. Nothing like passing drivers at 80mph while texting on their phones.
Flight To Anchorage
I start off with a 2.5 hour flight to Seattle. From Seattle it's another 3.5 hour flight north to Anchorage. I generally get there around 0130 in the morning. Find an available bench to rack out on until the gate opens at 0500 am to catch my charter flight to the slope.
Company Charter To The Slope
Our company has a charter services company that's based out of Anchorage, Alaska to fly contractor workers, operators and engineers to the north slope. My flight leaves at 0700 am and arrives two hours later at the small runway far from anything else in Alaska.
Day 1 of 14 starts. I work a week of nights followed by a week of days. At the end of the 2 weeks, I backtrack to home with an overnight stop in Seattle.
The North Slope's Beauty
Beaufort Sea & Arctic Ocean
Just north of where I work is the Beaufort Sea and Arctic Ocean. It's like any other sea around the world until winter comes. Once winter sets in, the arctic ice pack slowly moves south until it becomes a solid sheet of ice. It usually freezes up in late October to early November. Open water generally arrives in June.
The Northern Lights
When the long summer sun finally starts setting, the temperatures drop. It's these cold nights that bring on nature's light show. The aurora borealis, or northern lights are incredible on the slope with the minimal manmade light.
Wildlife On The Slope
Every spring, thousands of migratory geese and other foul arrive on the slope to lay eggs and raise their little flock. The wet tundra provides high protein for their goslings so they can mature enough to fly out before winter.
Not all will make it with constant attacks from hungry artic and red foxes eager to pack their dens for the coming winter.
There are two types of foxes on the slope. The red and the arctic fox. The arctic fox's coat turns brown in the summer and white in the winter.
There are caribou herds that migrate to the slope during the summer months. These herds can be in the thousands and are a pain when they decide to cross the main roads. All wildlife on the slope has the right of way and aren't allowed to be hazed off the road.
So, there are long traffic jams when they decide to cross. The wait for the passing herd can be up to half an hour.
Brown bears are on the slope. Like most bears, they hibernate in the winter and eat all summer.
The most terrifying thing on the slope is the polar bears. The mothers and their cubs hibernate during the winter while the adult males and adolescent bears stay on the ice pack all winter.
Seeing the size of these bears is a humbling experience. It's one thing to see them in a zoo, but to see them in the wild with no protective cage. That's a whole different experience.
There are other wildlife species on the slope, but I don't have pictures of them. When I do, I'll post them here. There is musk ox, wolverines, and the occasional sick wolf or moose that's lost.
Luckily for me, my wife is a stay-at-home wife, so we are together for two weeks straight when I'm home. The time off allows us to travel and spend every chance we get just being together. There are no more take-it-for-granted moments at our house.
My wife is a very strong and independent woman, and she has to be. North slope life isn't easy. Unless you marry someone on the slope, your better half will never know what your slope conditions are all about. You are essentially living so far north that it's like living on another planet.
Likewise, workers on the north slope have to be hardy as well. It's not easy to leave loved ones behind for 2 weeks at a time. This especially true during the holidays. There are birthdays, anniversaries and sporting events that will surely be missed.
When you do go home, it's spending quality time with your family. I see neighbors working 9 - 5 with the one- or two-hour commute to Denver or Cheyenne. They see their spouses and kids for a couple hours per day and 2 days a week when they're home.
As a sloper, I see my family more in two weeks than they do all month.
Working the oil fields on the north slope in Alaska isn't for the faint of heart, but it works for a few of us. As rough as it sounds, there is a decent living to be made if one is inclined to work.
Attitudes of the workers is a top priority. Most people on the slope are in good spirits. It'll be hard to find someone bad. They just don't last.
You live with these people more than your family. It's bad enough to be away from home; but it would be miserable to work with a bunch of people with bad attitudes.
If you're not afraid of hard work, cold dark nights and mosquitoes and the occasional polar bear, the oil fields on the north slope in Alaska might be for you. It works for my family and me. If not, I wouldn't be here.