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Behind the Scenes Support

by May 18, 2020Magazine, Oil & Gas

Support services companies instrumental in keeping oil workers safe, fed, and comfortable

Judy Patrick Photography

Looking behind the scenes of the oil and gas industry, it quickly becomes apparent that it requires a lot of moving parts to keep things running smoothly.

Businesses that offer support services to the oil and gas industry play an integral role in keeping the oil field operators supplied with the fuel, equipment, and parts needed to do the heavy work of exploration and extraction. They are also instrumental in helping to keep oil workers safe, fed, and comfortable while in the field.

The relationship between oil and gas companies and support services companies is a symbiotic one, says Cathleen Lewis, director of business development for Colville, whose family of companies provide essential supplies and services—including fuel, solid waste management, towing, and housing—to oil fields across Alaska.

“There are many aspects to the activities that happen up there,” she explains. “It’s really fascinating.”

From transporting drill rigs and supplies via land, air, and sea to creating a home away from home for workers spending weeks at a time away from loved ones, work in the oil field would come to a standstill without the support services industry.

Powering Exploration

Oil and gas extraction requires equipment. And that equipment—drill rigs, turbines, fans, or handheld power tools—runs on power and fuel.

Arctic Energy helps power oil fields with heat and power energy solutions and specialty generators, which provide “an extremely clean source of power, no matter what fuel [it] runs on,” President and CEO Greg Porter says.

“Mostly when we serve the oil and gas companies directly, it’s in power on things like offshore oil rigs that don’t have anybody on them anymore, so they need a generator there that doesn’t need maintenance,” he says. “There’s a number of sites out there that aren’t producing, but you can’t just let them go dark because it’s a shipping lane.” The generators ensure foghorns, lights, and other critical items remain operational, he adds.

For onshore operations, Porter says the generators are used “where power’s either hard to get from a utility because of expense or it’s unreliable.” Support services companies utilize Arctic Energy’s services as well.

“In order to really serve the oil and gas industry, service companies like Little Red Services or Arctic Slope Regional Corporation, they need high reliability at their automotive shops, aircraft hangars, man camps, things like that,” Porter says. “They also need to cut their energy spend,” and Arctic Energy’s equipment helps them meet those goals.

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When electrical power sources aren’t an option, fuel keeps things running.

“It’s amazing all the little pieces of equipment that are needed to run a project that runs on fuel,” Lewis says. “You couldn’t imagine how much equipment up there requires fuel.”

Colville provides fuel to operations across the North Slope and Alaska’s Arctic region from its 10-acre tank farm in Prudhoe Bay, which stores approximately 5 million gallons, Lewis says.

“I think Colville is most noted for fuel delivery,” she says. “It’s certainly the largest infrastructure that we have. We have the Dalton Highway fleet that’s based out of Fairbanks, which has thirty-two tractor trailers and almost sixty fuel tankers, and then we’ve got another fleet in Prudhoe Bay that delivers across the North Slope.”

Colville’s fuel facility in Deadhorse has almost 5 million gallons of bulk fuel storage, including ultra-low sulphur diesel, unleaded, Arctic heating fuel, and jet fuel.

Judy Patrick Photography

Colville also transports fuel via barge when demand requires it. Last August, Lewis says, Colville hauled 3.5 million gallons of fuel via a Crowley barge that then served as the “mother ship” to smaller barges that filled up and delivered the fuel to shore.

Even the best equipment is useless if it’s ill-suited for Alaska’s extreme environment. That’s why many support services companies emphasize equipment that’s been tested, modified, or even specifically designed to operate reliably and efficiently, no matter the conditions.

“Everything we do, there’s competitors that provide a similarly functional product, but it’s all made in the Lower 48, and none of it is made to operate at -40°F,” says Nick Ferree, vice president of Equipment Source, Inc. (ESI), which supplies Alaska-made and -tested heaters, generators, and pumps to the oil industry. “So a lot of stuff breaks because it’s never been tested in cold weather, or it’s never been operated wearing large mittens. We realized we could do this better [and] started building our own heaters here in Fairbanks.”

Stocking the Fields

Alaska’s winter supply chain experiences snafus even when freight is headed to the state’s larger, centrally-located cities. Delivering to more remote locations, where weather is unpredictable, temperatures are routinely in the sub-zero range, and the roads are literally made of ice, poses an even bigger logistical challenge.

“Getting stuff to customers is challenging,” Ferree says. “A lot of our equipment gets flown out on planes, put out on barges, or slung out on helicopters on remote sites. [In winter] you don’t just get to hitch it behind a truck or put it on a Lynden truck; you put it on a flight.”

The cost of transporting essentials to the oil fields is a constant consideration. Support services try to minimize those costs by front-loading camps with equipment, food, and other supplies before the winter season hits, decreasing transport options and increasing costs.

“There are some locations that are so remote we try to get as much dry goods as we can in on a barge, then we supplement some fresh and frozen food as needed,” says Jenny Dickinson, operations manager at Five Star Oilfield Services, which provides remote catering, hospitality, and camp services to platforms in Cook Inlet, Trading Bay, Valdez, and West MacArthur. “But you know, it’s expensive, so we try to limit the flights as much as we can and do it by barge.”

Even when transporting supplies via truck is possible, it requires Alaska ingenuity. Colville modifies its Dalton Highway fleet with front and rear-facing cameras and heavy-duty running boards to ensure driver safety and reduce the potential for delivery delays, Lewis says.

Ensuring that the right supplies are available is another challenge that requires something of a balancing act.

“Logistics is probably our biggest challenge, and when I say that, it kind of encompasses a lot of stuff,” Ferree says. “Keeping inventory on the shelf for our customers is challenging.”

Forecast too high, he explains, and suppliers can be left with too much inventory that they can’t sell. Too low, and oil companies can be left waiting weeks, possibly months, until a part can be ordered, shipped, and delivered. To alleviate that potential problem, Ferree says ESI tries to stock its shelves with products that have multiple applications.

“The financial implications are large for us, but missing it is a challenge, too,” he says. “The seasons are so short, so kind of predicting what our customers are going to need, having it on the shelf, and being able to quickly turn it around is very important.”

Employees at Equipment Source load an ES700 heater, designed and manufactured by ESI in Fairbanks, onto a flatbed truck for delivery to the North Slope.

Todd Paris | Equipment Source, Inc.

Comforts of Home

Providing oil and gas workers with the creature comforts of home may seem like a minor detail, but with the majority of workers in the field for a minimum week on/week off schedule, ensuring that camp is a home away from home becomes a priority.

Colville operates Brooks Camp, a 334-bed man camp on the Slope that offers single and double occupancy rooms, Lewis says. Hospitality services, including housekeeping and catering, are outsourced to ICE Services “because that’s their specialty.” Each room has a private bath, high-speed internet access, laptop desk and recliner, and a 32-inch flat-screen television equipped with Direct TV. It sounds like a typical hotel, but Lewis says the camp is more than that.

“What comes with the room up there—and this is where it’s different from a hotel—is three hot meals a day,” she explains. “If the crew comes back late, they can call the kitchen. There’s a 24-hour spike room that has snacks, drinks, things like that, and a workout facility.” Workers also have access to laundry facilities, a rec room with pool tables, heated smoke room, dining hall, and a conference room equipped with televisions, computers, and printers.”

Jenny Dickinson agrees that making camp as comfortable and homelike as possible is important, and food is a big part of that equation.

“Food is a big part of morale,” she says. “That’s what they’re looking for out there. We have our cooks talk to them and find out what they want. We try to mix it up for them and give options, to keep them happy that way.”

Meals can range from set or themed menus, like Luau night, to made-to-order restaurant style meals, depending on the camp’s population.

“If a population’s low enough, sometimes it’s more of a custom chef, made-to-order in a nice restaurant,” says Jake Dickinson, HSE manager for Five Star Oilfield. “These guys need to eat good because they’re busy getting oil and gas out of the ground; they just want to rely on good food and good morale and clean sheets, a real clean facility.”

Colville operates the Brooks Range Supply Store, which sells electrical, plumbing and industrial supplies, tools, and sundries and lets workers pick-up essentials they may have left behind at home or to supplement what the oil companies provide.

“It’s kind of like a general store,” Lewis says. “Upstairs is the Prudhoe Bay General Store, where you can get food and snacks and clothes and Arctic gear and things like that. Downstairs we’re an Ace Hardware distributor as well as a Napa distributor.”

Planning Ahead

A big part of the support service industry’s work involves forecasting the oil companies’ needs and planning accordingly in order to minimize disruptions. That forecast requires an examination of past and current usage in order to extrapolate needs for the upcoming season, as well as collaboration with the individual companies.

“A lot of the plans are published for what’s coming up, but when we look at them, we say, ‘Hey, this season you needed 5 million gallons, next season it looks like you’re going to need significantly more. We’re planning our forecast and our fuel acquisition for next year, we need your numbers so we can figure that out,’” Lewis says of the conversations Colville has with the industry. “For us that’s a huge logistics plan that we have to do.”

Thinking ahead to what other services oil companies might need, or adapting products to function in Alaska’s harsh climate, is another way the support services industry keeps the oil fields running smoothly.

“Some of the most fun projects we work on are when an oil company brings us something that works really well in the Texas oil field, but it’s caked in ice,” Ferree says. “We’ll work with them and develop something that will meet that need and operate and function well in extreme cold. So, we’re constantly working on stuff like that.”

And it means making life as easy as possible for the oil and gas companies so they can focus on drilling and exploration.

“We’ll arrange all the employees, we’ll arrange the food—any kind of beddings and linens and pans to cook,” Jenny Dickinson says. “Basically [the oil companies] just call us and we’ll get the entire camp up and running.”

Perhaps the biggest benefit support services companies provide is an understanding of what it takes to live and work in Alaska and a workforce committed to seeing the oil and gas industry thrive.

“Alaska is a unique place to operate, so [oil companies] are looking for suppliers, vendors, and partners that understand the climate,” Ferree says. “You get a sales guy from Montana trying to sell them a piece of equipment, they don’t know the equipment needs a block heater to make it run. Those are things we understand here. We understand their logistical challenges. Those are the things that customers are looking for that we try very hard to provide.”

Jenny Dickinson agrees. “Our employees are extremely hard-working and dedicated,” she says. “They sacrifice missing many holidays and special moments to make sure that the oil field can continue smooth operations. They are truly the heart of the oil field.”

Alaska Business Magazine September 2020 Cover

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Spreading the Word

September 2020

When Bristol Bay Native Corporation (BBNC) first aired TV commercials featuring the tagline, “A Place That’s Always Been,” the reaction was surprising. Not only because they received numerous accolades and marketing awards for the campaign but because, at the time, it was rare for Alaska Native corporations to market themselves through the media.

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