In the corner of a Billings commercial park, 10 men clad in hardhats and fire-resistant overalls go about practicing the tasks they will soon be doing for real in the oil field.
As the men split up into smaller groups, instructor Dan Gopperton of Sanjel Corp. provides some advice.
“Let’s be safe. Let’s be here to learn,” he said. “There’s no need for running, but talk to each other. Practice good communication skills.”
Gopperton delivered his pointers at Sanjel’s new training and maintenance facility in Billings. The Billings location provides a central location for Sanjel to train crews and repair equipment that’s used in the company’s operations in Wyoming, Montana and North Dakota. Sanjel is one of a growing number of oil-related companies that have invested in Billings to service an energy boom stretching from Colorado to North Dakota and Montana.
As the hands-on instruction begins, three men start by installing chains on a set of truck-sized tires. Oil field veterans understand that sooner or later you’re going to encounter deep snow and slippery mud, and getting stuck or sliding off the road is an inconvenience that everybody wants to avoid.
Four others busy themselves connecting stout steel pipes to the head of a simulated oil well. Threading together sections of pipe requires cooperation. One man will adjust the angle of a pipe so that threads line up and sections go together. Sharp hammer blows delivered on a threaded collar assure a leak-proof joint.
Gopperton instructs as three more workers begin stripping down a trailer-mounted pump that’s used to inject hydraulic fracturing fluid down oil wells.
“What we’re doing here is rebuilding a pump,” he said. “A lot of times out on the job we have seals that go bad. And sometimes there will be cracks. You have to be able to make repairs right on the job site.”
Because the equipment is subjected to high pressures and heavy usage, pumps often have to be overhauled daily. The workers are expected to get the job done whether the temperature is 30 degrees below zero or 110 in the shade, Gopperton said.
After two weeks of classroom study and hands-on learning, the new hires are assigned to fracking crews. They set up and operate heavy equipment that pumps sand and chemicals into oil wells to stimulate oil recovery.
Randy Isgar, from Boise, Idaho, worked on fracking crews for 14 months before he hired on with Sanjel. “A lot of this is review, but a lot of the layouts are a little bit different,” Isgar said.
Fracking crews are used to putting in long hours, and the work can be dangerous.
“You’re working with high pressure, and there’s a lot of chemicals,” Isgar said. “If a high pressure line breaks, there’s no stopping it, so you have to be careful.”
The 10 workers are among some of the earliest to go through Sanjel’s new Billings training and maintenance facility. Sanjel, the largest privately owned oil field service company based in Canada, has operations throughout the world.
“Every new hire goes through the training process, no matter what their experience level is,” said Matt McCleary, Sanjel’s area operations manager for fracturing services. “That way, we’re all on the same page and we all speak the same language.”
The prolific Bakken oil play in North Dakota and Eastern Montana would never have happened without two key technologies. Horizontal drilling allows operators to turn the bit from vertical to horizontal to maximize contact with oil-bearing formations.
Fracking, which is short for hydraulic fracturing, is used to open up tight oil-bearing formations so that oil flows freely into the well.
McCleary said Sanjel’s training program helps workers gain the skills to work safely and efficiently. Although scores of recruits temporarily reside in Billings while they receive training, 25-30 Sanjel employees are stationed permanently in Billings.
McCleary expects a number of oil-related businesses to take a look at locating operations in Billings as the Bakken exploration continues at a fast pace.
“There are going to be a lot more companies coming into Billings because of the infrastructure. There are employees here and there are other services,” he said.
During a classroom break, several trainees welcomed the opportunity to learn about the company and the oil industry.
“I’ve been learning a lot,” said trainee Jay Harris. “I started out with no information, so finding out what the company’s all about has been useful.”
“I’ve been in the oil field before,” said trainee Ty Davidson. “One thing I noticed about this company is they talk a lot more about safety procedures, and they actually care about their employees.”
Sanjel’s Billings facility, located on Cordova Street southeast of the Billings Holiday Inn, is also a regional repair center for Sanjel’s equipment.
Fracking crews, which number 18 to 20 people, run 24 hours per day. As Goppert said, crew members sometimes spend more time with their co-workers than they do with their own families. It’s just the nature of the job.
“We begin with safety, and meeting the regulatory requirements, with a specific emphasis toward the oil industry,” said Ron Gordy, staff development trainer for Sanjel. “A lot of guys have experience in different trades. The oil field has specific requirements and traditions, so they gain an understanding of the culture.
“For a company like ours that’s growing, it’s important that we maintain that safety culture and the corporate culture,” Gordy said.
“In this job you learn how to think on your feet,” Gopperton said. “Things happen very fast, and a lot of times there are things that need to be fixed so that you can finish the job. We train guys on cold weather and hot weather conditions. They learn everything about taking care of the truck, professional truck driving responsibilities, and the “If equipment.”
“If we’re not safe, we’re not in business,” Gordy said.