I am back on the slope for a 3 day hitch. Arrived on Sunday (agreeable only because the Green Bay Packers had a bye week) and flying home Tuesday night. It is winter up here, snow is falling and it covers all. Truth is, this is the only time of year it does snow, since its the only time of year where its warm enough for snow to form.
As I banged through some posts on Facebook yesterday, I realized that we could use a little background of what is actually done up here. Obviously, the main function of the operations here is to get oil out of the ground and put it in the southbound pipeline – and we do so sending over a half a million barrels of oil a day down that way. Yet it’s not magic that makes oil appear above ground, nor is it fairy dust that moves it around or the promise of cheese to keep the oil wells flowing. That’s what the work up here is intended to do.
First of all, there is the manning of massive Arctic Well Rigs. Most of the oil wells here were drilled years ago, and while new wells are put in here and they really make their work known through “work overs”. Basically, a well will stop producing for a number of reasons from down hole pumps failing to a reduction in pressure at the well site to even a case where a fish got stuck in the hole. The rigs pull up over the existing well, clear out the mess, fix what needs to be fixed, then move on. These are massive machines, since the wells are drilled using a specific method to reach pockets horizontally, and much of the well floor has to be enclosed from the weather. The largest, the Liberty Rig, is 240 feet tall (or taller than a 20 story building). Since the wells are not going to move to the rig, each rig is mobile – slow but mobile. Yesterday, we almost got caught behind a rig moving between well sites. We snuck out of work a half an hour early, and if we didn’t a stretch of road that would have taken a truck to cover in less than a minute would be tied up for hours as the rig moved over the same distance.
Once the oil is out of the ground, there is a lot of operations that take place before it can hit the pipeline. The one thing I didn’t think about until I saw it in action is that the oil has to be cleaned up first. What we get out of the ground isn’t just oil. It has sand, rocks, natural gas, and water (yes, water and oil do mix, they just don’t mix well). There are facilities to separate the oil from the rest of it. While we keep the oil, the rest of what comes out gets pumped back into the ground. For the most part, the pressures underground are high enough that when we poke a hole down there, the stuff comes rushing out. Problem is that over the years that pressure drops, so we push stuff back in to keep the pressure up. Most of it is natural gas (because at this time we have no way to get the natural gas to anywhere south of the oil field), some of it is ground up rock from drilling, but we do pump an awful lot of sea water pulled from the Arctic Ocean back underground.
Finally, what we have as good oil needs to be pressurized to a suitable level with a suitable viscosity to make for easy travel south, which requires the right mix of added gas and chemicals. Once we have that, we turn the oil over to the pipeline and they take it from there.
All of this work has to be maintained, so a huge amount of the workforce is maintenance. Since I deal with vendor products, I end up tying myself into materials in support of the operation and the services used to do the work. At the end of the day the well oiled machine that is Greater Prudhoe Bay, continues to get the oil out of the ground and get it to where it needs to go (namely my cool newish/oldish RV).
Oh … and last night was prime rib night too. That really helped to keep things going.