Day on the Slope

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It snowed today over most of Alaska.  I say this because today I saw most of Alaska, and that’s say an awful awful lot.

Today, I had a meeting at an office in Deadhorse, AK – a tiny village that is no more than an airport, a post office, a few modular building that look could be packed up and shipped away in weeks (some that are called hotels), and flat barren snowscape.  The area is more commonly called the “North Slope” or more directly “The Slope” as it lies on the northern slope of the Brooks Mountain Range – a slope that runs hundreds of miles down to the coast just a short distance from Deadhorse.  The Slope lies 650 miles north of Anchorage, and 250 miles north of the Arctic circle.  At 70° north of the equator, it is approximately 400 miles further north than I have ever been in my life.  Deadhorse is the entry point to the Greater Prudhoe Bay Oil Field — underneath lies an oil reservoir that will result in approximately 25 billion barrels of oil in its lifetime making it the largest oil reservoir in the USA and double that of the second largest.  BP has no other assets in Alaska than those in Prudhoe Bay, meaning the slope is the quite simply my production line, my manufacturing source, my shop floor, where I make the donuts.  Today, I made my first visit to this place.

Thousands of people work on the slope, doing everything from maintaining rigs, to monitoring wells, to fueling trucks, to cooking the food.  Nearly all the workers don’t actually live on the slope.  Most are on a 2-week rotation.  Typically when I communicate to people on the slope, I am talking to a position that will get filled every two weeks with an alternate.  People working on the slope could be from absolutely anywhere, since it takes just a day to get up there from the lower 48, but most live in the Anchorage area.  When working on the slope, people stay in camps.  Since I only touched on one camp today, I’ll leave that description for later.

What I can tell you is how crazy the concept of getting to the slope is.  650 miles from Anchorage means that you need to take a plane, or face nearly a full day’s drive in bad conditions.  Every day hundreds and hundreds of employees for BP, Conoco Phillips, Exxon, Shell, and a long list of contractors head up or head back.  That much traffic means … guess what … corporate jets.  BP and Conoco Phillips co-own an airline called “Shared Services”, which acts like any other airline flying out of ANC. With a fleet of three 737s, they make anywhere between 5 and  7 round trips to Deadhorse everyday.

The airline isn’t like your typical ones though.  We get reservations from one of our employees who basically bills our department direct.  We get to the airport where they have the manifest of those with reservations printed on little slips – they give us the slip the pulls a sticker off a sheet with a number on it … that’s our seat … thats our boarding pass.  I am sitting at the gate this morning at 6:30 and up pulls the 737, and people drag themselves to the gate like getting on the bus.  The plane goes up, we head across the entire state of Alaska, and land an hour and a half later.

The Shared Services terminal is nothing but a tightly packed shed with a couple of workers and twice as many TSA personnel.  Luggage is thrown into wood crates and hauled by a front end loader.  We walk across open tarmac to get to the building and fight off the other 100 men for the 4 urinals in the bathroom.

Because its winter, Arctic gear is required (in our vehicle, not on at all times) which is super heavy (yet comfortable) coats and a super heavy overalls pants suit thing.  You could see why today, when blowing snow kept visibility down to less than a half mile for most of the day.  Our meeting wasn’t too far from the airport.  It lasted less than an hour than we hung out at a camp and had lunch before catching an afternoon flight home.  So put simply, I didn’t see anything.   What I could see was flat that would make the state of Kansas make fun of it.  There was supposed to be a small lake out the window, but you could barely see where the road ended and the next anything began.  I could see some of the structures there, but moreso in the dark when the lights were on (and it didn’t get daylight until 10am-ish).

So that was my day on the slope, and not the last.  My current schedule shows at least two more multi-day trips to the slope before Christmas, and more likely three trips.  I will get to know it pretty well by the end of the year.  But at least I got the first one out of the way.