Drilling into life in the oil field

BP's facilities at the Prudhoe Bay oil field.

KAI RYSSDAL: It's been five months since we've seen oil prices down where they closed today: $67.32 a barrel in New York. Crude's tumbled 7 percent in just the past two weeks. Surplus supply is what the analysts will say, if you ask them. Which is curious, because just last month a supply shortage was the big worry. BP was cutting production at the biggest oil field in the country – Prudhoe Bay, up in Alaska. We told you about today's congressional hearings into BP's problems at the top of the program. But we've been wondering what it's like to live and drill for oil on Alaska's North Slope. Jim Metzner went to find out.


JIM METZNER: Most workers at Prudhoe would probably fly in to the airport at nearby Deadhorse, Alaska. But tourists, hunters and truckers'll take the Dalton Highway, which can get a little bumpy at times.

Oil companies restrict the access to Prudhoe Bay. The only place to mix with the folks working there is during a change of shift, when many of the workers take a break and have a meal at the Prudhoe Bay Hotel.

Picture a maze of interconnected trailers and you've got the general idea. The interior decor is vintage Motel 6. The dining room is cafeteria style, sort of like Dennys. They're serving a big boy lunch buffet. The population is about 95 percent men – a lot of the guys here just don't want to talk to the media. They feel they've been misrepresented so many times and resent outsiders telling them what to do.
BOB_NELSON: There's so many restrictions from the environmentalists mainly that they've put on wildlife and basically nature up here.

Bob Nelson is part of a support team that helps maintain Caterpillar's equipment at Prudhoe.

NELSON: Those people don't even live here and it's affected us that live here. The best conservationist you can have is somebody that actually lives in that area, rather than someone in New York and New Jersey or Washington, D.C. whose feelings get hurt if we're going to drill by a caribou.

Except for the occasional encounter with hunters, the caribou that migrate through this region seem to be doing fine; they're well adapted to the harsh conditions. For people working here year round, it's an ongoing struggle.

NELSON: In the winter, I've seen it get 45, 48 below; and the wind blows 40 miles an hour. So, whatever that is, it's pretty cold.

Everyone I spoke to said there was more work than ever in Prudhoe, even with the shutdown. Basically you've got to house, feed and support a miniature city of workers in some of the most difficult conditions on the planet.

Billy Phelan is a trucker who's been working in Prudhoe for six years. He drives what he calls big size "Tonka toys," loaders, tractor trailers. Like everyone else here, he works long hours, 16-18 hour shifts, often seven days a week.

BILLY PHELAN: Yep. Full time. Three weeks on, three weeks off. That's considered full time.

Sometimes he hauls gravel on ice roads over the surface of the ocean to create man-made islands for future drilling operations.

PHELAN: It's a straight line for like 40 miles. And you're driving on the Beaufort Sea and you can hear the ice crack when you drive over it, even though it's feet thick. But you can hear it when it cracks. It sounds like thunder. That's pretty surreal. And it's just white, white nothingness forever.

There's a good reason why they brave the conditions here. From talking to workers, the typical salary is from $28 to $35 an hour, with some specialists getting up to $60 an hour.

PHELAN: Up here the money's steady. You only work half the year. You get more time at home than a person who does a 9 to 5 job. Because when they get home, they have two or three hours off. That's it. They sleep, they get up, that's it.

And for those who can take the pace and the weather, there are other perks:

PHELAN: Outside in your goggles and your snowsuit you feel like an astronaut, see the aurora above you shimmering. Pretty nice to take a step back and be able to think about, "Hey, I'm one of a few thousand people on the planet right now who's being able to look at this. Pretty fun feeling."

From Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, I'm Jim Metzner for Marketplace.

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