Engineering Attention

Drilling and production may get the glory, but engineering teams have reason to boast
By Luke Geiver | May 23, 2013

Engineers don’t get the credit they deserve. In a region where lateral lengths and initial production rates bring both bragging rights and an economic indication element to the long-term viability of oil and gas retrieval, little focus or praise is given to a road construction project or pipeline facility completed in difficult operating conditions. There are no monthly press conferences to highlight the status of construction, gas gathering stations or wastewater ponds.

All most know is that something gets done, not how. When there’s a major announcement regarding the Bakken, it’s most likely about the latest oil resource assessment or some kind of funding issue. Rarely does the story of an engineering crew’s approach to workforce supply, harsh operating conditions or innovative tactics to streamline its ability to get a project done receive attention. Jame Todd, principal engineer at Bartlett & West's Bismarck office, offers one of many examples as to how, and why, engineering firms of every sort have a reason to boast about their work in the Bakken.

Conquering the Learning Curve
Bartlett & West is an engineering firm that for roughly 30 years has been providing the state with rural water access and other related construction services. Then the energy industry came to town. “For us the energy sector has been great, we have new service offerings because of it,” Todd says. Standing with Todd at his booth during this year’s Williston Basin Petroleum Conference, and listening to him explain the evolution of his company while holding an iPad lit up with a western N.D. map featuring colored lines, it was easy to understand exactly how the energy industry has been good for his team. When asked about any changes or new approaches the company had to make to the way it did business, Todd said frankly, “I’ve got a good example for you.”

In 2008, Todd and his team began working with a company assessing the feasibility of developing a synthetic natural gas plant by South Heart, N.D. The plans for the plant required water, and Todd’s team performed a study examining the options. The same company tasked Bartlett & West to determine the viability for CO2 pipelines at the proposed facility. “They needed to sell that CO2 to make it economical,” he says. The team was required to create a permit matrix, or a map that would illustrate the type of land and cost of land for various pipeline routing options to move the product from South Heart to places in and out of the state.

The result of that work was a geographical information system (GIS) application that Todd says, could produce a hypothetical pipeline on a map and then produce the information of every road crossed, every federal land used, any special land attribute and the type of land (wetland, forest, etc.). Using the GIS application, “We could estimate the cost it would be to cross any type of land,” Todd says. “That was about the same time the Bakken sort of took off,” he adds.

Armed with a cost-estimating tool fit for an iPad and capable of providing developers with real-time information regarding the status of a tract of land sited for a pipeline, Todd and his team were ready for the next request from the company. Following the breakout of the Bakken during that time, “they shifted from the CO2 pipeline to an oil pipeline,” and the Bartlett & West team was able to use the information gleaned from the CO2 exercise.

In doing so, the team had officially joined the list of engineering teams who have/and are transforming the play from a desk. “We had this big learning curve,” he says, in part, because of the speed required to service the oil and gas industry. “With energy companies, today everything is yesterday. Efficiency is a huge challenge.” And the steep curve was also due in part to the economic and political atmosphere difference between water and oil. With the firm’s water work, landowners had been donating land easements because the farmers would gain free water in return. “All of a sudden, we had to pay the landowners,” Todd says of the team's oil pipeline efforts. At first, landowners were requesting reimbursement by the acre affected, and then it was by each individual section of pipe. “On initial easements, we were paying $25 per rod and in a year’s time it tripled to $75 or more per rod." 

The efforts by Todd and his team that started in 2008 will pay off in June. The 132-mile pipeline that the team has been working on, otherwise known as the BakkenLink Pipeline, will use a combination of 8-inch and 12-inch steel pipeline to transport crude from several western N.D. locations.

But, although the Bartlett & West team may soon be finished with the project, they’ve earned a place as a go-to firm for innovative GIS use. The GIS system helps in many areas, including the management of land ownership. The team used the system on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation as a means to track easements on the reservation where, Todd says, there could be more than 200 names linked to 1 tract of land, and a minimum of 51 percent of those names must approve the selling or donation of that land easement. Because the GIS software tracks all information related to project management, the team can use its technology in frack water supply lines, saltwater disposal lines and additional pipelines to provide cost estimates to developers and names to lawyers and accountants dealing with land acquisition or use issues.

Work on the BakkenLink has bolstered the company’s record-breaking success over the past three years, Todd says. The success can be attributed to their ability to adapt their skill sets to a new area, to instill the trust of energy companies "because now we know the local landowners.”

Navigating the Play
The Bartlett & West team is just one engineering firm that has overcome adversity and found success in the Bakken. Gabe Maliscke, technical manager for the Fargo-affiliated branch of Ulteig Engineers, has figured out how to manage several employees, projects and issues. The firm is currently working on a safety project for the 17 oil-producing counties in the state. The N.D. Department of Transportation has asked those counties to identify hazardous curves or road sections in their respective counties. The Ulteig team is now assessing those curves and sections, and outfitting each with the appropriate signage. “Out of the 17 counties, 15 responded and we have almost 800 sites to look at,” Maliscke says. “That is unique for us because typically we don’t handle that much information.”

To help his team manage the informational overload, he has used a similar approach as Todd’s team. Maliscke and crew are utilizing a GIS-based app to track which sites have been addressed, with what type of signage and which still need work.

The company is also heavily focused on addressing road conditions on a 20-mile stretch of U.S. Highway 2. After partaking in a similar project last year, Maliscke has adapted to the traffic intricacies created by commercial trucks and a bursting population. “We got some good ideas on how to handle traffic and how to keep the public safe,” he says of his previous projects. His team now places a premium on limiting side road access to the highway during construction. In addition to a few minor traffic incidents on previous projects, there were a few incidents when a driver drove over fresh concrete.

On an overall project perspective, Maliscke says the No. 1 thing his team has overcome and is now thriving at, is time management. In the past, most engineering firms would work in the summer and design and plan in the winter. “Now there are projects being bid year-round and projects being built all year-round. We have a team that just does bidding now,” he says.

Because the team is constantly working and most projects are bid based in part on a timeline for completion, Maliscke says managing contractors and manpower has become crucial. The Ulteig team even uses its GIS system to monitor manpower. The system allows Maliscke to constantly check the progress of each small team at a road construction site, and if necessary, move in more workers or move off workers to another section based on each team’s progress. “With technology,” he says, “you can get a lot of work done when you are in the middle of nowhere. Even though nowhere doesn’t really apply to the Bakken now.”

Engineered Bonds
As Maliscke implies, there is practically no more nowhere in the Bakken, and it even applies to engineering circles. Paul Wallick, principal engineer for Wenck Associates Inc., an environmental engineering firm, can attest. The firms are able to accomplish so much behind the scenes, in part because of the amount of work needed in the region. “I’ve noticed out here that engineering firms, although we are competitors, work together a lot more because we are all busy and we aren’t afraid to trade off services,” Wallick says.

Before working at Wenck, Wallick spent time as an engineer in the Minneapolis area. “It was much more cutthroat in the Cities,” he says. “You knew everybody and it is a small world. You didn’t want to give away who you were working with.” In the Bakken, engineers frequently trade services or hold back from bidding on projects that aren’t within a team’s specialty area, a facet of the play that Maliscke agrees with.

Wallick also believes that to find success in the Bakken, whether is it designing a wastewater pond for a well site, an industrial complex or an apartment building, engineers are learning the importance of showing up. “Being here is important. Establishing relationships with the city and county people is too,” he says. “You still have to make contacts and go out there. It is starting to get a little more saturated, it is getting more competitive.”

Engineers are not like oilfield workers who can thrive without ever entering a city. Engineers need to be known by city or county engineers who issue information so that they stay up-to-date about the constant zoning and regulation alterations happening in cities such as Minot, Williston or Dickinson.

The time and effort needed to remain in the loop on policies and rule changes is now a major reality for Todd, Maliscke and Wallick. Each one says that along with finding housing for staff members, staying abreast of regulatory decisions is a monster time- consumer. But, for most, if not all engineering firms in the region, the efforts put forth outside of designing are worth it.

Todd’s team is always hiring, he says, and has opened new offices across the state because of activity in the oil and gas industry. Maliscke’s Fargo-based team is so busy it has begun to combine work with Ulteig's Bismarck branch. Wallick is working on several projects ranging from industrial complexes to car washes. Each project means learning new rules, assessing and delegating manpower, and utilizing any new technology that expediates the process, because as each says, there is always more work. “This is going to be a long-term thing,” Wallick says.

Regardless of whether Wallick’s car wash project, Maliscke’s 20-mile stretch of concrete work on Highway 2 or any of the new pipeline work that Todd’s team is able to complete in this long-term play is recognized, it is clear that engineers are proving that any attention they get is earned.

Author: Luke Geiver
Managing Editor, The Bakken magazine