MAKING IT: Drilling on Stable Ground

By Chris Hanson | October 04, 2013

When the ground or base of a rig site is prepared using gravel and rocks, some site managers have discovered that the ground they intended to stablize is susceptible to the natural elements of North Dakota. Driving rain and the spring thaw soften the ground, causing heavy machinery to sink, delaying operations and sometimes creating precarious working conditions.

Montana RigMat and Quality Mat Company are helping keep Bakken drilling sites stable and safe by providing their expertise and rig mats. Born out of the Great Recession, Montana RigMats has been in production since January 2012 and Quality Mat Company has been in operation since 1974. Both Travis Jordan, president of Montana RigMat, and Joe Penland, owner of Quality Mat Company, say mats prior to the '70s, were used sparingly and the current sites were still using techniques from the early 1900s where smaller-sized rigs were built upon loose lumber and rocks.

“Eighty years later, it was still loose lumber under a brand new diesel-electric rig,” Penland says. The mats are an updated foundation technology that supports the new, larger equipment used in today’s operations and assembles quickly to make site roads accessible.  Using the loose lumber technology, board road crews would only be able to set roughly 500 feet in a day, he says. “That’s just inching down the road,” he says. “We lay 2,500 feet in a day, with four men instead of 12 men. And on a location that would require 30 men 90 days, we’ll lay that location in two days with about four people.”

“We’ve seen a huge increase in rig size in North Dakota,” Jordan says. “As you put a bigger rig on wetter soil, you need more support.” Larger rigs and the implementation of walking rigs have driven the need for more secure matting solutions.
Saving Time and Equipment
In addition to being quick to assemble, rig matting allows for smaller, permanent drilling pads and easily allows site traffic to move around the drilling operation. With the implementation of rig matting, oil crews are able to avoid using acreage to construct permanent drilling pads with rocks. The rocks are sufficient when the ground is frozen and dry, Penland says, but once rain sets in or thawing begins, crews might find themselves dealing with ruts, stuck equipment and inability to access drilling sites. Heavier rains earlier this year led the Quality Mat Company to implement 25,000 mats in a four-week period to rescue stuck vehicles and equipment. “They were rigged up on these locations and they couldn’t get a pickup in and out, let alone 18-wheeler traffic,” he says. “We had to literally go in there and back drag the location to get the ruts out of it and just lay mats all around where they were sitting.” 

Jordan adds he is also aware of instances where large machinery became immobilized when trying to navigate or turn around in areas of freshly laid rock. “Fresh rock is not stable,” he says. “Rock needs a year to compact and become stable, and I’ve heard of cranes pulling onto a freshly graded location, ready for the rig to come in and looks as pretty as can be, they pull in there and bury the thing all the way to the axles in rock.” He says by having a robust matting solution in the Bakken area can prevent incorrect assumptions that an area is solid and avoid a “rude awakening waiting beneath the surface," Jordan says. 

In addition to saving time rescuing equipment, rig mats can ensure expensive equipment stays clean and useable. Jordan recalls an instance where a company was setting a refurbished bit that had picked up a rock in front of the company manager’s shack. “They grabbed it, threw it on the end and ran it all the way down the hole,” he says. “They ran the thing down there two or three miles down hole and had to turn around and trip all that pipe out of there, just to change that bit because it had been sitting on a rock. That company was immediately concerned about making sure they got some mats to put in front of the company man’s shack so they had a place to set tooling so that it wouldn’t get plugged.”
Along with stabilizing the work environment for machinery and crew, another major benefit of using matting for rigging operations is a smaller environmental impact than the traditional rocking operations. For a traditional rig site, operators would need to cover an area of roughly five acres. Furthermore, when the rig moves, the rocks will have to be removed before to any land reclamation efforts can be completed. “If you fly over North Dakota 15 years from now, it’ll glow red instead of green because you got 8,000 wells now that’s got all those red, permanent pads out there. And when you put another 50,000 wells there, that’s going to consume millions of acres of land that you don’t need to consume," Penland says.  

With the use of matting technology, drilling sites are able to work on a 1-acre pad while allowing grasslands to grow adjacent to the pad and sometimes even underneath it. If a location is fully matted without rock, land reclamation is much easier to accomplish. “That’s turned into a big environmental issue,” Jordan says, adding that an increasing number of North Dakota producers are choosing to use wooden access mats for the fringe area of rigging to lower the environmental impact. 

The mats even allow the grass to grow up through them and usually within 30 days, there is noticeable growth after the mats are removed, Penland says.
Author: Chris Hanson
Staff Writer