Bears, Moose, Bitter Cold - All Part Of A Day's Work For Alaskan Well Driller
Westberg, owner of M & W Well Drilling in Anchorage, AK, literally has drilled wells night and day for 31 years. He has persevered in the drilling business despite Alaska's bitterly cold temperatures, winters during which sunlight lasts only a couple of hours a day in some months, and the occasional wild animal visitor at his drilling sites.
Although Westberg originally came to Alaska in 1960 to pursue other career interests, he soon found himself involved in the drilling industry and literally worked his way through the industry from the ground up.
"I'd always been attracted to the state, so I came to Alaska in 1960. I had a degree in geology, and in 1960 a geologist couldn't buy a job. I went to work as a civil engineering aide and usually worked with hydrologists and geologists. Their work usually involved drilling in some form so I got to work with the drill crews. When the job was over, I got laid off and the drill crew went to the next job, so it wasn''t long before I started work for a drilling contractor," Westberg said.
"In 1969, I was working on the North Slopes doing pile drilling and a young engineer named Dick Miller talked with an engineer from ARCO, and he said anyone with a rig would have all the work they could handle, so we got a rig in August 1969. We put our last dollar in the down payment and had no work, so we went to work drilling water wells in Anchorage," he added
"I'm now a proponent of training and certification, but that makes me a hypocrite because I started out cold turkey like a lot of guys did back then."
Westberg said his company now handles drilling work throughout Alaska, including water wells, dewatering projects, pile preboring and drilling and installing pipeline supports.
M & W Well Drilling owns Ingersoll Rand T4W, T2W, and Acker MP3 rotary rigs and Star 72, Bucyrus Erie 221 and Walker-Near 3500 cable tool drilling rigs and employs from 10 to 16 people at various times, Westberg said.
He said the company averages drilling 80 to 100 wells a year and business is about equally divided between public and private projects.
Westberg said working conditions in Alaska aren't always as bad as some people might think.
"In the Anchorage area, we operate year round. We only get about four feet of snow a year and it doesn't get much colder than in Minnesota or Michigan, but the winters are much longer.
"The weather isn't really what gets to people, it's the darkness. In January and February, we only have a couple of hours of sunlight a day and we have the opposite in the summer, when it only gets dark a couple of hours every day," he said.
Westberg said his company does a considerable amount of pipeline-related work in the winter in interior sections, where temperatures are often the most frigid in the state.
"We just have to run around in the dark and use heaters and bundle up real well. There are a lot of areas in Alaska you can't get to until after it freezes because the ground is soft and you can't drive on it," he said.
"I had one project on a pipeline dewatering well where for 10 straight days the temperature never got above 68 degrees below zero. That was in the Cold Foot area, which is usually the coldest area of the state," Westberg added. "The project had to be done in the winter because the pipeline was buried in a riverbed."
Westberg recalled another project in which he drove a 55,000-pound drilling rig 60 miles on a frozen river to reach a job site in a remote village.
"Ice is like plastic even at 30 or 40 degrees below zero, and I had told them I wouldn't drive on it unless it was three or four feet thick. It was a little eerie to drive on the ice and see it bowing for hundreds of yards in front of you," he said.
He added his geology background came in handy for that project in Steven's Village, because others had tried to drill for water there and hadn't succeeded due to the constantly frozen terrain.
"They had 400 to 600 feet of permafrost in the area. I had worked on a pipeline in the area and had done foundation investigations in the area and knew there was a thaw bulb about 138 feet under the river. I proposed that we drill into an aquifer in the thaw bulb and offset on shore 45 degrees. We set the rig up on snow and ice and used a D-9 Caterpillar dozer in front of the rig in 40 below zero weather to hold the rig in place. That was about 15 years ago and the well we developed is still in use today," he said.
For working in such bone-chilling winter environments, Westberg said he has developed a special method for keeping the drilling equipment and crew protected from the extremely cold conditions.
"I've got a big old cargo parachute like the military uses to drop big, heavy cargo and a 3 million BTU gas heater You turn the heater on and it pumps up the chute like a hot air dome and you can work in there in a T-shirt. I even draped it over the rig with the mast up in one project where we were working in 60-below weather," he said.
The frigid weather conditions can sometimes result in equipment malfunctions or breakdowns, but Westberg said it is easier now than in the past to overcome such difficulties.
"There are so many massive construction projects here we can find just about anything we need in state and if not, it's only an overnight flight away. It's probably simpler to get parts here than in somewhere like Montana," he said.
"The distance, freight costs, labor costs, and climate all make costs higher here," Westberg said. "Time is money here too, especially with the price of labor, the temperature and the weather at times. You've got to get projects done before the weather closes in on you."
The cold weather isn't the only problem faced by drilling crews in Alaska, where it isn't uncommon in some areas to encounter large animals such as bears or moose.
"I've had a drill crew run off a rig by a moose here in the Anchorage city limits," Westberg said. " Moose are generally more dangerous than bears because bears are confident enough to go on about their business. Moose spook easily and they're dumb and their first instinct is to charge."
One of about 40 drilling contractors in Alaska, not counting petroleum and oil field contractors, Westberg said he has seen many changes in the state's drilling industry and expects more in the future.
"There's much more regulation now and there was almost none when we started. The environmental concerns have greatly increased. There's not as much massive growth going on now as there was. When I arrived in Anchorage, the population was about 30,000 and now it's about 200,000," Westberg said.
"We have massive oil and gas resources on the North Slope which are yet to be tapped, but I don't see much growth in that area until more markets develop for oil and gas. There's all kinds of mineral potential here too, but it has suffered from all the environmental standards.
"The water well drilling industry strictly depends on population growth, but I don't see much growth right now. I see it being stable or flat, where in the '70s during one period we had 35,000 new vehicle registrations in one year," he said.