Rig workers fired up about enduring cold

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BISMARCK, N.D. -- With the wind chill falling to almost minus 40, Steve Hendershot's mind was elsewhere as he and his crew of roustabouts worked an oil rig in North Dakota's booming oil patch.

On palm trees and beaches, in fact.

"Sometimes you just got to close your eyes and dream of a warm, happy place," Mr. Hendershot said Thursday while working near Souris. "I'm doing that today."

The cold weather sweeping the Plains wasn't cooling off work in the oil patch, which moves forward in all weather. But even hardened oilmen were taking note of the dangerous conditions that were expected to keep daily highs below zero until Sunday.

Oil patch workers endure by layering up beneath fire-retardant clothing and taking breaks in small heated shacks called "doghouses," which are often near rigs. Many companies also try to hire locals with at least five years of experience.

"If they've made it that long, they're probably going to stick around," says Larry Dokken, a veteran oilman whose consulting firm recruits workers for oil companies.

Some workers gripe about the bone-numbing temperatures, he added. Many others take pride in withstanding it.

"This is what I love to do," said Craig Hovet, during a break from maintenance work on a well near Mandaree.

North Dakota historically has conjured up images of a bleak, wind-swept and treeless wasteland. The perception of inhospitable winter weather was so great that one image-minded group a decade ago proposed changing the state's name by dropping "North" and leaving just "Dakota."

That was before North Dakota's recent oil bonanza, which has brought swarms of people in search of jobs and a fresh start. Now thousands of new oil wells have been punched though the prairie, generating billions of dollars and abundant work. It's a boom that doesn't stop for the weather.

"Harvesting oil is a 24/7, 365 operation," said Ron Ness, president of the North Dakota Petroleum Council, an industry group that represents hundreds of oil-related companies. "The pace probably slows during extreme blizzard conditions -- and there are extra precautions on safety -- but it's work that is not going to stop."

Mr. Hendershot was keeping close tabs on his crew Thursday.

"There is only a certain amount of time these guys can work in this, and some people get cold quicker than others," Mr. Hendershot said. "Everybody talks about how much money an oil worker is paid. They earn it."

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