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Extreme cold chokes oil patch

Margaret Allen
Hays Daily News
An oil field tank battery burns Thursday evening south of Hays on Grants Villa Road, a quarter mile west off US-183 highway.
An oil field tank battery burned to the ground Thursday evening south of Hays on Grants Villa Road, a quarter mile west off US-183 highway.

Extreme cold the past week probably played a role Thursday evening in the fire that burned an oil tank battery to the ground a few miles southwest of Hays.

With single-digit temperatures through much of last week, oil producers say the bitter cold is playing havoc with oil field equipment, forcing them to shut down some operations until warmer weather.

“We think we had some moisture that froze up on a fitting on one of our oil stock tanks, and that’s what sprung our oil leak,” said Chris Toy, vice president for Wichita-based Knighton Oil Inc., an independent oil and gas producer that operates the Staab lease about 6 miles south of Hays and a quarter-mile east of US-183 highway on Grants Villa Road.

Several barrels of oil leaked into the dike around the tanks, which contained the spill, he said Friday from Wichita.

“At that point we called out for a couple of tank trucks just to suck up the mess that had been made,” said Toy. “That was going just fine, and suddenly fire started coming around from one side of the water tank inside the dike there, and we’re still not sure why.”

The fire started toward late afternoon, with Ellis County Fire and Emergency Services responding.

Toy said there wasn’t much to be done but let the fiberglass tanks burn up. No one was injured in the blaze, despite there being oil field personnel and a Knighton production superintendent onsite when the fire started.

“At that point, you just gotta let the thing do what it’s going to do. There’s nothing to be gained from putting firefighters' lives in danger to put out a tank battery fire, so it burned to the ground,” Toy said. “Those guys were still out there in the dark. … At eight degrees, it’s not an ideal time to be out fighting fires.”

Challenging time

Destroyed in the fire was a 250-barrel gun barrel, for separating the oil from the water, a 200-barrel water storage tank, and two 200-barrel storage tanks of oil, waiting to fill and be collected by a crude purchaser.

Toy said the company probably lost about 60 barrels of oil in the storage tanks, and probably 20 barrels in the gun barrel. The tank battery serves two wells on that lease, which are now shut down for the near term, he said.

“There are other leases come through the water tank there, and head out to a different disposal,” Toy said. “Fortunately when that thing burned to the ground yesterday, there were actually several leases that are also shut in now because they move the water off lease to dispose of what they need to.”

If it hadn’t been so cold in the first place, it maybe wouldn’t have frozen up and caused the initial spill, Toy said. Cleaning up a spill doesn’t normally pose extraordinary challenges, but in this case something generated a spark, whether it had to do with wiring or static electricity, he said.

Cold is also challenging at Knighton’s other leases in the Ellis County area, as well as further east in Morris County.

“When it gets this cold, the oil just becomes tougher to move in general, but we do have several of our tank batteries equipped with heaters that do help that process along,” Toy said. “We have other parts of the state where we do operate where the water is a lot fresher and the oil’s a little heavier, and we’re just about to the point where we’re shutting stuff down for at least the next week. We just can’t keep them from freezing up and we can’t get the oil to move.”

Salt water freeze

Oil wells producing from different geologic zones react to the cold differently, said Tom Denning, owner of oil and gas producer TDI Inc., of Hays. He said he’s shut down about half of his wells.

While all the zones produce salt water, they contain varying amounts of naturally occurring chlorides, Denning said. Water from the Arbuckle Formation is not very salty, so it freezes at low temperatures, he explained, while the Kansas City zone has a lot more chlorides.

“So your Kansas City waters are salty enough where they usually don’t freeze,” Denning said. “But if you have an Arbuckle well and it doesn’t make a whole lot of water, so you don’t have the water moving all the time in the line, it’s just a slow trickle. Then it starts freezing, and pretty soon it freezes completely in a line, and you’re still pumping. But it can’t go anywhere, so something’s got to give and you end up with a mess.”

A pipe busts, or a tank overflows, he said, describing the process: “If your line going from your gun barrel to your water tank freezes, and you’re putting fluid into your gun barrel, salt water and oil, and the water can’t go into the water tank, so it starts pushing fluid out, and you push enough fluid out and something’s going to overflow.”

Shutting down avoids problems, like valves freezing and breaking open, which can cost a couple thousand dollars to get going again.

“Some wells, you just shut ‘em down now until it warms up,” said Denning. “Some wells, if everything goes right, you keep them going. You just keep your fingers crossed.”

Shutting down wells

Mike Hertel, with producer, operator and service company Hertel Oil Co., of Hays, was out checking wells and tank batteries in the bitter cold Saturday morning. 

With The Weather Channel reporting a temperature reading of 1 degree, and a “feels like” temperature of minus-13, Hertel said his family owned company is watching wells closely.

“We’re keeping them running as long as possible, the Kansas City wells,” said Hertel. “Arbuckle, that makes lots of fluid, we’re trying to keep them going. It’s better if they run, but the Arbuckle freezes a lot more.”

Hertel and his brother, John, are frequently checking the leases they own, operate and service.

“If you want to keep them running you’ve got to check them twice a day,” Hertel said. “We’re watching the gun barrels closely.”

They’ve also shut down some of their more than 40 wells.

“I’ve shut down two on my end, but I’m in the Kansas City area formation south of town,” said Hertel. “John’s in the Toulon and Catharine area and he’s shut down probably, one, two, three, four, five, six, eight wells.”

Better days ahead

Marty Patterson, owner and president of Rome Corp., of Hays, was at Menards in Salina on Saturday morning buying parts.

“It’s terrible,” Patterson said. “Our biggest fight now is the cold.”

His company has shut down about 10 of its 50 wells sprinkled throughout Ellis, Rooks and Barton counties. And that’s not all.

“We’ve shut down all the rigs where the guys work at, and have them in the shop doing maintenance,” Patterson said of his pulling unit crews that repair wells. “It’s just hard to try and work in these conditions, and it just doesn’t make sense to tear up the equipment or the people.”

His employees will likely stay in the shop much of next week.

“I went out and did a small pump change Wednesday when it got up to a balmy 21 degrees, and went out and did a three-hour job, and that’s been it for the last week,” he said. “And next week doesn’t look a whole lot better.”

It’s Patterson's hope that oil prices rebound in the long-term, so he’s gearing up equipment needs for a couple-year run, as well as for the short-term. “We’re getting ready for March,” he said. “Because I think February is going to be cold. … It’s been a long time since we had a deep freeze like this.”

John Schippers, production foreman for DaMar Resources Inc., 234 W. 11th, on Saturday morning said the company has shut down about 95% of its wells.

"We shut the wells down because of safety and environmental issues," said Schippers. "My brother Danny, he's the boss, and he said 'John, I don't want those pumpers in danger out there, trying to get there. If there's a blinding snow storm, how are they going to get there, in case something happens? Let's just shut it down so nothing happens.'"

A producer and operator, DaMar anticipate restarting next Friday or Saturday if temperatures warm.

More cold to come?

Denning won't predict when he'll restart.

“I don’t know. Sunshine has a lot to do with it,” he said. “If the sun is shining, most of my tank batteries are painted black, so the sun hits the tank batteries and that helps warm it up.”

As for Knighton, they are already lining up a replacement tank battery, but will wait until temperatures warm up to install the equipment, since fiberglass can crack in the cold, Toy said.

The forecast calls for continued bitter cold Sunday and on into Monday and Tuesday, with temperatures not reaching into the 20s until Wednesday.

Reflecting on the long frigid stretch, Toy referenced Punxsutawney Phil, who saw his shadow Feb. 2, indicating six more weeks of winter.

“I guess the groundhog was right,” Toy said. “He hit the nail on the head with that prediction.”