North Dakota oil boom means more money, more stress for rig leader

WILLISTON, N.D. -- North Dakota's oil boom has Terry Tinnes torn. On one hand, Tinnes makes more money than he knows what to do with while working as a "company man," a position that oversees a drilling rig. But he also has seen so much growth in...

Terry Tinnes of Ray first worked in North Dakota oilfields in 1979. "I'm what they call an old school roughneck," said Tinnes, 51.

WILLISTON, N.D. -- North Dakota's oil boom has Terry Tinnes torn.

On one hand, Tinnes makes more money than he knows what to do with while working as a "company man," a position that oversees a drilling rig.

But he also has seen so much growth in traffic, noise and crime in his once-quiet hometown of Ray, N.D., that he's leaving the house he grew up in and moving to Minnesota.

"We just lost our peace and quiet here," said Tinnes, 51. "If I could, I'd swoop up my entire family and take them away from here right now."

Tinnes began working in North Dakota oil fields in 1979 at age 18 after a family connection helped get him a job on a workover rig, or service rig. Tinnes had a "freak accident" in his first month when a piece of equipment hit him in the head and fractured his skull.


"I didn't let it bother me. I didn't quit because of it or give up because of it," Tinnes said. "I just got up and got going again."

After he recovered, Tinnes got a job on a drilling rig and began working his way up. In the 1980s, Tinnes said, he could walk up to a rig and get hired.

"Most of us had our checks spent before we even got it. We were stupid. We were young," Tinnes said. "And we partied hardy. We partied. Drugs,

alcohol, it was all there. Everybody did, it was pretty crazy. Wild."

Tinnes had another so-called "freak accident" when a chain broke and hit him in the face, knocking out his teeth. But again, he didn't let it stop him.

"I loved physical work," Tinnes said. "I didn't care what it did to my body."

After the oil activity stopped in the 1980s, Tinnes spent several years working as a farm laborer and doing other odd jobs before returning to the oil fields in 2006. At age 45, Tinnes was working as a driller with roughnecks who were between 19 and 25.

His age caught up with him, and Tinnes found out he had a shoulder condition that prevented him from drilling.


That's when Tinnes got what he calls the "chance of a lifetime."

Gary Bercier, president of Dakota Consulting, who was overseeing the drilling rig Tinnes was working for, offered to train Tinnes to become a company man, also known as drilling consultant. Bercier said he was impressed with Tinnes' dedication and saw potential in him.

"Most people aren't built for this," Bercier said of supervising drilling rigs. "Terry's wired for it. There are very few people like him around."

After training for two weeks, Tinnes began working as a company man, which requires him to live at the drilling location and work or be on call 24 hours a day. He rotates two-week shifts with another company man.

Although the job is not physical, Tinnes said "the stress level is phenomenal" to make sure everyone stays safe while also meeting performance expectations.

"My motto is safe and prudent," Tinnes said. "You do it as fast as you can, but as safe as you can."

Once, Tinnes hung up on a company executive in Oklahoma who was ordering him to send trucks out in a blizzard.

"I just couldn't listen to him," Tinnes said. "I could not jeopardize everybody's life to get them on the road."


The incident caused him so much stress that Tinnes had a heart attack the next morning in his shack. Another crew member drove him to the emergency room, and Tinnes returned to work two days later.

In addition to dedication, Bercier said one of Tinnes' strengths is managing the 100 or more people who have a role at the drilling site.

Tinnes said he strives to keep morale up by complimenting a good job, giving out free hats or stickers and sharing his wife's home cooking with the workers. He also posts photos of the roughnecks on Facebook so their family members can see that they're safe.

"We have fun out here, but when it's time to get serious, we're serious," Tinnes said.

He won't share what his salary is, other than "quite a ways in the six-figure digits."

"I went from living paycheck to paycheck to I don't know what to do with it all," Tinnes said.

This time around, Tinnes is paying cash for everything so he doesn't go into debt like he did in the 1980s. He also is setting aside money for his two sons, his wife and granddaughter, as well as donating to charity.

Although Tinnes is benefiting from the oil boom, he doesn't like the dangerous traffic or the loss of peace and quiet and sense of security.


Tinnes and his wife, Mary, are building a home near Sebeka, Minn., where they bought 147 acres of woods. They plan to move next spring, and Tinnes will spend his two weeks off there and live on site in North Dakota his other two weeks.

"I can't take seeing my Williams County, my world, just changing like this," Tinnes said. "I can't blame anybody for wanting to come here. This is where it is. But I don't want to sit here and watch it anymore."

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