Excavators, Dozers Redeployed from Oilfields to Excavation

June 23, 2011

Born of opportunity during a long-ago oil boom, a 70-year-old central Illinois oilfield services contractor is re-inventing itself as an excavation and earthmoving business.

Well into its third generation of family ownership, Feller Oilfield Service, Inc., has participated in all the ups and downs of the Loudon oil field that was discovered and opened in the late 1930s, turning the small, south-central Illinois city of St. Elmo into a lively boom town.

Born of opportunity during a long-ago oil boom, a 70-year-old central Illinois oilfield services contractor is re-inventing itself as an excavation and earthmoving business.

Well into its third generation of family ownership, Feller Oilfield Service, Inc., has participated in all the ups and downs of the Loudon oil field that was discovered and opened in the late 1930s, turning the small, south-central Illinois city of St. Elmo into a lively boom town.

A 1938 issue of Illinois Oil magazine said, “St. Elmo's Main Street gives you the impression of a wild west frontier town after the discovery of gold.”

At its peak during the early 1940s, the Loudon field yielded 70,000 barrels a day. As production slowed to 20,000 barrels a day in the 1950s, some of the producers withdrew, until innovative injection methods pumped new life into the field during the 1980s. Today, the field continues yielding small but profitable amounts of oil for a few remaining producers, including Petco Petroleum and other independents.

Millions of barrels of oil remain in the field, awaiting the development of more economical recovery technologies. In the meantime, Feller Oilfield Services pursues a strategy of business diversification, while keeping an active hand in the oil patch.

Transition Leverages Similarities

Casey and Dane Feller are the third generation to help manage Feller Oilfield Services. Their father, Kirk, serves as the company’s president. Casey said the new focus on excavation projects takes advantage of strengths the company developed during decades of oilfield service.

“Diversifying into excavation makes sense for us, especially in today’s economy,” said Casey. “We have all the skills and equipment, and we can continue serving our oil industry customers.”

Two recent projects prove Casey’s point. Both involved trenching for pipe through varying topography. Both required a combination of equipment, including the company’s Case excavators and crawler dozer. The first was a 2000-foot-long pipeline excavation and installation project for a Petco Petroleum saltwater injection well. The second was an erosion remediation/prevention project involving trenching and drain tile installation on a section of a 4,000-acre farm.

Rocks can’t stop saltwater pipeline installation

Saltwater injection keeps the Loudon oil field productive. But extending injection pipelines to remote areas of the field sometimes requires excavating through unpredictable terrain. For a two-month project during the fall of 2009, Petco Petroleum used Feller Oilfield Service to excavate through a 140-acre former rock quarry within the oil company’s 24,000-acre property near St. Elmo, then install a series of PVC and fiberglass pipelines to feed a saltwater injection well and return the water for treatment.

Feller turned to its Case CX210 excavator to dig the 2,000-foot trench through the abandoned quarry. Once the trench was excavated, Feller used a CX210 and CX130 excavator with its Case 850K crawler dozer to install the pipeline, connecting the well with the injection plant which houses pumps, storage tanks and treatment facilities.

Production wells pump oil and water from underground formations. Separation tanks send oil into a pipeline for storage, while water goes out the bottom of the tank into a separate pipeline for recirculation to the injection well.

“Injecting saltwater into the oil formations forces the oil to migrate into areas of the formation that are accessible for drilling,” explained Casey Feller. “Whether you’re injecting salt water or extracting oil, you use a lot of the same technology and equipment. On this project, we had to prepare a 2,000-foot trench for installing 10 lines – five PVC pipes to take water to the injection well and five fiberglass lines to bring water back to the injection plant for treatment.”

Casey said the CX210 excavator had to cut through “some fairly large rocks” in excavating the 20-foot-wide trench. Average depth of the trench was five feet. However, it reached as deep as 18 feet in some areas, including one location that required excavating beneath an existing natural gas pipeline that could not be moved or disturbed.

When the trench was complete, the work was only half done. Feller also had to assemble and install four 12-inch PVC lines and one 8-inch PVC line that feed the injection well, along with five 6-inch fiberglass lines that return water to the injection plant. The two Case excavators worked in tandem to lift and hold 50-foot-long PVC sections for fusing into continuous pipelines. As the lines were assembled, Feller used the Case dozer to pull the pipes through the trench.

The heaviest of the lines weighed more than 10 tons by the time they reached the injection well. Casey noted that the dozer pulled these lines without difficulty.

Farm drainage projects offer diversity for Feller

If the oil industry is a surprisingly important part of the central Illinois economy, agriculture is the region’s unquestioned anchor. And it is playing a large part in Feller Oilfield Service’s evolving business strategy. Farms throughout the area rely on underground drainage tile to prevent flooding. Drain tile installation, maintenance and replacement projects provide opportunities for contractors.

Representative of these projects was a quick, two-day tile installation job that Feller recently completed on a 4,000-acre farm near St. Elmo.

Part of the farm was experiencing severe topsoil erosion due to a lack of drain tile. Feller used its two Case excavators to dig a 2,000-foot trench for a 15-inch trunk line of clay pipe and three 500-foot trenches for 12-inch lateral feeder lines. The excavators and dozer worked together to set the pipelines and a riser pipe for each lateral line. The excavation included creating five-foot-wide, 30-foot-long earthen berms near the risers to direct surface water to those drains.

“On these drain tile jobs, siting the pipe is crucial,” Casey Feller explained. “Although the excavation isn’t very deep, the pitch and depth have to be just right to make sure the water drains effectively. On this project we shot the grade with our own surveying laser. On some jobs, we bring in professional engineers or surveyors.”

Feller ran the trunk line to a natural drainage area that borders the farm field, achieving the project’s flood-control objective.

In another recent farm field project, Feller created a two-acre pond by excavating a small creek to 20 times its normal width to create a wildlife refuge on a 2,000-acre cattle ranch near St. Elmo. Working five 12-hour days, Feller used a Case 1650K crawler dozer and a Case CX210 to clear scrub trees from along the creek and expand the creek into a duck pond.

“It was an interesting little job for a dozer and excavator working as a team,” said Dane Feller, another of the Feller sons. “The machines had no problem clearing out the trees, and stacking ‘em up for the property owner. Then they worked together to build the pond. We moved several thousand cubic yards of material over the course of a few days, and created a nice resource.”

Surviving and thriving in a down economy

Founded in 1941, Feller Oilfield Service has developed a strong set of survival skills. As a measure of its recent success, the company has expanded its workforce to 15 employees from a previous average of 8 to 10 employees.

“We've stayed busy in a slow economy,” said Kirk Feller. “It’s a matter of understanding where the opportunities are, and making sure you’re well positioned to take advantage of them. Whether they're in the oil business, farming or any other industry that can find value in our services, we offer our customers dependability, versatility, productivity and quality.”

The Fellers look for similar characteristics in the equipment they use. In addition to the two Case excavators and dozer, Feller also operates two Case 580 Super M loader/backhoes, one of which is equipped with a forklift attachment for material handling. The company also uses a Case 450CT compact track loader. Feller recently took delivery of a second Case dozer, a 1650K model.

“We always just had loader/backhoes until a couple of years ago, when we added the excavators and dozers,” said Casey. “We always had a good relationship with our equipment dealer, Birkey’s, and good luck with Case equipment, so it was an easy choice to stay with Case for the excavators and dozers. We’ve been happy with their performance, fuel economy and power. We’re definitely satisfied.”

He said equipment lifespan depends on maintenance: “We’re very strong on maintenance – you take care of equipment, it lasts a long time. We typically trade around 4,000 to 5,000 hours. We put 700 to 800 hours of use on the loader/backhoes every year; so that’s about a six- to eight-year trade cycle. We expect the same kind of longevity with the excavators and dozers.”

--This article courtesy of Cooper Hong, which represents Case Construction.