A tanker rig pulled by a bright blue Peterbilt 379 tractor turns off a country road onto a dirt track leading to several oil wells and a couple of collection tanks. It doesn't take the driver long to transfer crude oil in the collection tank to the trailer.
For Nighthawk Transport Inc, this scene is repeated dozens of times everyday at various locations across Texas. The Houston-based company has found steady success since its expansion into oilfield services in 2002. Thirty tanker rigs are in operation hauling crude oil and waste liquids, such as salt water.
“Nighthawk has been around since 1995, but we've only been involved with the oilfield sector for about four years,” says Glenn Miller, director of the oilfield operations. “We saw good opportunities even before world oil prices jumped and production activity surged in Texas. When prices approached $60 a barrel, drilling activity really picked up for both crude oil and natural gas. Things are very active.
“In one recent operation, our customer drilled 10,000-feet near Matagorda Bay on the Texas Gulf Coast. It took only four weeks to drill. We were on the site to help with hauling waste, which included hauling salt water and petroleum-based mud. We had two vacuum tankers assigned to the job around the clock. Once the well is producing, we haul the crude oil off the site.”
Prior to the move into oilfield hauling, Nighthawk had specialized as a waste transporter. Industrial waste hauling remains an important part of the operation with 15 tractors and 15 van trailers based in Arkansas. The operation handles a variety of packaged and bulk wastes, including coatings and oils.
The company took its first step into the oilfield by providing salt water hauling and vacuum truck service in the Midland, Texas, area. “A well can generate up to eight barrels of salt water for each barrel of oil,” Miller says. “In addition to transporting salt water, we haul condensate from gas wells and do some oil spill recovery for our customers.”
Oilfield wastes are handled carefully. For instance, Nighthawk has several salt water disposal locations, all of them approved by the Texas Railroad Commission, which regulates the oil industry in Texas.
On the crude oil side, Nighthawk started hauling crude oil near Brookshire, Texas, and has five rigs based there now. “We're moving about 1,800 barrels a day from oil leases around Brookshire to Flex Tank Services,” Miller says. “Another five rigs haul crude oil to a pipeline near Denver City in West Texas. With the increased drilling, we've got another five or so rigs running in south Texas.”
A typical crude oil rig in the Nighthawk operation will haul three loads a day per driver. A rig will cover about 300 miles a day — 1,500 to 2,000 miles a week. In most cases, drivers are home at the end of the shift.
However, the crude oil and vacuum fleets do take on some lengthy jobs where drivers have to stay close to the work site. Five tractors have sleepers, and Nighthawk also puts portable dormitories at some work sites.
Fifteen tractors and vacuum trailers are dedicated to oilfield waste transport. The rigs are based at Nighthawk's facility in Daisetta, just east of Houston off I-10. Also provided out of Daisetta are oilfield services that include a closed-loop mud system for oil well drilling.
“Closed loop systems provide better protection for the environment,” Miller says. “Our system consists of a frac tank, two 45-ft mud boxes, and a four-inch pump. Bentonite clay is mixed with water to make the mud, which improves the efficiency of drilling.”
Nighthawk Mat Haulers is yet another part of the oilfield service operation. This division operates throughout south Texas and southern Louisiana. Using flatbed trailers, the division supplies eight-foot-wide by 12-foot-long mat boards that serve as portable roads during drilling operations in areas where the ground is soft or marshy.
The tractor preferred for all of the Nighthawk oilfield operations is Peterbilt's Model 379 conventional. “Our drivers like the tractor, and it gives our fleet a very professional, high-quality image,” Miller says. “The tractors have a very competitive price and a good trade-in value. We bought 35 Petes over the past year and a half, and we took delivery on 10 more in March and April.”
Most of the bright blue tractors are ordered as daycabs. Nighthawk specifies Caterpillar C12 and C13 engines rated at 435 horsepower and Fuller 10-speed transmissions. Special equipment mounted behind the cab includes a custom-designed and built aluminum tool box that houses a centrifuge for checking the specific gravity of crude oil. Hose fittings and other hardware also are stored in the toolbox.
Below the toolbox on the tractor frame is a four-inch Roper pump powered off the tractor PTO. “Using that pump, it takes about 15 minutes to load a trailer with crude oil,” Miller says. “We put vacuum pumps (Challenger, Drum, and Fruitland) on the tractors used to transport oilfield wastes.”
Typical wheelbase is 215 inches. Running gear includes tandem-drive axles with a 44,000-lb capacity, Peterbilt air suspension, aluminum disc wheels, and 11R24.5 radial tires. All of the tractors in the fleet have Holland Kompensator fifthwheels.
Tractor tare weight is 16,500 pounds. “We've configured our tractors so that we can haul 170 barrels of crude oil without exceeding the weight limits,” Miller says. “It means more revenue for us and our drivers. Many crude haulers max out at 155 to 160 barrels.”
The aluminum crude oil trailers in the fleet are built to DOT407 code and have a 200-barrel capacity. Nighthawk buys used crude oil trailers through Trailers of Texas in Houston. They were built by a variety of manufacturers, including Heil Trailer International, Trailmaster, and Fruehauf.
“When we're selecting a crude oil trailer, we look for good baffles in the tank and running gear with a spring suspension,” Miller says. “We want epoxy linings because many of the cargoes we haul are very corrosive to the tank itself. We overhaul the trailers pretty thoroughly before putting them into service.”
Vacuum trailers also are purchased used. The company looks for carbon steel DOT407/412 tanks with epoxy linings. Most of the vacuum trailers were built by Proco and Dragon Manufacturing.
Commercial repair shops are used for most tank trailer service, including federally mandated tank tests and inspections. Tractor service is handled through Peterbilt's TruckCare program, which offers total customer support 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Rugged, well-maintained vehicles have helped make Nighthawk a winner in the oilfield. The proof is in the company's steady growth.