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Harpooning the earth - drilling with Charlie

Drilling holes into the earth is an audacious act with an ancient history. Many centuries ago the Chinese were drilling wells 1,000 feet-deep. In the 1860s, as marine mammals grew scarce, American whalers came ashore and began harpooning the planet, hoping to strike "rock oil."

Earth may resemble a big rock, but it's not stone-dead. Miles down, in what geologists call the petroleum kitchen, powerful forces are imprisoned. The copper plumbing in your house is designed to handle 100 pounds-per-square inch. Rig hands like my friend Charlie routinely deal with 4,000 psi, scalding temperatures, poisonous gases, bottled mayhem.

Charlie is a talented vagabond who peddles his specialized services from New Mexico to Montana. He emails me occasionally and when he comes through here I buy him a cheeseburger at Denny's. To see him sitting there, you might mistake Charlie for a plumber. But the work he does is more delicate than heart surgery. If your house was buried 8,000 feet underground, Charlie could guide a drilling bit through your patio door, down the hallway and out the bathroom window. Then he could go on down the street to the neighbor's and do it again.

In his mid-50s, shaped like a stump, Charlie is wickedly smart and supremely humble. When he speaks about jousting with Mother Nature, he's not referring to a demure grandmother but to a capricious head-banger, not sure she wants you in the mosh pit.

"Striking oil is very organic and resembles a birthing," he says. "The belief that hydrocarbons are the product of the life force is very common on a drilling rig. The smell of crude is like a perfume that evokes an ancient memory, something from our prehistoric life."

There are about 2,000 drilling rigs in the U.S. That's one rig for every 150,000 people, an increasingly dicey formula. Last winter we Americans collectively consumed more than 2 trillion cubic-feet of natural gas each month, one-fourth of it from the Rockies. Due to accelerating decline rates in older fields, we now need to replace with new drilling one-third of the gas we used the year before. Charlie calls this the "depletion treadmill," and he is chained to it. If guys like Charlie stopped working for a year, you'd have to turn a few things off, big things like, say, New York and Ohio.

A drilling rig is a noisy encampment set in the middle of nowhere. Huge generators spewing diesel exhaust drive large pumps and motors. Tripping 200,000 pounds of pipe out of the hole, the rig shudders, groans, squeals like a pig. Charlie works a week or two at a time, bunking in a man camp or a nearby motel.

His emails reek of exhaustion, stubborn geology, equipment breakdowns, logistical snafus, and axle-deep mud. The target formations rarely vary, but the individual wells can be unpredictable. "It has been hell up here," he writes, "but that is a different story. The big news is that a nearby rig crowned the block this week. The collision caused the entire assembly to freefall from the derrick into and through the rig floor. Fortunately, no one was hurt, but normally when this happens half of the rig crew are killed."

Where people can be maimed, superstition is rife. No cherry pie in the doghouse is one of Charlie's taboos. Few dry holes are drilled in the Rockies anymore. This isn't like playing roulette-the companies know where the energy is-but it's not as easy as shooting fish in a barrel, either. To do his job, Charlie relies on a host of exotic, pricey tools-mud motors, directional probes with accelerometers, magnetometers, gamma probes with sodium iodide sensors.

Sitting in front of a computer terminal, manipulating a joystick while aiming for a target the size of a bedroom, Charlie explains his job this way: "Pressure pulses generated by my tools are translated by computers into binary code, then further translated into drilling bit inclination and azimuth. It's my job to steer the bit, to know where we are and where we are going."

The only time I ever saw Charlie in a coat and tie was at an oil conference in Denver. We heard from John Hickenlooper, a geologist in a former life and now Denver Mayor. We heard from Jeremy Gilbert, a petroleum engineer who helped BP land Moby Dick at Prudhoe Bay.

Charlie then stepped to the podium and began to describe what is required to summon this black magic we take for granted. He talked about the invention of drilling rigs and evolution of drilling bits. He showed images of toolpushers in their 70s, some of them still working. He talked about riding out a terrifying hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico, his rig covered with exhausted seabirds when it was all over. He described a well in the Bakken Formation in Montana, where he had been two miles down and two miles out, tracing a three-foot thick seam of crude oil.

"Petroleum doesn't come easy," he concluded. "It was cheap once, but it never came easy."

Randy Udall is a co-founder of ASPO-USA and currently president of its board of directors

(Note: Commentaries do not necessarily represent ASPO-USA's positions; they are personal statements and observations by informed commentators.)

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