I am a directional driller, one of those fellows who steers a drill bit into petroleum targets thousands of feet beneath the surface of the earth. Recently I was on a rig and one of the young roughnecks asked me, “It is going to be bad, isn’t it?” I replied “I don’t think so. This well should be like most of the others around here.” “No,” he answered, “these rigs are going down aren’t they?” I was caught a little off guard by his question and could hear the fear in his voice. I guess he could tell from my gray hair that I had seen this before. Yes, I have seen this before.

When I was the young roughneck’s age, back in the 1980’s, oil and gas prices were in steady decline. They finally collapsed in 1986. In January of that year, I returned from a well in south Louisiana. The crew had been called into the office for a word from our boss. As we stood in the owner’s office he announced that we had no more work – it was all gone. “All future work has been cancelled.” We knew things had been slowing down but we were not prepared for the news that it was “all gone.” Not only gone for our company, but for essentially the entire industry. I left the office stunned, for as a contract hand, I did not have the luxury of unemployment insurance. As I opened the door to our home, I was met by the beaming face of my wife, “Honey, I’m pregnant!” To say the least, the next few years were a challenge. I reinvented myself, initially in the electrical utility industry and later in alternative energy.

I re-entered the oil patch in the mid 1990’s after it was apparent that the country was not yet going take the alternative energy option seriously. Oil and gas prices collapsed again in 1998 following some economic problems in Asia and the perception that demand would be reduced. That same year my mother passed away and upon returning from my mother’s funeral, the first call that I received from my employer was, “Charlie, we have to let you go.” It took a while for all of it to sink in. So, once again I reinvented myself, this time as an underground cable locator. It was honest work but not the best in pay so the siren call of the money on the rigs brought me back two years later. .

Where do we go from here? The rig count has been falling at about 50 rigs per week for the past few months. There is fear of layoffs for the ones who remain. Like many of the others, I also have a fear. Not so much of being laid off; if it happens, it happens-you take your licks and move on. My fear is that our economy is like a ship in a storm at sea. We seem to be in the darkest night with shredded sails. Which direction will we go? Which direction can we go? There are dangerous rocks hidden beneath the buffeting waves. Although we may be able to repair the sails to our economic ship with alternative energy, the hidden danger of natural gas shortages could appear just at the moment when this storm will seem to pass.

We are on the rig floor at 2 AM with blowing snow as we lay down tools. It seems that this is the typical time and weather conditions that we do this. “Tools” are what we call the non-magnetic drill collars, the Measurement -While Drilling directional probes, the Mud Motor and the Poly Diamond Compact Drill Bit. These are the multi-million dollar “jewelry” of the Bottom Hole Assembly. They will go back to the pipe yard for the last time. I shake the driller’s hand when we are through and complement the crew for their professionalism. Contrary to popular belief, they are not all ex-convicts and drug addicts; most of them are like me, just trying to support a family. No one got hurt on this final lay down, which is always a fear when handling these extremely heavy, round objects. I tell the young roughneck, “Good luck”, and think maybe he has a wife and child that he will have to break the news to. At least he will go home with all his fingers and toes. The crew will disassemble the rig and lay it in the grass somewhere, its ultimate fate to be determined. Many rigs during the 1980’s were cut with torches and scrapped. The crew will leave and have to reinvent themselves the best they can.

Regardless of how we as individuals in the oil and gas industry cope with this downturn, all of us, as well as our society, will in time face the consequences of having lost this rig and the hundreds more now lying in the grass. I believe that within 2 to 4 years we will be facing a serious shortage of natural gas and the roughnecks will be asked to “come back, please!” Some will walk away and never look back. As for me, I hope that finally the United States is serious about alternative energy, because our very survival is at stake.

Charlie Brister has worked in the directional drilling, power generation, and solar thermal/PV industries since 1979.