Nine out of 10 oil wells are non-producing “dusters,” and after seven years of drilling I’m starting to wonder if that figure might not be even a bit optimistic. I have never been aboard a vessel that has successfully tapped into a productive source of crude, and I wonder about the palaeontologists who, after months of scientific homework, recommend to our client where to drill. I haven’t spent a lot of time in their mobile scientific offices (partly because by necessity their data are confidential), but I figure that theirs must also be a somewhat inexact science.
I know how I’d feel if my job rewarded me with a success rate akin to that of the Jamaican bobsled team, but maybe as budding geologists in college they were conditioned to ignore failure, to pay no attention to the fact that the oil companies that hire us are paying well into six figures per day for us to drill their holes. Perhaps they go to the same psychologists that professional athletes go to when they’re in slumps. I was amused (and not surprised) to see one of the geologists reading the career-finding tome What Color Is Your Parachute? in the lounge last week.
It goes without saying, then, that the well that we just drilled resulted in lots of mud and lots of wear and tear on the ship but no oil. We’re therefore packing up and moving the ship down to Trinidad, which lies at the bottom of the Windward Islands in the very southeast corner of the Caribbean Sea. It’s not far off the coast of Venezuela, and there are worse places to be drilling.
In preparation for departing the Gulf of Mexico, we sealed off the well by setting the final cement plug yesterday and this morning disconnected from the ocean floor. This is always a happy day for me, because for the first time since November I can turn my back on the control console without fear of malfunction. Sure, the positioning system can still lose its little silicon mind and cause the ship to try to thrust herself in all directions at once, but as long as we’re not attached to the seabed there’s really not a lot of damage that can be incurred by an excursion.
Ordinarily we’re tasked with staying within a very tight circle that’s determined by the amount of play in the drilling hardware and by how deep the water is. On this last well, our Yellow Alert (“I’m losing control of the ship; prepare to disconnect”) limit was 135 feet, and our Red Alert (“I’ve lost all control; prepare to send out résumés”) limit is 335 feet. This sounds like a long distance until it’s put into perspective: The ship itself is almost as wide as our Yellow Alert limit, and it doesn’t take long to move one ship-width with 40,000 horsepower pushing her.
That quip about sending out résumés is the second reference to unanticipated unemployment, so I should point out here that the drilling industry is infamous for “running people off,” as firings are called here. It is an industry in which personnel management still tends to be somewhat blame-oriented. To illustrate:
A roughneck (drillfloor worker) dropped his adjustable wrench down through the hole in the middle of the ship and into the wellbore. This is one of the worst things that can happen, because although today’s drill bits can penetrate granite and salt and other things geologic, they can’t do much against stainless steel.
The entire drill string therefore had to be pulled out of the hole, 90-foot sections at a time. Then a special retrieving tool was attached, and the drill string was run all the way back into the hole. “Retrieving tool” is giving this device a lot of credit—it looked like 19 coat hangers that had been tied in a knot and struck by lightning. Bear in mind that most tools out here are borne of necessity. The idea was for one of the tortured pieces of wire to snag the wrench. While the tool is being run it is unknown whether the attempt is a success until the assembly is recovered. When the tool was retrieved, 90 feet at a time, the wrench had indeed been fouled by the wire and was removed.
Remember that each “trip” into and out of the hole took nearly six hours on this well, so by the time they got the wrench back, the drilling contractor had been on “down time” for over 24 hours. At a couple of hundred grand per day, this makes people cranky. The toolpusher, or drillfloor boss, came up to the unlucky roughneck and extended the wrench toward him. The conversation went something like this:
“Take it an’ git. Y’all are run off.”
“It was an accident.”
“Don’t matter. Git.”
“Ahright; Ah’ll git.”
And with that the roughneck threw the wrench right back down the well and walked off the floor.
God, I love that story.