Safety first

  • Steve Ficklin

    David Boyd
  • Personalized hard hats add a splash of color to the drilling routine

    Stephanie Paige Ogburn

Steve Ficklin

Petroleum Engineering Technician


Silt, Colorado


Keeping drill rigs from blowing up

Working brainteaser math problems, fishing, hunting, camping.

"Each hole is different. No two wells are identical."

Steve Ficklin doesn’t talk a lot. As he drives along a dirt road outside the western Colorado town of New Castle, an air-conditioned breeze blows through his Bureau of Land Management-issued Dodge Durango, providing relief from the heat outside.

His cell-phone summons him with a tinny version of When the Saints Go Marching In. Ficklin answers in short, spare sentences. "No, not today," he says. "We checked you already and you were fine."

Ficklin is a BLM oil and gas safety inspector, one of the growing number of federal employees who work with hard-hatted roughnecks on the West’s energy fields. The Energy Policy Act of 2005 created seven new interagency energy offices across the Rockies in order to speed up gas and oil permitting on federal lands. The offices in Utah, Colorado, Wyoming and New Mexico employ a total of 631 people, including archaeologists, wildlife biologists and petroleum engineers; they’re expected to help the BLM and the Forest Service issue about 24 percent more permits this year than they did last year. Ficklin is one of 19 new employees at the Glenwood Springs, Colo., office.

At the drill rig, Ficklin backs into a parking spot; if something goes wrong, he’ll be able to get out quickly. He dons a hard hat to augment his flame-retardant clothing and safety glasses. Looming above him, the Nabors rig gleams blue amid the dark green piñons and junipers. The jumble of pipes, pulley systems, and valve handles sits on a pad about the size of a six-lane community swimming pool. A strong industrial smell fills the air, but Ficklin doesn’t seem to notice.

He peers down at the chocolate-colored stream of "mud" emerging from the drill hole. This combination of water, bentonite clay and barite cools and lubricates the drill bit and stabilizes the bore hole, preventing gas and fluids from the surrounding rock from entering the well bore.

Ficklin weaves his way around the rig. Nodding to the mud engineer, he glances into a roaring room filled with valves and pressure gauges, and makes five more checks on his 58-item safety list. He slips between two tightly-spaced walls without getting a smudge of dirt on his immaculate jeans, then climbs up to the "doghouse," a combination hangout, monitoring room, and tool shed, with giant drill bits lying next to coffee pots and a half-full ketchup bottle leaning against a Daily Drilling Fluid Report posted on the wall. Ficklin banters easily with the company man, the rig’s manager, but his tucked-in shirt and clean white hard hat set him apart from the crew, with their mud-spattered clothing and Old Glory-emblazoned hard hats.

Still, Ficklin is at home on the rig, and his safety inspections seem more of a formality than a rigorous obstacle. "If an operator’s doing his job correctly, mine’s kind of redundant," he says. Even so, things do go wrong on the rigs — 4,200 workers were injured in 2004, and in 2005, drilling activities claimed 34 lives.

Ficklin has worked in the industry for 35 years. Born in Wyoming, he grew up following energy booms, as his father, a drilling engineer, moved from job to job. He’s lived in Ecuador, Peru, and Saudi Arabia — wherever oil and gas was hot. Right now, that’s western Colorado. Ficklin checks off item after item on his safety checklist. He seems to know exactly what he’s looking for, and exactly what he will find. It’s rare that companies are out of compliance, he says, and even rarer for blowouts, "the worst case scenario," to occur. Blowouts can spray clouds of gas and liquids into the air, and "the last thing you want is a cloud of gas floating towards somebody’s house."

After his final inspection, Ficklin piles back into the Durango, which is still idling. Before he pulls out on the highway, he waits for a distant truck to go by. Then he turns out onto the blacktop. The road ahead is clear and safe — just the way he likes it.

The author is an HCN intern.

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