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for people who care about the West

How to survive the bust

As oil prices plummet, a drill rig worker traces the effects among his brethren.


You may believe them fixed on conquest and plunder, but the nation’s sleepless oilfields are sometimes at peace. Though brief, I have seen it. Last October, for instance, seems like a meditation retreat to me now where we reached financial nirvana. We earned hand-over-fist on a 70-day wildcat well, the kind that few operators would risk exploring now. On a firm perch of $90 oil, we worked without fear of dismissal, not when another company would hire us the next hour.

That changed in November. Oil prices sank. I was servicing a work-over rig in western Michigan that the crew had retooled into a hybrid to drill short wells at a bargain. The well pad was cut into a corner of a rancher’s snowy pasture. He ran a small packing plant, and at dusk his workers tractored a line of blood-waste through the field behind our work trailer. A murder of crows would wake in the sugar maples and spend the daylight sipping from that burgundy edge. Were the packing plant to close, they’d learn to struggle again.

Derrick, the directional driller I partnered with, lost his optimism in Michigan. He grew up in man camps, listening to roughnecks boast around drunken fire rings since age two. “It’s gonna get bad,” he said. He sounded knowledgeable, but I couldn’t trust him, primarily because he said a lot, and I’ve met every kind of liar out here.

Floor hand racking back drillpipe.
Streeter Wright

“We’re not in any hurry, you know?” the rig manager told me. “We’re all trying to get a paycheck.” His crew was slow, and in Michigan they took what they could get for as long as they could get it. The company stacked the rig out after I left. “It’s kind of sad,” my replacement said on the phone. “These guys have been together for two years.”

Weeks passed and rumors spread. Politics in the oilfield get played out among crews on a pad and from one pad to another. Derrick told me to drop his name to my coordinator so I could work on his follow-me rig, a home rig in Colorado. We shared a trailer that was split in half. I had my own kitchen, bath and bedroom. Derrick brought his wife and 2-year-old out to stay with him, which was comforting because it shrunk the chance of a sudden violent deviation from rapport, as I’ve witnessed in some trailers.

Two weeks later, waiting to lay down the drill assembly, I watched Woodrow pulling slips in the frigid morning dusk. He spat curses into the frozen air, firing them to the steel floor like bullets from his beard. Woodrow was a driller yesterday. He was a floor hand today. Demoted. The price of oil had dropped to $50. His company told him: “Floor-hand, or wait at the house, ‘til work picks up.”

Woodrow’s anger unnerved the company man, who was pacing across the doghouse, threatening to call his supervisor, who needed to keep his mouth shut about their plans, “until people are away from here.” The company man knew a no-firearm/no-knife policy got ignored, and that could worsen an already tense environment. The rig stopped operations shortly after.

Before I left that rig, Derrick went shopping for commercial real estate in Colorado Springs. He’d done it during the downturn in 2009. Opened a temporary barbeque joint, not to make a living, but just to have a wheel to spin his money in. Inventory in, food out, bills paid, savings safe. Others haven’t thought that far ahead. A few have sold their trucks.

This spring, with rigs stacking out in my wake, I drew a solid hand, working with an operating company that hedged against oil prior to the plummet and could continue selling at $75 per barrel despite global declines. But the supervisors no longer tolerate mistakes. The threat of replacement looms. Too many wolves yap at the fences. Too many workers need a job. Two well-positioned hands have been “run off,” as they say, meaning your company doesn’t have to fire you, but you can’t work here.

Tonight, oil sags below $50, and in the safety meeting, desperation staggers the tool pusher’s voice as he lines up chores for the roughnecks. “Please … just … the president of the whole fucking company is coming out tomorrow. Let’s not give him an excuse to stop drilling because he walks into a shit show out here.”

I do floor stretches in the morning. While diesel engines hum outside and steel pipes clank in the derrick, I take a deep inhalation, expanding my lungs into a vessel that I imagine gathers particles of anxiety and gloom, and as I exhale, a ship molts from inside my chest and sails out upon my exhalation, leaving behind a persistent light.

Neil LaRubbio is an MWD field operator, a writer and a documentarian in Colorado. Names have been changed to protect personal identities.