Students visit working oil rig; gather samples in search for facts.
By Darryl L. Flowers
“In the future, these students are the ones that will determine whether or not there is oil and gas production on the Rocky Mountain Front.”
Those were the words of Fairfield Schools Science Teacher Raimund Hahn as he led three of his Honors Students on a field trip last week to an oil rig drilling on the Boone and Crockett Club’s Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Ranch near Dupuyer.
The field day is part of an ongoing project involving Fairfield School, the Boone and Crockett Club, and the company who owns the oil lease, Fairways Exploration & Production, LLC as well as the drilling firm, Capstar.
Last week I tagged along with Mr. Hahn and his students as they travelled to Choteau to meet with Lisa Flowers, Director of Conservation Education at the Ranch.
Our first stop was at the drilling site, nestled along a hillside, hardly noticeable until you top a ridge. There is a “guard” at the gate, a lady who spends most of the day in a camper enjoying a good read. According to the manager at the site, the guard is there to find out who is coming onto the property. They are more concerned with competitors than trespassers.
Once on the rig site, we are greeted by Mike, a bald fellow with some fading tattoos running up his arms. Mike, who is the drilling manager, lives on site in a trailer, with his office in the front and living quarters in the back. The sound is turned off on a big screen TV… the crew here has all the comforts of home, down to the satellite TV.
Mike monitors the progress of the drilling rig on a computer monitor. At the time of our visit, they are not drilling, but are removing the drill bit to take some samples for the on-site geologists. Mr. Hahn and his students ask if we can actually go onto the rig platform.
According to Mike, they do not have enough hard hats, and there is a danger of hydrogen sulfide gas, a deadly by-product of the process that creates the hydrocarbons deep beneath the earth.
Hydrogen sulfide gas can kill at low concentrations, and to work on a rig employees must be certified in how to react when the gas is detected. Sensors on the rig sound an alert when the gas is detected; breathing apparatus for the workers is scattered around the site. Most people would recognize the smell of the gas – it’s the odor present when you crack open a rotten egg. Mike warns us to keep an eye on the flag at the top of the rig, blowing in the wind, telling us to head upwind if the alarm sounds.
From Mike’s “home office,” we head to the next house in the driller’s neighborhood where the directional driller guides the direction of the bit.
The young man in charge of guiding the bit shows the students his target on the screen. When drilling, he monitors the screen to make sure the bit stays in the target zone. This particular well is an “S” well. Mike explains that they guide the bit in a broad S pattern, with the intent to go around a particular point in the formation far underground.
I ask the experienced driller how good he is at “hitting the target”. He tells us that geologists often give incorrect information to the driller… I press him on the question. Mike gives a good laugh and explains that, at the target depth, he has to hit a target that is only 50’ in diameter. “If I miss that target, I get a phone call from Houston,” laughs the Old Timer. “And I get fired.” At the Fairways offices in Houston, all the information from the site can be monitored in real time.
We proceed to the next “home on the rig,” the geologist’s office. The geologists are not home, they have taken advantage of some down time to shop or do laundry, Mike says.
Mike shows the students the tools the geologists use to examine the rocks. As the drill bit breaks through the rock, the geologists grab samples of the crushed rock that comes to the surface with the drilling fluid. The rocks are small, resembling pea gravel in size. The samples are laid out in sequence, showing the progression of the bit through solid rock. I take note that the last few samples are getting darker… is it oil?
When the geologists see certain changes in the rock, they may request a “core.” Then the drilling pipe is removed and a special bit and pipe are lowered. The pipe has a larger “hole” in the center; an aluminum core pipe is inserted and the core drill is lowered to depth. A solid rock “core” is pulled from the well and examined.
When asked by the students how much water is used on the rig, Mike tells us how often the water trucks come up to re-supply the rig and the crew quarters. But the water used in the drilling process is recycled. On the site is a centrifugal filter. As drilling fluid comes out of the hole, the rocks and fine sediments are removed by the filter. A sludge the color of portland cement flows from the filter into a collection pond lined with plastic. Surprisingly, for the amount of drilling being done, there is only a thin layer of water and sediment in the pond.
The site, considering the amount of activity going on, is surprisingly clean. There is a bit of mud here and there where water has settled. There is a steady hum of two diesel generators; one supplies the crew quarters and offices, another generator supplies the drilling apparatus. The students notice that Mike and his crew communicate quite a bit by hand signals.
Mr. Hahn asks Mike about his background. When he got out of high school, he went to college to study anthropology. But, he says, Uncle Sam interrupted his education, drafting him to fight in Vietnam.
“When I got out of the military,” he said, “I decided college was no longer for me, so I went to work on a rig as a ‘roustabout’, cleaning up on the rig and painting the handrails… I was the low man.”
He continued, “An old timer on the rig told me: ‘If you stay on a rig long enough to wear out a pair of boots, you’ll never leave the oil business’.”
Asked where he had worked, Mike threw his head back in preparation to rattle off a world-atlas of places where he has drilled for oil: Burma, Scotland, China, Mexico, Alaska… the list goes on and on.
The Oil Man, who lives in Nebraska, tells us he sent a photo of the view from the rig to his girlfriend. “She said she was packing her bags and wants a log cabin on that ridge,” Mike said as he pointed toward the Rockies.
The Honors students this semester are studying Earth Science, and their project is to measure the impact of the oil rig on the air, land and water surrounding the rig site.
After the rig tour, we head just a few yards off the rig pad and stop at a small pond. Mr. Hahn, Lisa Flowers, and the students bring out the high-tech gear and measure the temperature, pH (“pH”, an acronym for “per Hydrogen”, is a measurement of a substance’s acidity), conductivity (a measure of the amount of electricity that flows through a solution; the more dissolved solids, the more electricity will pass through the liquid. By the way, pure water does not conduct electricity). The students also measure the water’s turbidity, a measure of how “clear” the water is.
Ms. Flowers, who has degrees in education and biology jumps right in with Mr. Hahn and the Fairfield students, helping to record the readings and labeling water samples. The samples are sent to an independent lab.
As the students walk, with this Publisher in tow, to other ponds and streams within site of the rig, Mr. Hahn takes a laptop computer to download data from a device near the site that measures air quality. According to Hahn, the air monitor detects “PM10,” or dust particles that are 10 microns (a micron is one millionth of a meter, or .00000039”). The EPA has determined that particles this small pose a health hazard. The drilling rig itself does not generate much dust, but the sensor is near a gravel road, so it will detect if there is dust being stirred up by vehicles traveling back and forth to the rig. The same EPA standards would apply to dust stirred up by a tractor or combine.
Once the samples are gathered near the rig, we get in the trucks and head to Dupuyer Creek for more samples. Soon after we leave the drill site, it disappears from view. As we travel along a ridge to the creek we have a broad view of the Eastern Slope of the Rockies, the view is only interrupted by a camp of hunters seeking the big game bounty on the expansive ranch, which covers about 6,000 acres.
After getting the paper out for last week, I headed to the Fairfield School to sit down with Mr. Hahn’s Honors Class and see how their research was going. We all pull up chairs around a lab station. All five of the students are here now. The two young ladies in the class, Skyler Anderson and Jayelyn Ruckman were not able to visit the rig and gather samples this time. They did, however, go to the site before the rig arrived to take the “baseline” samples.
The natural question to ask Skyler and Jayelyn was if they would like to visit a rig in the future. Without a moment of hesitation the two flashed a grin and responded with an enthusiastic “Yes!”
Asked what their impressions were of the visit to the rig, Carl Fee said he was surprised at how quickly a rig can be assembled to start drilling. “That was new to me, I did not realize the operation would be so organized.”
Trevor Schenk was surprised to see such a large piece of equipment. “I was expecting to see something smaller… you know, like a pump. Trevor added that he was impressed with the advanced technology used on the well, and at how much it cost to find oil.
When asked his impression of the visit, Ynacy Gagne said that he noticed how busy Mike, the Drilling Manager was. “I noticed he did a lot of communicating with his co-workers by hand.”
I asked the students if they had gotten the results from the first test, which was done before the rig arrived. This was their “baseline” test.
They pulled out the reports from the independent lab in Helena. Looking over the numbers, I asked the students if, in their baseline findings, there was anything that stood out… were there any peculiar numbers that took them by surprise.
They all shook their head, indicating “no”. But Mr. Hahn spoke up and said there was a significant difference in the pH, or acidity, from Pond 1 to Pond 2. The students crank up the class computer and show me the graphs, detailing each reading from the sampling points.
Sure enough, in the measure of acidity, the two ponds show a difference. I ask if the difference could reflect that one pond’s water source is a spring while the other could be surface run-off. That’s a possibility, Mr. Hahn and his students answer.
During our interview, I carefully ask the students a tough question. I am careful about how I phrase the inquiry: “At this time,” I ask, “oil and gas exploration is an issue of great debate. We see a lot of passionate arguing on both sides. So, first, let me ask if any of you are, at this time, against oil and gas exploration along the Front?”
The students think before they answer. None of them say they are against finding energy along the Front. I then ask if they support the search for energy in the region.
The consensus answer was, yes. “This will provide jobs.” one student answers. Another student says that while they wish we did not have to drill for oil and gas, it is, for now, the best choice. Another student mentions that if we can provide energy from Montana to America, young men and women, not too far from his age, will not have to fight for resources in a foreign land.