Contractor to Obama: Yes, We Can ‘Drill Our Way Out’
[Editor’s note: This open letter to President Obama responds to a recent address regarding the administration’s goals on energy and climate change.]
Mr. President, thank you for re-affirming your commitment to a cleaner environment and healthy future for our children through action on climate change. While I share your goals and respect your intentions, I do not envy the challenges you face in such a complicated issue. I expect most issues that end up in your office are similarly complicated. For what it’s worth, I think you have the worst job in the country. I admire you, and all of your predecessors, for doing it: an endless of stream of difficult, sometimes awful, decisions. I do not expect you hit the snooze button in the morning—responsibility, and the subtle undercurrent of terror that comes with it, is a fantastic alarm clock.
Planet-wide peril is a big problem, and your office is the only place in our country where an issue of such magnitude can pull in for directions. I admire you for having the courage to try; I hope you are successful. But amid my admiration for what you do and my hope for your success, I am confused by a recurring statement I hear: “We can’t drill our way out of the energy and climate challenges that we face.” I am confused, because I own a business focused on alternative energy. I am confused, because I own a drilling company.
I read that excerpt today as I was checking in on the progress of the two rigs we mobilized last week to a drilling project. I was checking in on the drillers to see if they had everything they needed. Everything they needed to drill 84 holes to 350 feet for a ground-sourced heating and cooling system. A ground-sourced heating and cooling system that will provide a 70 percent reduction in energy use for the building. And since we work in the Pacific Northwest where much electricity comes from hydro-power, the system will likely emit virtually no carbon. A 100 percent reduction in carbon emission, today. I understand your goal is a 17 percent reduction, seven years from now.
The project is for an elementary school. As I read your excerpt, the children—for whose sake you are planning on reducing carbon emissions by 17 percent seven years from now—are actually on a playground watching two drillers reduce the carbon emissions of the building they spend most of their waking hours in by 100 percent—today. The system will also produce efficient cooling. Growing up and attending public school as a child, I do not recall having air conditioning. I seem to remember that cooling was achieved by the teacher turning off the lights and suggesting that we don’t move too much. I was never very good at the not-moving-around-too-much part; I don’t think I was alone with that problem. Not only does ground-sourced drilling help carbon emissions, but the teachers and children in this school can now afford real air conditioning—because of two drillers. Last year at this time, these same men were part of our team that drilled 20 miles of borings at a veteran’s hospital to provide similar comfort to our service men and women while they receive needed care. They are working in a critical industry in the places that deserve to experience the benefits of their labor more than any other.
Drillers Can, and Are
So, Mr. President you are right, WE will not drill our way out of the energy and climate challenges we face. The drillers will do it for us. Because no one else can, and I’m pretty sure they know it. I’m pretty sure that’s part of the reason they do it—the pride of knowing that no one else can. It sure isn’t for the paycheck—trust me, the paycheck is not very impressive. I know that all too well, because I write them. I am personally offended with how small it is relative to what they do. My shame is that I cannot make it more, because the work they do is incredible and they are the only ones who can do it. I have several drill rigs—but I can’t do what they do. I’ve tried.
I sense a measure of determination in your words. As I watch these men work, I think it very much to your advantage to court them as your allies. Drillers are already doing what you are just starting to talk about doing. Useful people to have on your side, and they know about determination. In a world of iron, mud and weather, everything is heavy—and nothing comes easy. Emotions can run high in that environment, but very few complain.
I suspect that’s part of the reason you made a comment that overlooked the very people who already make such a huge contribution to your goal. They are not often heard, because they don’t complain by definition of who they are. Nor do they make demands of you; they are too busy making demands of themselves. The demands they place on themselves are so excessive it would be cruel to place them on someone else. They very often work 12 to 14 hours a day, five, six and, sometimes, seven days a week. And they do it for decades, in all seasons, in all weather. Mechanical failure or lightning are pretty much the only things that stop them. Many years ago, an experienced driller I respected pointed out the gait of another driller who also had several decades of work experience. He did not point out a comfortable swagger; I saw a permanent stiffness in lower back, hips, knees and ankles—moving as if he were still carrying a load on his back. It’s the walk of a man who has shouldered more weight than he was ever built to carry. All kinds of weight, for longer than most people think humanly possible. I think it would be a mistake to assume what he is capable of. In fact, if what you’re talking about actually happens, I’m pretty sure that’s the guy who will do it. But he’s not alone.
Support Crews at Home
The women who love them—the ones who love their dedication, hard work and reliability more than any other—are also cursed by it. This business is on wheels, and the drillers travel far from home to find work. Their wives are the ones left to raise the children alone, struggle to pay the bills and try to figure out how to keep the drilling mud and copper-based drill-rod compound that covers the work gear from ruining the baby’s clothes in the laundry. They work every day to keep the residue of their husbands toil from polluting every fiber of their family. Many drilling companies are owner-operator, small family businesses. The drillers' wives very often keep the company books, make the collection calls and are the ones who ask the suppliers for just a little more time to settle up. “All in” doesn't begin to describe the life of a driller and his family. Very rarely does profitable production in the field enjoy company with ending the day on time, or starting it at a humane hour. I suspect it must be confusing for many driller’s wives on whether to pray more for their husband’s drilling production on the job so they can pay the bills, or for him to get home before the kids go to bed so they can be together as a family.
The drillers and I know that the women who support them, by definition, work a day longer than they do in the field. I imagine that knowledge may be the heaviest weight of all for the man in the field. I also suspect that neither driller nor wife has much more need for an alarm clock than you do. By the time I got home tonight from the site at 9:30p.m., my wife had already put our young kids to bed and made sure the house was immaculate. The house needs to be immaculate. The for-sale sign went up yesterday and we have showings tomorrow starting at 9 a.m. We are downsizing to save cost and simplify. I know she will not need an alarm clock to be up before the kids with time enough to do one final clean before prospective buyers arrive. I do not envy the job of the driller, and I envy the job of his wife even less.
Nor do I envy the scrutiny your words receive—but if you do not listen to what you say, then I do not think they will either. I think you want them to listen. I fact, I know you do, because you need them. Unfortunately, more drillers retire every year than enter the industry. There really is no next generation of driller. It was always a father-son type industry; generations of families have worked this business, but that too is changing. I believe there’s one school for it in the United States, but that’s not enough of a pipeline for an entire industry. The catastrophic collapse of the housing market and the associated evaporation of demand for new water wells was devastating for them; but the banking fiasco and the persistent strangle-hold on lending is lethal for these small, family-run, capital-intensive businesses. The value of the asset is no longer sufficient as collateral for drill rig loans. New drill rigs cost between $500,000 and $700,000. A firm handshake with a lender no longer makes up the balance in collateral for the driller. Some leasing companies are predatory and poorly regulated. For a man who values a long, honest day’s effort and the quality of his work far more than a pile of paper, it is dangerous territory. Many homes have been lost; and the people you need to reach your goal are not far behind. You are losing them from both ends right now.
I do not know what you will do without them. They already build our ground-sourced heating and cooling systems. They already build our high-temperature geothermal wells that drive turbines, producing power with virtually no carbon emissions. Someday, I expect we will have public acceptance and regulatory flexibility to construct small, clean nuclear power plants, similar to the ones that keep the lights on in France. The facility will be nice and shiny. But I know who explores for and extracts the uranium sands that fuel it, and what it will cost them and their family to do it. We will still need factories—if the carbon they emit can no longer go up, I’m pretty sure it will need to go down. Only one group of people can touch the depths needed to safely contain those emissions. When I drive down the Columbia Gorge and admire the wind farms harnessing the steady resource that blows at a pace close to that of my diesel-powered truck, I know it was a driller who first visited the site of the wind farm—before there were any roads—to drill the geotechnical borings for the foundation design of those massive structures. And they did it at every single turbine site at every single wind farm. I expect that it was also a driller who first worked at the site of each of the dams on the Columbia River that generate all that carbon-free energy. They probably dangled on the face a cliff, working on a fabricated platform to do their job. And regardless of where the energy comes from, or what form it takes, it’s a driller running a directional drill who most often gets it to our homes and businesses.
It Takes All Kinds
I often hear the efforts of the drillers in the oil and gas industry maligned, but we need them. They are the ones making the advancements in drilling technology. The air compressors on our drill rigs are thirsty and can burn thousands of dollars a day in oil on each rig. The driller working in renewable energy needs the oil produced by the driller working in petroleum just as much as everyone else needs them to drive their cars to work. And we need it to be affordable. We also buy their used bits to do our work. Drill bits can be 10 to 15 percent of the total job cost. Used bits are roughly 25 percent the cost of new; we need their precious detritus. The demand for parts and supplies in the oil field is the only reason much of the tooling we need is stocked, manufactured in quantities that are affordable or even made in the first place. As technology and markets change, those drillers are the people who will find and harvest whatever resource we need, wherever it is, using whatever equipment we need them to—whether the target source is renewable or not. Issues of energy and climate are the all-encompassing issues of our earth. The driller is that small, but important, part of our economy that we send in first to do the heavy lifting in our complicated, but intimate, contact with the earth. Based on what I heard yesterday, it sounded as if you do not know where they work, which is understandable, because very often they are the only people in the places they do work. I expect it was a driller who drilled and retrieved the deep ice cores in the arctic that demonstrated the extent of the climate problem in the first place.
Mr. President: Not only will they drill our way out of the energy and climate challenges we face, they already are. The very children who will enjoy the future climate you seek to protect are watching them do it right now; I think it would be helpful if your administration paused for equal notice. In the least, I think they would appreciate it, and I believe you would find their efforts impressive. I do.
Thank you for your time.