Describing Wayne Nash as a drilling veteran falls a little short of really getting at the truth of the matter. The expert in all things drilling has shared his experiences — some quite colorful — from National Driller’s pages for years. He’s worked in most every aspect of drilling, starting in the mid-1960s. That includes turning right on water wells, oil wells and everything in between, as well as being a go-to man for tool fishing. We recently spoke with the longtime driller and columnist about mud pumps, training new hands and a lot of other drilling topics. Our conversation here is edited for space and clarity.
Q. Tell me about your professional experience. Why would readers want to hear what you think?
A. I started in 1966. I started on a cable tool rig and I’ve tried to stay up with the progression of the industry pretty much ever since. ... My philosophy is that, no matter what kind of drilling that a person is doing, the object is to make a usable and profitable hole for the customer. This could be water wells or whatever. I’ve been in the oil field, but I’ve also done equipment manufacture and many other things — geotechnical drilling, soil exploration, about any kind of drilling that you could name. One thing I know is that almost no matter what product you want to talk about, if you can’t grow it, you’ve got to drill for it. If you think about minerals or energy, or water or anything else, we’re going to drill for it, which means there’s going to be a demand for drillers forever.
Q. What are the basic elements of a mud system, and what is the importance of each?
A. The path of the mud through the system, starting with when it comes out of the hole — when it comes out of the hole, that’s what we call “dirty mud.” It’s carrying cuttings that the bit has struck from the bottom of the hole and it’s bringing those cuttings to the surface with the mud circulation unit. The first thing we have to do is remove the large solids. By that, I mean anything larger than 20 or 30 microns, the size of a grain of sand. [Ed. note: Originally, we had our comparison off in the previous sentence. Text corrected.] Then, you have mud that looks pretty good. But it’s not. It still contains a tremendous amount of solids. Those solids are in the form of very small clay particles and sand. That first stage goes over a shale shaker, which is a vibrating screen. That removes all of the big stuff. Then that mud falls into a receiving pit and then is pumped to desanding cones, which are basically hydrocyclones (which is a technology that was invented in the ’20s or ’30s to classify coal, believe it or not). ... With hydrocyclones, you can bring your mud cut down to 10 microns or so. In other words, you can make some pretty dog-gone good mud. ... Then it goes into a larger pit for volume for the pump and eventually back to the pump and back to the rig. Clean mud saves a tremendous amount of money on pump maintenance, and it makes a better hole. That’s the round trip of mud in very broad terms.
Q. You’ve just been assigned a new mud tech trainee. What’s the first lesson?
A. One of the things that I’ve gotten to do, and I’ve trained a lot of hands — I enjoy training people, and here’s what I’m shooting for: My goal when I need to train someone is to make them understand why something works. I can show them a shale shaker and say, “Well, the screen vibrates and takes out big chunks ... the desanders spin the fluid around and sand comes out and clean mud comes out up top.” You can say that, and everybody knows that. But he probably has absolutely no idea of how or why a desander cone works. ... I want these people to know how it works, not just that it works. If you pull this lever, this happens. OK, you can train a monkey to do that. That’s not the point. I need that hand to understand why and how it actually works. Then, when he’s out there on his own and something comes up — which it will, because it always does — he will be able to say, “Well, this goes back to this and this to this, so if I make this change ...” In other words, not just throwing the lever. He might just have to go make some small technical change. ... I’m a lot more interested in teaching, I guess you might say, the physics of something and one of the reasons for that, and it’s blessed me throughout my life, is that if you understand actually how something works you can take that knowledge to a completely different application and say, “I saw it work over here, let’s try it here.”
Q. What’s the most common mistake you see new mud techs make? What’s the fix?
A. I use this particular example at many of the seminars that I have done over the years. Drillers will have hole problems and they will just automatically say, “I need to make the mud heavier.” This is the lack of understanding between weight, which is specific gravity of a fluid, and viscosity, which is the thickness of a fluid. These guys will say, “We need to make the mud heavier.” I say, “Well, no. You’ve already knocked the bottom out of the hole.. Heavier is just going to make the problem worse. You need to make the mud thicker.” They just look at me like I just grew another head.
The way that I’ve dealt with this in my seminars was, I’d have a pint jar about one-third full of 140-weight gear oil. Then, I’d have another pint jar about one-third full of water. I’d say, “OK, which one of these is heavier?” About half of or more would say, “Well, obviously, that oil is heavier.” I’d say, “Really?” And I’d pour the water right into the oil and the water would go straight to the bottom. The reason is that water is heavier. The oil is thicker. That is a crucial point that water well drillers don’t have a strong grasp on, because they don’t have mud engineers on location and they don’t have people knowledgeable about this stuff. They manage to get the job done. But there’s a huge difference, and that was the example that I used to use in comparison between oil and water. You think, “Well, oil’s a lot heavier.” It’s not; it’s thicker. Motor oil weighs about 7 pounds per gallon and water weighs 8.33 pounds per gallon, and it’ll go to the bottom every time.
Once you get a guy to understand that his mud doesn’t need to be heavier — and if they’ve got an earth-pit mud system, usually their mud is heavy because they’re recirculating all these fines — they get that you can’t blame the mud, because they’re screwing it up completely. If they can get rid of some of those fines and make the mud lighter and, at the same time, use products like bentonite or polymers, and make it thicker, they can benefit themselves tremendously.
Q. And at the same time, once they get those smaller particles out, they’re no longer basically sandblasting their equipment, right?
A. Exactly. I’ve seen standpipes and flow lines on rigs that started out a quarter-inch thick and for some reason you take them apart and they’re as thin as paper, or occasionally they blow up and hurt people. I got a friend that lost a finger because he blew a mud line off of his rig and it turned out it was just completely worn out from the solids in the mud.
Q. How has the treatment of drilling fluids, from a regulatory standpoint, changed over time?
A. Quite a bit. It used to be you could get by with just about anything. Now, actually, if you get down to it, most drilling mud is fairly benign. It’s mostly just earth and water. Drilling mud is not a pollutant the same as say, dumping gasoline or oil on the ground or anything like that. We used to be able to dispose of it just about any way we wanted to.
Times have changed and two factors: The environmental movement in the United States is scared of anything they don’t understand, and the amount they don’t understand would fill an encyclopedia. But sometimes there are good reasons — you know, not to dump drill mud in a creek and things like that. It can have a temporary negative impact to fish and frogs. So, I understand that. And so, disposal, years ago when I lived in Texas I brought an awful lot of drill mud home and spread it on my garden. I had one of the most lush gardens you ever wanted to see. This was fresh clay and sand, with no weed seed ... and there was enough water in it to irrigate very well. For years, I dumped it on my garden.
Now, they want it [the jobsite] to look exactly the same way when you leave and when you get there. I’ve always cautioned my customers that, in order to make an omelet, we’ve got to break eggs. I’m going to make a mess. It’s going to be kind of muddy out there. Most people understand this. Some don’t, and then you have to look at whether it’s worth it to do the job or not. Or charge for it sometimes.
Q. Is there a happy middle ground between industry and environmentalists?
A. Protecting the environment probably comes, in my mind at least, ahead of regulation. Regulations can be pretty brainless. There are a lot of parts of the country where you’re not even allowed to capture your own rainwater. But, in general, the drillers’ associations in the United States — the NGWA and people like that — work pretty well with environmentalists. … Some environmentalists don’t like anything, no matter what. If you really dig into their philosophy, they’re just against progress.
There are different hazards to every type of progress. You look at automobiles. Lots of people get killed by automobiles, but we’re not about to ban automobiles. Most drillers — and once again, I’ll go back to the oil field — most of those drillers and the big companies are extremely environmentally conscious. I’ll give you an example. In North Dakota, at the rig besides the regular fabricated mud system, we had a pretty good size pit that we could dump cuttings and other waste materials in to be hauled off later. ... It was just a waste pit. … I don’t know how this happened, but apparently a duck on its way to Canada from Texas landed in that pit and got some of that mud on it and couldn’t fly. It caused a complete panic among everybody, because we’re obviously going to kill every duck in the universe. So the oil companies put in nets — there wasn’t a regulation at the time. The oil companies voluntarily put nets over all their reserve pits and that ended the problem. ... That is an example of the environmental stewardship that most people in any phase of the drilling industry are aware of.
I’ll give you another example in the water well industry. Years ago, we would drill with any water that was handy. It made practically no difference. When I started, you’d go to the nearest pond or ditch — any sort of water — load up your water truck and drill the well. Until it was discovered that, occasionally, there would be coliform bacteria or things like that in ditches that might contaminate wells. Once everybody started getting a pretty good understanding of that, all of us now use potable water. I have a dedicated well in my backyard that I fill my water truck with. It’s basically a drinking water well. That kind of thing is progress. There’s no doubt about that.
Now, drillers have discovered that using well water is better to drill with than using city water. The reason is, city water is chlorinated. Not a lot — it’s all drinking water. But the chlorine inhibits the activity of the drill mud. You can use a lot less product and chemical treatment if you use straight, fresh water with no chlorine in it. So that’s what most guys do.
All of this comes to environmental awareness and environmental responsibility. We’re out there in the environment all the time and we really don’t want to see it go to hell. We want to see it preserved as much as possible. But, then we still have to provide a usable product for our customer.
Q. You’ve worked in a lot of different drilling trades. Do you have a favorite and why?
A. That’s a tough question. Setting the money aside, I enjoy doing water wells because in a short amount of time — a day or two — you can see the fruits of your labor. You can see a well produce what you spent all this work doing. You never see that on an oil well, believe it or not. A guy on a drilling rig in the oil field probably can go many years and never see a drop of oil, because they drill the well, put it in the ground and then stop. It’s up to another rig and another group of people to come and complete that well. Those guys get to see the oil, even though they didn’t drill for it. The different thing with a water well is, I guess you could call it instant gratification. You get to see the fruits of your labor pretty quickly and you get to see a satisfied customer.
Q. Looking back on your time in the industry, what’s one innovation or new technology that, when it came along, you wondered how you ever got anything done without it?
A. Those things show up pretty regularly. I started on cable tool, and these guys showed up with rotary table-drive rigs, and boy could they just tear up some ground. ... Now, there are not a lot of table-drive rigs. They’re all going to top-head and other things of that nature. Everybody loves them and that seems to be a trend.
As far as innovations, I’m excited by a lot of the innovations. Even simple things. ... A simple thing that just made a big difference is the cycle stop valve. That was just such a simple, inexpensive, good idea. We all thought, “Why in the hell didn’t we have that a long time ago?” It solves a problem that we’ve battled for years.
In the water well business, the variable speed drive pumping systems have been a really good innovation. When they started out, I was like most guys: I wanted to see them out there for a while before I tried it. It was hard for these companies to sell them, because drillers are so hidebound that they don’t take up on it. I’ve got to honestly say that the first five variable speed pumping systems that I put in, I took them out. ... It was very early in the technology, and they had to get the bugs out. Now they have. Those systems are very reliable.
The point is, the technology comes along and it’s up to us if we’re going to keep up things, to keep up with this stuff and figure out why it works and what the reason is that we should be doing it. ... We have to learn for ourselves in the industry why it’s better, and then go from that standpoint.
Q. Readers talk a lot about the graying of the drilling industry. What can the drilling trades do to attract and retain young workers?
A. It used to be on a drilling rig, when I was pushing tools in the ’70s, a man would come looking for a job, and I’d ask him a bit about himself. What I was looking for in a way — I never said it out loud — was a young man with enough responsibility. He’s trying to raise a family. That means he’s going to show up for work. The other thing is, I want a farm boy. That farm boy already knows how to work, and he understands mechanical things. Those qualifications are somewhat less in applicants now.
I think that young people are very much nowadays encouraged to go to college. But, one of the problems is, the modern college education, the diploma just says, “Well, OK, you’re average.” That’s it. There isn’t anything there. At the same time, these poor guys are being saddled with enormous student debt. My young friends, engineers and things like that, are just continuously griping about, “My student loan is more than my house payment.” ... I think that it would do us well to promote trade schools, whether it’s the drilling industry or carpenters or plumbers or whatever. Trades. It doesn’t have to be four or eight years. ... I would like to see the country have more trade schools. There are only a few schools in North America that have anything to do with well drilling — one’s in south Mississippi and the other’s in Red Deer, Alberta. Other than that, if you want to be schooled in any phase of the drilling industry, you’re going to have to get out there and skin your knuckles and learn it yourself. The problem is, for a brand new guy, he’s not worth minimum wage if he’s got to learn something before a company can pay him. So it makes for a Catch-22.