by Sean Watson
When asked to picture a global city you probably would think of towering New York skyscrapers, London’s sprawl across the Thames, the Hollywood sign watching over Los Angeles, or the megacities of East Asia. But it is small towns just South of Trinity University, some with no more than 100 residents, which have changed the nature of the energy trade on a global level. They are one reason you see gas for less than $2.00, the massive shutdown of oil rigs, and the loss of hundreds of thousands of jobs in the energy industry. At the center of this phenomenon is a slew of companies and thousands of men and women that most of America has never even heard of. This is the story of the social and economic landscape that has shaped and been shaped by the lives of those working in the South Texas’ oil industry. It includes experiences of those who have worked in other parts of America but only to the extent that those experiences illuminate my subject, and provide information where it would have been lacking if I had only included the stories of Texas oil workers.
To describe the lives of those involved in the oil industry in South Texas, we must begin with the Eagle Ford shale.
The Eagle Ford shale is, as its name suggests, a shale formation that stretches across South Texas. It is simply put a fossil fuel source of monolithic (an obtuse pun) proportions. The Eagle Ford contains an untold wealth of oil and natural gas, so much so that at its height of production it was producing 1.4 million barrels of oil a day. Experts believe this number could rise to 2 million by 2020 (Eagle For Production, 2013) if the global demand for oil increases. It contains the largest investment of capital in oil and gas in the world (Eagle Ford Shale Play, 2013). You might expect that the usual big names are involved in this exploration—ExxonMobil, Shell, BP, Chevron, etc.—but the single largest shale producer in South Texas is a company most people have never heard of: Eog Resources Incorporated. Eog is a 1990’s offshoot of Enron, based in Houston, which has rocketed into the oil and gas business to hold a dominant market share in fossil fuel production from the Eagle Ford.
The key to their success and the newfound viability of the Eagle Ford’s vast resources is the process of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. In short, fracking is the process of drilling oil wells horizontally (this is somewhat of an oversimplification), something that has been done for several decades, and then forcing in hydraulic fluid or saltwater at high pressures to fracture the rocks through which the well is drilled. Sand or another similar granular substance is pumped into the well as the saltwater is extracted so that hydrocarbons in gaseous and liquid forms can escape through the cracks and be pumped back up to the surface. Without this innovation, the hydrocarbons locked in the Eagle Ford would not have been able to be extracted on the monumental scale they have been.
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The flood of oil from newly developed fracking sites that entered the markets in 2013 and 2014 was enough to drive the price down from near $100 a barrel to a low of almost $30 a barrel in 2015. It was hard to miss the impact it had on consumers as gas prices dropped from an average of around $4 a gallon in 2012, 2013 and 2014 to their 2016 low of $1.69 a gallon. While consumers may have felt ease on their wallets at the pump there were towns across Texas that paid the price to provide cheap oil. When the oil rigs came to South Texas so did new jobs, and new people with money to spend. When the oil industry collapsed, so did the jobs and economies that depended on it.
Working on an oilrig, while demanding both mentally and physically, does not necessarily require an education. Because the work is demanding, dangerous, and continuous, the pay is very good. Therefore, the arrival of oil companies in town brings is accompanied by a large group of workers with disposable incomes and the need for various products and services. This is why the first thing you will see driving into Cotulla from Interstate-35 is a cavalcade of extended stay hotel and motel chains: Marriott Fairfield Suites, Days Inn, La Quinta Suites, Candlewood Suites, Microtel, and others. For a town of 4,000 people, the better part of a dozen lodging sites might seem excessive but travel a few miles outside of the town and the reason becomes apparent. The landscape is filled with monuments to the oil and gas industry. Dozens of pump jacks, wastewater disposal units, and gas flairs dot the flat Texas scrubland. At night, the dark skies are interrupted by the flames of the gas flares, a scene more reminiscent of Mad Max than Peter Bogdanovich. It takes men (and they are mostly men) to instill, operate, and maintain all of this equipment.
Building a vast infrastructure to produce and transport oil is no small task, and the jobs that it requires are remarkably specialized and separated from one another.
In order to understand the perspectives of those I spoke with, it is important to understand the structure of oil production in South Texas. First, ranch owners and wealthy families privately hold much of the land in South Texas. For this reason, oil production on their land is negotiated through a complicated set of leases and trusts. Each arrangement is different, but essentially oil production on the Eagle Ford follows a certain pattern.
A long time industry insider I will identify as TM explained to me that landowners lease out the “minerals” on their land to oil companies like Exxon or Eog in exchange for a royalty fee, say $15,000 a month. Then the oil companies, which vary from focusing exclusively on drilling and production to fully vertically integrated oil services companies, choose sites for drilling then set up a drilling rig (essentially a 100-foot tower that can push drill bits and lengths of pipe into the ground). Then, they drill anywhere from 4,000 to 14,000 feet into the earth. Afterwards, the entire rig/tower moves away and the well is fracked, and another set of workers comes in to pump hydraulic fluid/saltwater into it and then sand in order to ready it for production. After this process is completed, pumps are set up and the well pretty much takes care of itself. The saltwater and fracking fluids have to be stored, sometimes in massive tanks or open pits lined with rubber mats, and sometimes the fluids are forced back into the ground, re-fracked so to speak.
Roughnecks, tool pushers, derrick men, mud loggers, gate guards, drivers, contractors, geologists, and a host of other workmen and supervisors work 24/7 to minimize risk and maximize efficiency on the rig. It is worth going into some detail about the description of each job. Roughnecks align the pipe that is pushed into the ground after the well has been drilled, the rig itself pushed the pipe down. Theirs is probably the most infamous of the oilrig jobs and involves the danger of crush limbs, and poisonous gasses.
Although my original goal was to interview roughnecks and spend time with them on the rig, it became apparent that this would be difficult.
Derrick men sit atop of the rig and observe the entire process calling out directions and orders to those below. Tool pushers supervise the manual labor in the drilling process, and hold a “rank” above roughnecks or tool pushers. Traditionally a rig could be drilled by a four-man crew: two roughnecks, a tool pusher, and a derrick man. Now however they require a more diverse skillset and deeper technical knowledge to operate the rigs. Mud loggers generally have a more technical background and examine the composition of mud that has been drilled up from the well to check that the drilling is proceeding in the right direction and that dangerous Hydrogen Sulfide gasses are not present. Gate guards, unsurprisingly, guard the gates of ranches and drill sites to enforce rules about on-site etiquette. Geologists fulfill a variety of roles both on-site, and in offices far away from the drilling areas, and their scientific knowledge forms the basis of oil exploration.
Contractors, or oilfield services companies, provide a diverse array of services. They lay pipes, transport wastewater, store harmful byproducts, and do many other tasks. The job that is probably the least considered when thinking about the oil industry is driving. Enormous amounts of equipment, water, oil, and people must be transported day and night to and from rigs, wastewater facilities, refineries, mancamps and motels. When I asked about the risks that the oil industry created for local towns the answer was not crime or rough behavior by the rig workers, environmental hazards, or grizzly accidents on the rig, it was road safety. Policemen, industry officials, and rig workers all echoed the dangers that were posed by dozens of trucks, and smaller pickups and SUVs traversing small South Texas roads (many of which were not paved) day in and out.
Finally I want to include another class of oil workers: the native residents of the towns that are the epicenters of this vast resource exploration. Shop owners, hotel operators, restaurateurs, sheriffs, pastors, and bartenders all live with the inescapable ebb and flow of prosperity that the oil industry brings. As a corporal for the La Salle county sheriff’s office stated succinctly about Cotulla, Texas “the town has changed a lot ”. It is here that I will begin to discuss the scope of my research, something that was marred by numerous frustrations and limitations. Originally, this project’s objective was to dive deeply into roughneck culture—their lives, motivations, and struggles. I also wanted to examine the relationship that roughnecks perceived between themselves, management, and the urban world that in my mind was far removed from their dangerous work. But I quickly realized that this treatment lacked depth and understanding.
My first field visit was to Tilden Texas, a small town South of San Antonio that supposedly still had a large oil presence. I visited with TM, a man who had worked in the oil industry for decades. TM worked briefly as a roughneck but predominantly as a contract negotiator both on the side of industry and landowners. His numerous interactions with people at all level of oil production gave him insight into the realities of the business and lives of the people involved in it.
After speaking with TM, my original hypothesis about the deep-rooted tensions in the industry’s hierarchical relationships seemed increasingly implausible.
As TM and I were driving across barren South Texas land, he described how separated the different aspects of oil production really were; mud loggers didn’t talk to derrick men, roughnecks didn’t talk to oilfield services, and most in the chain did not talk to, much less antagonize, anyone above them. Moreover it seemed that all of these units were often filled by different crews from different companies, meaning that the separation ran very deep. Strain on operational relationships was more likely to arise from individual mistakes or differences related to the situation on a specific rig, instead of a grand class based struggle. This was reinforced when I sat down with two men who worked monitoring instruments in oil production. When asked about tension, conflicts with superiors, or hostility toward outsiders, they simply said “different strokes.” Instead of finding drama and conflict in what seemed to be a dramatic and conflict driven environment, I consistently found greater degrees of complexity and rather calm attitudes.
This brings me to one of the first major challenges I faced in “breaking into” roughneck culture; I never actually got to talk to any roughnecks. First, the hours they work are demanding and time not spent on the rig might be spent sleeping or drinking, neither of which were activities for me to engage with them in. Second, the recent downturn in oil production has been so dramatic that the creation of new rigs seem to have all but disappeared. The closest I ever got to an honest-to-god roughneck was driving along an IH-35 access road and unexpectedly coming across a rig that was being drilled. From a distance I could watch the incessant work of locking pipes into position, and the blue coverall clad men who attended to it. Without the correct permits it is all but impossible to actually walk onto a drilling site, and no amount of conversation with the gate guard granted me unusual favor.
Instead of deep conflict-oriented narratives, I found an immensely driven, and moving story of grand-scale ambition, success, perseverance, survival and downfall.
I was granted extended interactions with people involved in all manners with the oil industry, and who all lived tied without fail to its fickle boom and bust cycles. Before I continue a little more history is necessary. Production in the Eagle Ford reached an atmospheric high between 2012 and 2013, but a vastly increased global oil supply and a less oil dependent U.S., China, and Europe created a collapse in the price of oil. As a result, thousands of rigs across America were closed and tens if not hundreds of thousands of jobs were lost. The small towns that had been “artificially inflated,” as TM said, by the boom were left out to dry. The “mancamps,” rudimentary living structures that housed dozens of oilfield workers temporarily, closed down, motels and hotels lost business and local economies faced a tight squeeze.
It just takes a trip down Cotulla’s main street to see the how intimately the town is tied to the oil industry’s the boom and bust cycles. Large office buildings with “Oilfield Services” “Eagle Ford Consultants” or “Custom Welding” written on them with bold letters sit abandoned and boarded up. The number of vacant hotels that cover the town is truly eerie. And some churches have even eliminated Sunday services. A closer look reveals just how intimately tied the town is to the oil economy. The few business that aren’t selling piping, fire retardant clothing, or drug testing are grocery stores and drugstores (even these have raised their prices to rather shocking levels to exploit the former abundance of wealth).
Talking to a bartender who only identified himself as “Junior” gave me a rather bleak picture. Junior told me that his brother was the mayor of the town, and working to try and get oil companies to ramp up production again. A corporal in the Sheriff’s department named Anthony echoed this sentiment. Anthony said that people had become dependent on the money fed in by the oil industry and adjusting to business without the scale of presence that there had been before was proving difficult. The atmosphere at a Baptist church service was that of struggle, but also community. The pews were rather scarcely filled, and there was an urgency with which the pastor spoke about the challenges everyone was facing. This story is not new: driving through Tilden gives much the same impression, as TM put it “those who stayed grounded did alright”.
This impact is not just limited to the people “on the ground” so to speak; it reached into the oak trimmed offices of business leaders of the oil and gas industry as well. I spoke to the CEO of an apparently successful environmental waste services company in San Antonio, who I will identify as R1, about the pressures he had faced. He spoke about the downward pressure that lower prices had had all throughout the supply chain. Suddenly he had to demand lower prices from his suppliers, and needed to have stronger justifications he presented to oil companies to deal with waste products. Ultimately, R1 stated, he had reached an equilibrium point and was doing alright, but I couldn’t help but notice that of the ten or so desks in his office space only one or two were being used. R1 was happy to detail the pressures and realities of working “on the rig” and the temptations that existed to get roughnecks and the like off track.
This is the story of those who choose to sacrifice in the pursuit of very difficult work.
I spoke with safety officers, instrument monitors, former roughnecks, mud loggers, and contractors. Something that I did not expect to find, but did, was a deep commitment to family. Most, if not all of the people I talked to had spouses and many had children, often as far away as Louisiana, which appeared to be their primary motivation for the work they were doing. They followed “plays” as they are called (patches of oil work like the Eagle Ford) around making what they could and spent their off time with their loved ones. Talking to a former mud logger, BP1, yielded stories of men who were both incredibly tough, and I would say unpleasant and uncouth, but also remarkably deep in their family ties and motivations for the work they did.
BP1’s story about a fellow rig worker I will identify as Maverick portrayed a drunken animal of a man, prone to chasing down rabbits in his truck in order to squelch them beneath his tires, but also a man deeply committed to providing for his estranged daughter and encouraging of BP1’s eventual decision to quite life on the rig and pursue a deeper relationship with his girlfriend. Another story BP1 recounted involves a college-educated geologist who was reprimanded by a fellow rig worker for not having read Beowulf. It is these oddities, and deep honor and loyalty bound connections, that have disrupted the simplistic vision I originally had of life connected to the oil industry.
What I found was a series of people’s lives connected by one thing above all: promise.
Promise that without an education or even with myriad mistakes there was a way to achieve more for yourself and your family. Promise that even though things had turned bad in the short run there was still hope for the future. And promise that life in a small Texas town could be lifted up from global obscurity to the forefront of enterprise, industry, and prosperity. Behind all of this people live, day in and day out.
Sean Watson is a senior Political Science major at Trinity University. He was a co-founder of The Contemporary.
The views expressed in this article are those of the writer. The Contemporary takes no position on matters of policy or opinion.
The graphic above was created by Andrea Acevedo.