Four mind blowing facts about life in the oil fields

By Jason Ganz on September 2, 2014

Did you drive to work today? Heat your home? Use a product originated in a foreign country? I don’t need to tell you how important oil is for all of those things, and much, much more. Oil is the fuel which runs our world. But to be honest, I never knew where it came from.  

So when Danny, our Director of Enterprise Sales, returned from a trip to the oil fields of Texas, I jumped at the chance to ask him some questions about life on the oil rigs. And he delivered big time with some wild facts. 

From the finer points of drilling for oil a mile underground, to the most surprising safety risk in drilling, Danny had awesome insight into the industry that keeps our modern world running. Danny went to visit out one of our clients in Midland Texas, deep in the Permian Basin. Midland is a place that you have to read about to believe. A city of 122,000, it has a staggeringly low unemployment rate of just 2.2%. The more I talked to Danny, the more fascinated I became about Midland, TX and the work that goes on there. I could barely believe some of the things I heard. Like what? Read on and find out.

1. The Permian Basin in West Texas is one of the most unforgettable locations in the world.

Pop quiz: What does Permian mean? Turns out, the Permian period was a geologic time period starting 300 million years ago and lasting for nearly 50 million years. Just to give you an idea of how long ago that was, all the continents on Earth were still nicely curled up into one big landmass called Pangea.

The Permian period is known for two things. The first is the early diversification of organisms into groups such as mammals, turtles and archosaurs. Cool!

The second is for the largest mass extinction in Earth’s history. Err…sorry dudes. 

Amazing creatures were rising during this period. Photo Credit: Dmitri Bogdanov CC 3.0

What does this ancient history have to do with oil rigs? Turns out, that there is a particular area, the Permian Basin in Western Texas which contains the world’s highest portion of rocks from the Permian era. And among that basin happens to be an astonishing amount of oil and gas – somewhere in the range of 100 billion barrels.

Since the first commercial oil well in the basin was completed in 1921, the Permian basin has been a major center of domestic energy production. Today, the basin handles two thirds of all the crude oil produced in Texas and a staggering 25% of all US oil rig activity. The oil boom benefits the entire area – last year midland had the second highest income growth in the country.

2.The Importance of “Drilling Mud”

Have you ever tried to dig a really deep hole? How deep was it, 4 or 5 feet? Try digging a mile down into the ground – the average depth of a crude oil well. There are a whole host of engineering challenges attached. One problem had such a surprising solution that I just had to share.

Drilling creates waste byproducts that need to be dealt with – in this case: rock chips. Anyone who has ever drilled a hole in wood knows that when you drill, you create a lot of sawdust that can easily be dealt with by blowing it away.  The rock chips that form when drilling into the ground are the exact same thing as saw dust from drilling into wood. But the rock chips aren’t quite as easy to remove as saw dust.

Pop quiz part 2. When you are drilling down into the ground, how do you get rid of the rock chips? The answer is deviously clever, yet obvious when you hear it. Take a sec before reading on, I bet you can figure it out.

The answer, surprisingly, is mud.

One of the few instances in work where mud helps your business. Photo source: Joshua Doubek CC 3.0

By combining water and clay in the correct proportions, roughnecks create a drilling mud – the ideal material for clearing away rock chips and fragments. They then pump this drilling mud down the hole.

When the drilling mud reaches the bottom, it starts flowing back up towards the surface, carrying the rock cuttings along with it, clearing and cleaning the hole that they just drilled. This allows the roughnecks to continue drilling down into the uncut bedrock. This video shows a cool visual of how the process works:

3. They throw explosive down their oil wells. Seriously.

When Danny said that, I had to stop Danny and say, “Hold up, hold up, there’s no way that actually happens.”

You see, once the well is dug, metal pipes are inserted and concrete is poured to hold the pipes in place and to ensure that the pressure from the oil doesn’t cause it to rush up and out of the pipe in an uncontrolled manner. That’s both a messy situation and a waste of good oil. 

While an awesome sight, this oil gush is hard to control. 

But this causes another problem. How do you break through the concrete when its time to get the oil out?

My guess was that you drill another hole through it. Nope!

The answer is you explode a hole through with shaped charges, like from a bazooka. This blew me mind. The idea of detonating explosives so close to massive amounts of oil sounds crazy. Of course, the people doing this are professionals who follow a stringent set of safety standards, which helps keep the risk for this type of operation manageable.

4. The most common safety threats aren’t what you would think.

In an industry where they create explosions near oil on purpose, you might think that the most common safety threats would involve explosions and fires. And, these are serious threats that must be constantly guarded against.

But Danny has spent a lot of time putting together safety inspection apps for oil companies. And he’s found, that oftentimes, they are more worried about much more mundane health risks. On land – it’s dehydration. These guys are putting in hard labor in the sweltering heat, and they’ve got to be wearing all sorts of protective equipment.

In offshore rigs– it’s slipping that Danny hears about the most.

That’s not to say that fire isn’t a danger out in the oil fields. In fact, Danny told me that while he was in a meeting with a client, that client received a phone call informing him that there had just been a lightning strike on the fields and there was a fire. Luckily, the company had a robust safety framework in place and the fire was put out without too much trouble.

And what happened next? A completed GoCanvas incident report flashed up on the man’s phone, showing the exact location of the fire, photos and all relevant information. We’re proud that GoCanvas has been integrated into the safety processes so essential for keeping people safe.

Danny told me a bunch of really cool facts about the way the oil industry actually works and the lives the workers live. Its always interesting to get the curtain pulled back and learn a little bit more about the world we live in.

At the end of our talk, I had one final question for Danny. One which I was pretty sure I already knew the answer to. I asked him the barbecue was in Midland, TX.

Texas barbecue is a delicious tradition. Photo source: Maggie Hoffman, CC 2.0

He just looked at me, smiled and gave a single world answer.


Oil and gas drilling is an essential element in our modern economy. It’s a tough industry, both physically demanding and full of complex engineering challenges. You’ve got to be both physically and mentally sharp at all times. While the roughnecks are doing the hard work out in the fields, we’re proud to provide a service that helps them follow the best practices to keep accidents from happening.

Want to see learn more about how GoCanvas helps oil & gas companies go paperless? Check out The Benefits of Mobile Data Collection to Oil and Gas Companies.