Once upon a time I got a job in the oilfield. It was definitely an adventure, to say the least!
When I Got Hired As An Oilfield Mudlogger
Way back in the '90's I had just returned home to the United States after a couple of years of traveling the world that I had saved up for. Newly married and broke, I was in desperate need a new job when I returned to the states but the economy was not doing all that great. One sector that was doing fairly well was the oil and gas industry.
In Houston Texas I found an ad in the local paper for the job of "mudlogger". I had no idea in the world what a mudlogger did, but the job description indicated that it had something to do with geology.
I had taken several hours of geology courses in college and had some prior experience working in the oilfield as laborer just out of high school. I still had in interest in geology and after reading the classified advertisement gave the mudlogging company a call to see if the position was still available.
I actually got the owner on the other end of the phone and he explained that his company, we'll call it "Joe's Mudlogging Company" provided an important service to energy companies as they were drilling an oil or gas well. He explained the process in great detail and I was intrigued.
Their employees would set up in a mobile lab or "unit" next to the drilling rig and then run small plastic hoses to a special tank nicknamed the "possum belly" where the drilling mud emptied into after it came out of the ground. An agitator stirred up gas from the drilling mud, which traveled through the small hoses to a machine called a gas chromatograph located inside the mobile lab. This was used to monitor the returned drilling fluid for natural gas traces, which are always good to find when drilling for natural gas.
A large gas reading indicated on the equipment being monitored could mean the oil company had drilled into a productive zone. These indications are called "shows" and along with other information, such as rock type found in the drill bit cuttings, were recorded on a well log, which is sort of like an underground map or chart that is being drawn by the mudlogger as the drill bit progresses down through layers of rock in the earth.
In addition, the job consisted of catching samples of the drilling mud and washing out the rock that was contained in it for analysis.
After washing the rock samples the mudlogger inspects these under both a microscope and a fluoroscope for traces of hydrocarbons. Oil laden samples would often give off a dull yellow glow under the UV light, and these would be noted on the well log.
The owner of the mudlogging company indicated that he usually hired geology students or graduates, but given my background and previous technical experience in the electronics industry considered that I might be a good candidate.
I'm In There!
I went in for the interview the next morning and was hired on the spot. I was given a voucher for some steel toe boots and handed a shiny new hardhat, green in color to indicate that I was an oilfield "worm" or newbie. I was excited to return home and tell my new wife, who was very excited that I was now earning my keep.
It was late in the evening and I wasn't expecting to go to work until the following week, yet an hour later the phone rang. "We need you on a job in south Louisiana as soon as you can get there", said the dispatcher.
After scribbling down the directions to the job site, I got my work clothes together in an old duffel bag and promptly was on my way on IH-10 driving toward Louisiana. In the wee hours of the morning, after driving down miles of mossy tree lined roads surrounded by swamp, I found a creepy looking boat dock where an oilfield workboat was supposedly waiting to pick me up and take me to a floating drilling rig that was somewhere out there in the fog on lake Pontchartrain.
Here We Go!
I tapped on the side of the boat, which looked as if it had seen better days. The scruffy looking, heavily tattooed and red-eyed Cajun captain asked me who I was and then ordered me to come aboard. I grabbed my new Wal Mart briefcase full of company paperwork and a worn out copy of "A Primer Of Oilwell Drilling", along with my duffel bag and climbed aboard the rickety work boat. About an hour later we bumped up against the side of an even more rickety looking floating oil drilling platform, which was surrounded in all directions by miles of foggy swamp and alligators. I made my way up to the rig floor and to the rig's control room or "dog house" and signed in with the rig's boss or toolpusher, who eyed me and my green hard hat warily. He proceeded to instruct me, albeit not very enthusiastically, on the barge's safety gear and told me about how fire drills were sometimes conducted and where to meet when the alarm went off.
"If da rig is on fire, den we meet ova dere," the large Cajun man said, as he motioned to the rear of the large barge. For a second I thought I'd just jump in the swamp if anything like that ever happened. Outside the window of the galley I watched as an alligator swam lazily past the rig down in the swamp down below. As he filled me in I considered my chances with either option. Neither of them was good.
Next I checked in with the "company man" or oil company's representative or consultant on location. He was a gruff, mean looking guy and didn't smile or welcome me. He looked at me disgustedly, as one might look at a lowly worm or insect, which apparently I literally was in "oilfield speak" as a "worm" or newbie. He curtly directed me to the mudlogging "shack" or portable office which was located up on the deck of the drilling rig's main floor. Inside the shack I found a skinny, deranged looking man with hair like Doc's from "Back To The Future", who appeared to not have bathed in weeks. He informed me that he had just quit, as of right now, and that I was going to take his place.
Of course I had no experience in mudlogging and knew little about what I was supposed to do. I had been sent there to train with him, not to relieve him.
The guy, whose name was Cal, said "here, you take this sample tray and collect a sample every ten feet, then you look at it and write on the log if it is sand or shale, and if it is fluorescent". Whether I knew shale from Shinola, he was going to be out of there when the work boat cast off in a few minutes. Highly caffeinated or perhaps propped up on something else, he spoke fast and without inviting any questions. In his ten minute school of mudlogging he proceeded to fill my head full of a million bits of information, of which I only understood about one percent.
What Have I Gotten Myself Into?
As I watched the work boat sputter away from the moss covered rig and across the swamp I wondered what I had gotten my dumb self into. Over the course of the next few hours I tried to learn the equipment and the procedures as best I could and I did a lot of things wrong. I learned the hard way, after lots of yelling and curse words, that when the company man asks you a question, you better have the right answer for him.
In between collecting trays of muddy samples of drill bit cuttings and typing the results what I thought they were, (either sand or shale), into the computer, putting out a small fire from an oil based sample left under a drying lamp and losing one of my sample collecting screens into mud tank, I was able to talk to my supervisor via cell phone. He apologized for Cal quitting and leaving me holding the bag and he helped me fake it for another twelve hours until another experienced logger arrived on location.
I guess that I managed to become a fairly decent mudlogger over the course of the next few months and I continued to work for the same company for a couple more years until burnout finally hit me.
The Rodney Dangerfields Of The Oilfield
Honestly one of the most difficult things about the profession of mudlogger is the lack of respect for the profession by some in the oil industry. The mudlogger truly is at the bottom end of the food chain on an oil rig. This is due in large part to the fact that their work is seen as non-essential to the drilling of the well by the some of the rig crew. The fact is however, that mudloggers can play a very vital safety role in areas where underground pressure is unpredictable.
Over the years mudloggers have helped prevent many disastrous oilfield blowouts and therefore help save countless lives by providing advance warning when the drill bit has penetrated a highly pressured pocket of natural gas that, if not properly held back by enough drilling mud weight, could blow out to the surface and cause a massive fire.
I met a few real "characters" during the time that I spent in the industry. The fact that mudloggers often stay on the job for weeks on end without relief means that it requires a certain type of individual, often not entirely "normal", to live such a life. I mean no disrespect to those in the mudlogging business by saying that, but it is often true.
My experience was not all bad and the job served my needs for that particular time in my life.
Also, the pay was fairly good for way back then, starting at $200 per day plus expenses and increasing to $250 plus $40 per day expenses after six months. I made approximately $70,000 in my first year in the 1990's.
It's not the perfect job for everybody, but many do find mudlogging a good career choice. Unfortunately it wasn't a good long term one for me but I still have lots of friends that are still doing that job in the oil patch. For those looking for a job in the oil and gas industry it is a good way to get your foot in the door, especially if you have geology experience.
© 2008 Nolen Hart