28 November 2013

Quakers in the Country: Sandworm

After 500,000 miles as an over-the-road truck driver, I have taken on a new job.

I have become a Sandworm.

It's kind of an odd title for what I do, I suppose. My job consists of several tasks, and only one of them is actually tending the sand hopper. But as a newbie to the company, I'm still a worm, as the oilfield phrasing goes. So "sandworm" has a certain satisfactory ring to it, and it makes me laugh. But more specifically, I'm now working for a well completion company based only 14 miles from my house. In the vernacular, I frac gas wells.

"Fraccing," as it's called, is a technique for increasing the productivity of shale gas reservoirs, and is responsible for economic booms in several oil-producing regions in the United States, most specifically, Right Where I Live, in eastern Ohio. "Hydraulic fracturing" involves starting with a pre-drilled well and then pumping down a slurry of sand, water, and chemicals under immense pressure. The pressurized fluid travels down the well casing and emerges through perforations into the reservoir rock some eight to ten thousand feet below the surface, along a horizontal well bore some five or ten thousand feet more. As it enters the formation, the pressure opens small fissures, which are propped open by the sand being carried in. When the pressure is relieved and the well allowed to flow back into catch tanks on the surface, the cracks remain open, allowing oil and natural gas to bubble back up the well bore to be recovered at the surface and piped to a refinery.

The newbie job at a well pad is to tend the sand hopper, which is a big steel tub into which the sand is dumped from a conveyor belt. The job is very simple, and very important. The slurry being pumped into the well is pressurized to as much as 10,000 psi. If the sand hopper is allowed to empty completely through error or inattention, the pressure in the above-ground steel pipes spikes and may cause them to rupture or explode. Believe me, hundred-pound sections of steel pipe flying through the air high above a congested work site will get your attention real quick. Even if the pipe doesn't break loose, a stream of water at that pressure can cut through your leg like a knife. To keep people safe, nobody is allowed to walk around near the iron when it's under pressure, except one or two crew members specifically assigned to look for problems. That's fine with me.

There's a lot of controversy about hydraulic fracturing right now, and a lot of people trying to come to grips with a technology about which they know relatively little, and sometimes about which they have been deceived by various factions on both sides of the issue. Fraccing has been blamed for earthquakes, groundwater pollution, excessive truck traffic and road wear, environmental spills, noise and light pollution, and so on. Some of these issues are genuine and should be addressed. Some are not, and are the product of misinformation, ignorance, and occasionally outright deception. While we're thinking about it, though, it's important to remember that the process has been a part of American oil field practices for some fifty years, and is one of the chief means that our 21st century lifestyle is allowed to continue. By 21st century lifestyle, I'm talking about those things that we all take for granted: heat, light, transportation, and plastics, all of which depend on natural gas and oil wells.

Just as an aside, the oil fields aren't new to me. I'm from Oklahoma, and the farm my great-grandfather plowed behind a pair of mules was home to four oil wells during the time I spent there. The hollow thumping of the casing head gas engines driving the slowly-bobbing pumpjacks is an inseparable part of my childhood memories of the farm where three generations of my family were born and grew up. My father was an operations geologist, and would take me along on his route from well to well, where I would kick my heels from the steel bench in the doghouse, a few yards from the roaring Caterpillars and the swinging stands of drill pipe. As a teenager, my first real summer jobs were as a roustabout on drill ships anchored off the coast of Borneo. During college, I worked in the  Gulf of Mexico and sunny Caribbean Sea on seismograph boats doing both streamer work and backdown drag. One summer I spent in Custer County, Oklahoma, stomping geophones for a doodlebugger crew that still used dynamite as a sonic source, rather than the modern vibro-seis trucks. And my first job out of graduate school was as an operations geologist with Exxon Corporation in West Texas, where I worked with mudloggers and wireline crews to pick core points and evaluate reservoir potential in Permian Basin wildcats.

It's been a long and circuitous journey from then to now, but still, the oil fields and their culture are familiar and unmysterious to me. So I'm somewhat bemused by the hostility and fear that the process of well drilling seems to instill in many people, especially when they depend so heavily on its products for their own lifestyle choices. Obviously oil and gas are limited resources, and equally obviously there is going to have to be a transition from them to other sources of energy such as solar, wind, tidal, geothermal, and likely as not, nuclear. But until then we're stuck with what we have, and I believe we should use the extra time made available to us by the current shale gas developments to make these alternative sources a reality for more of us than just the editors of Popular Science. And of course the vast dependence of our culture on the availability of inexpensive plastics—which come from oil and gas wells—is seldom given the airing that it needs in this discussion. Plastics, industrial chemicals and lubricants, fertilizer, and pharmaceuticals are the elephant in this room that still has to be acknowledged.

These decisions came into focus recently when my Yearly Meeting decided to decline the offers made to it to lease oil and gas rights under the 270 acres it owns in Ohio. This decision was made during a called meeting of Yearly Meeting members, and all the points were given a chance to be aired, both for and against the question. In the end, the decision was made in unity, although what exactly that unity consisted of is still somewhat fuzzy. But made it we did, and we now have a responsibility to act upon that decision and become a part of the future that we chose to embrace.

What that action will be is problematic. I and the other members of my meeting heat our houses with oil and gas. We light our homes with oil and gas. We drive to and from meeting using oil and gas. And I'm typing these words on a computer made from oil and gas, using a desk lamp made from oil and gas, while in my kitchen my dinner is being cooked using oil and gas. As Friends, what shall be our witness about oil and gas development? Are we justified in refusing to be a part of the oil and gas development in our own neighborhoods, while remaining active consumers of the oil and gas produced in the neighborhoods of others?

To my way of thinking, this is an extremely important point that many Friends seem to push under the carpet. Remember John Woolman, that 18th century Quaker who rejected slavery and worked hard to make the rest of the Society of Friends do the same? Woolman provides an important example of how to make one's profession match one's practice. Not only did Woolman pioneer for the rejection of slavery, he refused to accept the economic benefits that slavery made possible. As a merchant clerk, Woolman refused to accept payment for writing a bill of sale that included ownership of a negro slave. Later, he sacrificed business opportunities and refused to write wills that listed slaves as property. When he travelled in the ministry among slave-owning Friends, he would pay the slaves for their services in attending him. Woolman even refused to eat from silver plates and cups, as he believed that slaves were abused in mining. 

What should be our own witness in this matter? For myself, the question is moot, as I personally support oil and gas development so long as we are simultaneously working towards sustainable alternatives. I am slowly introducing solar illumination to my own home, and will eventually install wind turbines. Our newly-drilled water well will use an electric pump at first, but eventually I plan to install a windmill and an elevated water tank to supply our house. Our household heat was formerly lump coal, is currently electric, but may eventually use our fifteen acres of hardwoods as a sustainable source for an outside boiler. In other words, I'm trying to be a forward-looking part of the solution, at least with respect to energy. 

But as part of the larger culture, what should the witness of the Society of Friends be? If we are against oil and gas development, how can we reconcile our profession with our practice? If we support it, what are we doing to transition our use to sustainable sources before we are driven to it by scarcity and price? And since so much of our foreign policy is driven by involvement in the oil and gas-producing regions of the world, how do we reconcile our views of oil and gas production with our beliefs about our political activities there?

The questions are important ones, and the answers aren't easy. But in the meantime, I'm home every night now, and my houseful of kids now has a father that they see a lot more often than when he was driving a truck 25 days out of thirty. So for me, the 14-hour workdays are worth it. But I'm concerned about the bigger picture, and I'm equally concerned that the Religious Society of Friends provide a witness to a forward thinking part of a solution, rather than to a self-centered and selfish part of the problem.

So far the solution to that dilemma is in doubt.