The new oil boom in the American landscape has been caused by a new technology known as directional drilling. This shortened term for ‘horizontal directional drilling’ has fed itself to the industry and has caused oil rigs to go up faster than trees on the horizon. When these rigs come to a new location, an army of workers, trailers, trucks, and jobs come with it. All of this is caused by directional drilling.
Oil forms in the earth as a layer. This layer can be a shallow as 1000 feet or as deep as 7000 feet. Within this layer lie larger pockets of oil that were drilled for using straight down drilling methods. This is because the old techniques involved drilling straight down and coming back out. Therefore, finding the largest pocket of oil was the goal. If you’ve ever watched old movies where oil was the theme, you’ve heard the term ‘gusher’. This was in the days when you drilled down to the pocket of oil, and upon hitting it, the oil would ‘gush’ out of the ground and spray all over the place.
Industry scientists knew that the larger share of the oil was trapped in a thin layer, about 100 feet thick, and was difficult to get to. 99% of the time the layer was too thin to justify drilling straight down to it and sucking out what little you could get.
Directional drilling changed all of that. With this new technique, you could now go down hole and at a certain depth (called the kick off point), and drill a slow curve with the drilling bit, motor, and bendable pipe. The curve is slowly drilled over a period of a few days and leads the pipe to a horizontal location (known as the landing). From here you simply drill sideways until you hit the end of the well.
Directional drilling is made possible by a few different tools. The first tool is that the motor, which sits on top of the drill bit. The motor is bent at an angle. This angle is usually 1.5 degrees; so very small. This allows the driller to literally ‘drill into a curve’. Back in the old days the motor was a straight pipe, but someone realized that if you put a slight bend into it, you can control the way the drill bit goes. The motor is used in two different ways to direct the bit. The first drilling method is called sliding, the second is called rotating.
Sliding is when you turn the drill bit the direction you want. This is how it works. The driller needs to know where in the earth the bit is at, so he stops the drilling and recycles the pumps (see my article on MWD to explain this). This causes the down hole surveying computer to send information up that tells the driller where in the earth the bit is at. He then compares this to the last survey taken, finds the direction the bit is heading, and decides his next move based on if that direction is correct or not. If he is not satisfied in the direction the bit is going, he ‘slides’.
Through a series of levers and buttons on the rig floor, the directional driller will turn the drill bit in the direction of the curved motor. If he wants to go up, he turns the 1.5 degree curve upward, and vice versa to go in a different direction. He then proceeds to turn the drill bit at a low rotary, but he does not turn the drill pipe (known as the ‘string’). Only the drill bit is turning during a slide. This gives him control of the motor and drill bit and allows for him to slowly drill through the earth while the curvature in the motor directs the drill bit in the direction required by the driller.
Through a series of formulas and calculations he finds how far he should slide to get the bit going in the direction he requires. After the bit is positioned correctly, he’ll rotate the string. This means that everything is running and drilling; the bit, motor, and drill string are all turning and pumping away. Rotating is the fastest way to drill.
This ability to slowly drill a curve with bendable drill pipe, curved motors, down hole surveying tools, and people that understand what’s going on down hole, has given America the ability to tap vast reservoirs of energy.
How to get a job as a Directional Driller
There are three different ways that I’ve seen people become directional drillers. The first is to start off as a roughneck and work one’s way up the ladder to floor driller, then directional driller. The second way is become an MWD (Measurer while drilling) hand and work up from there. MWD’s are the down hole surveyors that let the directional driller know where the bit is at all times. The third way is have an engineering degree and get hired on by Halliburton or one of the big companies that will train you.
What do directional drillers make?
Directional drilling is a discipline that the media describes as “Oil field money”. They make a ton. I’m sitting beside a directional driller right now whose pay package is:
- $4,000 monthly salary
- $800 day rate
- $45 per diem
- $45 per day in trailer pay
- $750 per month truck reimbursement
- All gasoline and oil change bills reimbursed.
- RV park rent paid by the company
So, if Jack puts in a 30 days on a well, he will earn $4,000 (salary) + $24,000 (day rates) + $1350 (per diem) + $1350 (trailer pay) + $750 (truck pay). This totals to $31,450 gross for 30 days worth of work. The reimbursement for gasoline and oil changes is a wash because he doesn’t make any profit on those.
These are the guys that make the big bucks on the pad site. But, nothing is as rosy as it seems. Even by oil field standards, directional drillers are gone all of the time. I’ve met many directional guys put in two or three years, stash away some money, then go find an easier oil field job with a schedule and less stress.