The loud, dirty and dangerous job of moving oil rigs
The sound is deafening. It’s the collective snarl of a half-dozen heavy diesels prowling “the pad,” hoisting and dragging massive hunks of steel, loading them onto four-and five-axle flatbed trailers. The temperature here is hovering near 100 degrees, and the wind — an unrelenting force on this barren patch of rural Texas — is, at times, hurling huge clouds of dust and sand, creating the effect of a blizzard in a blast furnace.
Welcome to the world of rig moving, a type of extreme trucking that has as much in common with standard over-the-road hauling as cage-fighting has with tennis.
The work in this business is grueling, intense and dangerous, the pace fast. The goal: disassemble, or “rig down” in roughneck speak, a drilling platform, move it to another location and reassemble, or “rig it up.” When the distance between sites is short enough, say 10 or 20 miles, the entire job will last little more than a day.
The driving force in this hyperactivity is cash, lots of it. A modern drilling rig costs something north of $15 million, depending on its size. The trucking crew that moves one costs roughly $1,200 — per hour. In the oil “bidness,” time really is money, and nobody sits around wasting any of it.
Strike oil or gas, start working
A site-to-site move begins soon after a rig has finished drilling a well hole to a predetermined depth and position, the exact coordinates of which are set by seismic crews. With luck, the expected type of petroleum product (either oil or natural gas) starts gushing out. Rig hands will then plug the well and start preparing the equipment for transport to a new location. The trucking crew comes in shortly thereafter, as do the roughnecks, whose job it is to actually disassemble and, later, reassemble all of the major components, most of which are held together with only giant clevis pins.
Some of the heftier parts weigh more than 100,000 pounds, and handling them requires quite a collection of specialized equipment. A typical move involves one or two super-sized cranes, an equally immense loader, maybe a pair of twin-steer “tandem trucks,” a pair of “gin pole” trucks and four to six road trucks. All of this iron is in motion at the same time, and most of it is concentrated on the pad, which is the small — sometimes extremely small — plot of land that surrounds the drilling platform.
Managing this chaos is the job of the “truck pusher,” who is responsible for the entire operation, including staying on a tight schedule and keeping everybody on the crew both busy and safe.
“It takes some concentration,” says Jim Rowland, truck pusher for Oklahoma-based Hodges Trucking, one of the oldest and most respected firms in the business. “I depend on my people. I let them do their jobs, but I keep an eye on everything, making sure that all the parts are moving. I only get involved when something slows down. Some truck pushers want to be fully hands-on, but I’d rather take a team approach.”
Rowland was born and raised in Duncan, Okla., birthplace of industry giant Halliburton Corp. Despite his early proximity to the oil and gas fields, he wasn’t especially interested in energy production. “I wanted to be a truck driver,” he says. “Always loved them ol’ trucks.”
Before he could embark on that course, however, he got married and in 1969 took a job as a swamper on a rig-moving crew. “You grow up fast in that line of work,” he says.
Rowland recalls his formative years as textbook examples of oil-worker lore: “There weren’t any regulations back then. We would often put in 100 hours a week. A lot of times, we’d get done working in the evening and head straight to the beer joint. We’d party ’til 2 a.m., then go home, shower and be back at work by 5. This would go on for several days. Man, that’s hard on a guy. It’s surprising I’m still alive.”
Some of Rowland’s coworkers over the years haven’t been as fortunate, but their demise — like that of many other oil-field workers — stemmed more from work than play. Jobsite accidents are a constant threat.
Gravity is a big problem. “If you get into one of these [pole] trucks, and don’t know what you’re doing, things get ugly fast,” says Adam Basquez Sr., a driver for Hodges. “Too much weight, set too high, and you’re going over quick.”
Worse yet, some heavy object might fall from high above, or a winch cable, stressed to its limit by an 80,000-pound garage-sized part, could snap. When cables come apart, Basquez says, “you’d better not be standing in the ‘kill zone,’” a loosely defined area behind and alongside the truck.
“There have been plenty of guys who’ve worked on these jobs for years, but they slipped up one time and got in the wrong place,” Basquez says. “Next thing you know, something happened, and they’re dead.”
How do you get that job?
Considering these risks, one might reasonably assume the rewards are sufficient to outweigh them. They are, at least for a lot of people. Oil field truckers earn between $50,000 and $90,000 per year and they’re home most nights (even if only for a shower before heading back to the fields early in the morning).
The hurdle for a lot of interested applicants, however, is requisite experience. “Our drivers aren’t the normal over-the-road type,” says Todd Bules, safety coordinator for Hodges. “They don’t start out as drivers. Most start as swampers, then work their way up to a driver’s seat. The only people hired as drivers are those who drove for other oil-services fleets.”
One other small matter currently limits the chance for oil-field employment: relatively low petroleum prices.
“Last year at this time oil was trading for about $140 a barrel,” Bules says. “We were ‘hooked up’ big time, day and night. Now the price is less than half that, about mid-sixties, and things have slowed down quite a bit.”
Bules is confident that pricing will rebound. It always does. Eventually. At that point, he’ll be looking for new talent willing to trade a very hard day’s labor for a fat paycheck.
Obviously, the job’s not for everyone. Asked what types of people make the best oil field workers, Rowland pauses, then says with a laugh, “a nut, maybe, a psycho of some kind.”