May, 1964: I’m on a drilling rig in the Libyan Sahara Desert.
It’s three a.m. and I’ve been standing here staring at the geolograph for two hours, and about every twelve minutes the stylus makes a red line on the graph paper, which means Santa Fe Rig 2 has drilled another foot of shale. It seems to me every time something important on a drilling rig comes up it’s always after midnight. I’m standing in the rig trailer, which is only 50 feet or so from a brand new drilling rig. This is the first job for the rig and things aren’t running that smoothly. Standing here with me is Clyde McFarland, the toolpusher. He’s a seasoned New Mexico pusher, but outside of the driller, who is also an American with good drilling experience, the other members of the crew are Libyans, who have never even seen a drilling rig.
On every drilling job there is a major objective, and I remember going over the drilling prognosis with the subsurface geologist back in Benghazi.
“Richard, we may run into something up the hole, but this wildcat is set up to test the Basal Sand that is producing in a couple of fields in the Basin. Don’t miss the samples, and set up a drill-stem test if you get a good show. This is a rank wildcat, the first well Exxon will drill in Concession Six, so don’t screw up. The daily reports go straight to New York.” Then there was “blab, blab, blab” about not driving off the Coast Road because of left-over mines from World War Two. The War was over less than twenty years ago, and in the desert air, the millions of left-over mines aren’t even rusty. The Coast Road between Benghazi and Tripoli, built by the Italians after World War One, was fought over by the Brits, Americans, and Germans for several years, and they left a lot of stuff behind. There are German Machine gun nests that look as if the Germans have just walked away.
The reason I’ve been watching the drilling for the last two hours is because I’ve plotted the drilling time and sample descriptions and according to my strip log, the drill bit should be right on top of the Basal Sand. The shale above the sand is drilling at 12 minutes per foot, but a good oil sand, will drill at 4 minutes or less a foot. When I see the geolograph stylus mark a quick foot or two, I’ll know we are drilling in the sand, and if that sand has an oil show, I’ll set up a test for the next day. That’s how I earn my keep.
Another hour has passed and the drilling is about as monotonous as you can imagine, with the stylus marking off a 12 minute foot just as regular as clockwork.
“You think that rockhound in Benghazi is wrong about the depth of the sand?” asked Clyde.
That is what I’m thinking. I nod, and quip, “It wouldn’t be the first time.”
Of course geology isn’t an exact science, and we do make mistakes. They are called “dry holes.” I’m thinking the Basal Sand is not there, and since there is not another well within 20 miles, that could happen, and we’ll keep drilling until we are sure the sand is missing. I was just about to say something to Clyde when I realized the geolograph hadn’t moved, and it had been nearly 20 minutes.
“Clyde, when did you put the last bit on? We’ve been twenty minutes on that last foot.”
“We changed out the bit late yesterday. It has only two hundred feet on it. We must be drilling on something hard.”
I nod as I figure we’re in the Basal Sand, but it’s hard and not porous. That’s as bad as not being there. You can’t produce oil from a hard nonporous rock.
“Drill another hundred and fifty feet, and if it doesn’t drill any better than the last foot, we’ll set up to run logs.”
Those words were barely out of my mouth when I hear the geolograph ding. I turn to look and the next foot, after the twenty minute foot, just drilled at four minutes per foot. That’s when I hear the brake on the rig squealing, which means the bit is drilling fast, and the stylus makes two quick red lines on the paper. That’s a drilling break, which means we are drilling in a porous sand, and the sand may have oil or gas in it.
“We’re getting a two minute per foot drilling break, Clyde! Tell the driller to not drill any deeper—-just circulate!” Clyde waves at the driller and circles his hand above his head to stop the driller from going any deeper. I want to check the samples to see if there is any indication of oil or gas, before I drill any deeper. I’m heading to the mudlogger trailer to get the crew who works for me to catch a sample when I hear something unusual. It sounds as if water is splashing on the rig floor, and I look up to see mud flowing out of the drill pipe, and before I can yell to Clyde, mud blows out of the drill pipe spraying almost 20 feet in the air. That kicks off a scramble to shut the well in, and the driller heads for the doghouse to engage the emergency cutoff valve when he slips in the mud on the rig floor and takes a hard fall. Now everything is happening so fast, I’m just in shock, and then with a thundering roar the rest of the drilling mud blows out of the drill pipe followed by a huge amount of natural gas, and mud, water, and what we call condensate, which is natural gasoline, blows through the top of the derrick.
It’s chaos as the Libyan crew breaks and runs, the driller is crawling on the rig floor trying to get to the cutoff valve when Clyde starts to run, but not away. He’s running straight for the rig as mud, water, and the natural gasoline rains down on us. I know from past blowouts that if a rock hits the steel on the rig and sparks, it will turn the area around the rig into a blazing inferno and everyone within fifty yards will be burned to death. I’m about to take off after the Libyan crew, when I see Clyde under the rig turning a big round handle. It’s the emergency cut off in case of a blowout. As he turns the valve the column of gas, mud, and gasoline slowly diminishes and in a few seconds the well is dead.
I’m soaking wet with water and gasoline, and on the ground around the rig there are puddles of gasoline. All of a sudden it hits me how close we all came to be killed, and I’m shaking like a leaf. However, Clyde is already rounding up the Libyan crew where he can start back to drilling. Then it crosses my mind; “This is going to make an interesting morning report.”