The Process of Obtaining Oil

I worked in Lubbock, Texas for just over a year when I first started out in planning and recently have been working on a plan for Kermit, Texas, taking me back to the oil fields. Lubbock did not have many operating pump jacks, but nonetheless one of my tasks while there was to map the locations of existing and capped oil wells. Kermit on the other hand is surrounded by oil fields that have a major impact on their community. After watching dozens of different trucks pass by and various types of infrastructure out in the fields I decided to learn the process and components required for extracting oil to be better informed about the impacts it has on communities.

First a little history lesson of oil in Texas. It began in earnest in 1901 when a gusher was found near Beaumont, Texas. Oil exploded from a drilling site at Spindletop Hill on January 10th reaching a height of more than 150 feet. It was so impressive they named it the Lucas Geyser which produced nearly 100,000 barrels of oil a day and was more powerful than any seen in the world up to that time. The discovery is credited to the perseverance of Patillo Higgins who believed the salt domes, like what Spindletop sat on, contained oil. He formed the Gladys City Oil, Gas and Manufacturing Company in 1892 to investigate and as with all new and untested theories was met with skepticism from industry experts. Drilling began at Spindletop in October 1900 after his new partner Anthony Lucas convinced Pennsylvania oilmen John Galey and James Guffey to finance the operations. It only took 1,020 feet of drilling into the sandy ground before mud began bubbling up, followed by natural gas and then oil.

This first major geyser was one of many booms and busts in the oil industry. Any oilman who has been around for awhile knows that oil is not a steady field. In 1930 another gusher was found in east Texas which crashed oil prices. In 1970 it peaked again, only to fall off until the 1990’s when fracking was discovered. Oil hit an all time high in 2008 when the price per barrel was $145.31.

In order to process all this oil, infrastructure needs to be put into place. It takes roughly 3-5 months to complete a well which involves many different trucks hauling all sorts of materials from site to site all day long. One statistic stated one fracked well requires 1,200 truck deliveries. There are trucks to carry the oil from the wells if it isn’t piped away, sand trucks (sand cans) delivering the sand for fracking, trucks carrying fracking fluid, long and short semi’s carrying materials to construct the drilling rigs and other necessary infrastructure, portable cranes, cement trucks, water storage tankers (Wheelie’s) and fresh water trucks, pumping trucks, waste trucks, and a multitude of large pickup trucks checking on each well. For the technical truck names and pictures you can visit the FrackTracker Alliance.

Once the well has been set up, its just a matter of pumping out the material and shipping it off to create the gas that powers our cars and supplies our daily energy needs. But someone has to drive around to all these pump jacks to make sure they are working properly. So while booms and busts may occur, there is a significant number of employees that remain in these oil towns to ensure the safety and maintenance of the infrastructure. But until the time when wells no longer need to be build, thousands of heavy trucks are moving back and forth across the highways to deliver materials and dig the wells. States department of transportation like TXDOT cannot keep up with the wear and tear created by the oil booms. The roads are pocked with crater sized potholes that could do some damage to the average vehicle. Its no wonder all the oil field guys drive large dually trucks around.

Whether or not you agree with fracking and drilling, the process required to get a well up and running and the number of trucks required to do so is fascinating. If you have read previous posts you know that I’m all for reducing dependence on gas and increasing alternative modes of transportation. Just the thousands of trucks moving hundreds of miles a day on routes from one well location to the next to deliver materials and equipment is astonishing. I imagine mapping the routes of a few trucks on one day of work would create a crazy web of travel.