The Play: Oil-field workers shoot for success during boom times
By By Dianna Wray - DWRAY@VICAD.COM
March 17, 2012 at 5:05 p.m.
Updated March 17, 2012 at 10:18 p.m.
Men of the oil field
Those responsible for harvesting oil from the Eagle Ford Shale give a peek into the lives of an oil field worker.
Justin Glass swung the shotgun from his shoulder and held it to his eye, ready.
The clay disk sailed over damp green grass and exploded into bits.
"Yeah! That's the way to do it!" his father, David Glass, yelled. All around them stood the men of the industry - rig managers, roughnecks, drill bit salesmen and oil company executives. They had all turned out on this drizzly Saturday morning to shoot skeet and celebrate.
Oil has hovered around $100 a barrel for almost a year, the Eagle Ford Shale play is booming and, for the men of the oil field, nothing was as sweet as shooting guns and trading salty jokes in the middle of an oil boom the likes of which hasn't been seen in South Texas since the Austin Chalk was drilled in the 1970s - the likes of which they never thought they would see again.
They thought it would never happen, but Eagle Ford Shale wells are dotting the landscape. Some of the wells are producing more than 1,000 barrels a day when they first start flowing.
After years of an industry marching steadily toward decline, the U.S. oil field has come back with a roar.
The Glass family is lucky. They all work in the oil field - and have for three generations - and they're from Victoria. Unlike the rest of the people coming to work the Eagle Ford, for once the job is in their backyard.
Oil is their way of life. It determines whether they live high on the hog or scrimp and scrape to get by.
The Glass family has ridden high on the booms and come crashing down in the busts time and again, but they have stayed in the oil field because it's the life they love, the only life they've known.
Oil is what fuels their livelihood and, right now, with the Eagle Ford Shale, the living is good.
HARD ON RELATIONSHIPS
Angela Glass cheered as a shotgun shell exploded and another clay tablet shattered.
"Nice job, honey," she said. A petite woman with a thick rope of blonde hair and blue eyes framed by long lashes and black mascara, Angela was one of the few women out in the field that day.
She and Justin married six months ago, and though she grew up in the oil field, she is still learning the ins and outs of being an oil-field wife.
She fits in with the crowd, laughing and joking with the men.
The night before the third annual American Petroleum Institute Skeet Shoot, a charity event, the Victoria chapter of the association had a party at The Barn, a honky tonk dance hall just outside of Victoria.
The men there were from all over, twirling the soft accents of Mississippi and Louisiana drawls and the twang of Arkansas across the floor.
Angela's tennis shoes squeaked a little as she and her husband moved across the dance floor, but Justin moved smoothly enough in his leather-soled cowboy boots to make up for her stumbling.
A tall, brawny man with dark hair and eyes and a serious face that will light up suddenly when he smiles, Justin kept a firm hand on her back and steered her around the room through the crowd of swaying couples.
"This is what we do, you know, when we're out on the road," he said, looking down at his wife. "You fit in here."
The old code of the oil-field wife required that she was always understanding and didn't ask a lot of questions or resent when he was out of town for a business trip, or out with the guys to blow off steam.
"It's difficult for people who have relationships in the oil field because you have to learn to trust when they're gone. Justin's father was in the field for 38 years, so obviously she trusted him," Angela said.
Angela decided she wouldn't take things the way her mother-in-law did.
When she heard that Justin was going on a business trip to Las Vegas, her mother-in-law told her that, of course, wives weren't allowed on these kinds of trips.
"She told me that wives don't go. That's how she did it, what was expected then. But I'm not going to stay home when I've got the chance to go with him to Vegas," Angela said.
She has to work to be patient when Justin can't talk during the day or when a job takes him out on the road for days and weeks at a time.
She and Justin grew up together because their families both worked in the oil field. That's how they met.
"But some things have changed," she said, smiling at Justin.
Justin knows how important that is; he's seen plenty of marriages break apart when the long hours, the stress and the time on the road drive a couple apart.
His uncle, Roy Williams, came home after 24 years of marriage to find his wife standing in the kitchen, saying she was done.
Even as his first marriage was crumbling, Williams never thought of giving it up.
"I guess it get's in your blood. I can't imagine doing anything else. Wouldn't want to," he said. "I missed a lot of my children growing up because I was on the road all of the time. I missed a lot of ball games and stuff like that. What's good about my home life now is that my wife is in the oil field and she understands. When I'm gone three weeks, she understands," he said, grinning at his wife, Justin's aunt, Cathy Glass Williams.
It takes effort to keep it together, to make a marriage work. He and Angela sit down with their planners and map out when they will be together and when they'll have to be apart, charting everything out as far in advance as possible. They talk on the phone every night when he's on the road, and as often as possible during the day.
Justin's first marriage failed, too. In fact, the oil field is riddled with broken families and relationships that disintegrated into ash.
The Eagle Ford Shale isn't the biggest field in America right now - that distinction belongs to the Bakken Shale in North Dakota - but the Eagle Ford is booming.
West Texas oil is also experiencing an oil production renaissance as they harness hydraulic fracturing used to get Eagle Ford wells flowing to haul crude oil from the region's dense rock formation. But the Eagle Ford Shale is still one of the busiest plays. It has brought oil-field workers from across the country to the Crossroads.
The newcomers are eager to bring in some of the money that companies are willing to shell out to get experienced hands on their rigs and driving their trucks.
David Glass, Justin's father, was more interested in agriculture when he was in high school, but when he got married at 18 in 1976 he needed a job then and there.
A family friend grasped his hand in the reception line after the wedding.
"Do you want to go work?" he asked. "If you want to go to work in the oil field, I've got a job for you as soon as you can start."
That was how you got the job back then - by knowing somebody. Sometimes, if you were looking for work, you'd go down to the local beer joint and scrawl your name and number onto a wall.
Much of it depended on who you knew and whether you had a good reputation to carry out there with you.
The 1970s marked the last great oil boom America saw.
Oil was thriving, flooding the market. Prices were good because of tensions with the Middle East and plays in Texas were reviving an industry that had seemed to be in the decline only a decade before.
There were more rigs jutting into the skyline and pumping hydrocarbons from the ground than had ever been seen in this country.
Not everyone lived like they were a character from the TV show "Dallas," but, with an oil-field job, you lived well.
Glass took the job.
Since then, he has worked in every part of the oil field, and there are a million different parts. It takes all of them working together to keep the oil flowing from the ground to a gas tank.
He and his father started a business, Superior Wireline Inc., striking out on their own in 1982.
That was when the American Petroleum Institute held numerous annual events in town, when the South Texas Oil and Gas Exposition drew hundreds of industry insiders from across the country.
They filled the Victoria Community Center with all of the latest gear.
Oil derricks protruded up into the sky in the parking lot, and men in suits and cowboy hats, or freshly starched dress shirts and crisply ironed jeans and bolo ties, clasped hands, talked business, promised to meet up later in the one show in the state that offered a bigger draw - the annual oil show in West Texas.
Then the boom went bust. The industry stumbled as oil prices dropped to almost nothing, $8 a barrel, seemingly overnight.
In fact, the signs that the boom was waning had been there with declines in production, but it still took those in the industry by surprise.
"I guess you could say we didn't know any better," David Glass said, with a wry gruff laugh.
The last show was in 1985. Victoria became a ghost town for the industry.
"There were a lot of us that were still in the oil field and we tried to have an oil show, but there wasn't anybody to have a show for. It was all gone," David Glass said.
Glass and his father struggled to hold onto their business, to keep it alive and pay their employees, but by 1987, they knew they weren't going to make it.
It got to the point that if they went out on a job and blew a tire, they had already lost any chance of making a profit. They might not even be able to get the truck towed home.
When some buyers turned up, they sold the business.
Glass and his father managed to get jobs after selling, but his father had lost his retirement - his life's savings - in the bust, and he had to work the rest of his life, Glass said.
They were employed in almost every facet of the business to make it through the bust.
"We were lucky, though, because we had good reputations and people knew us so at least we got something," David Glass said.
The skeet shoot was almost rained out. After months of drought that cracked the earth open, a silver wall of water kept the API members huddled in the tan metal shack on Hester's Shooting Range, while rain drummed on the rattling metal roof and lightning split the sky.
"Don't worry," one man said, when someone asked whether they were going to be able to shoot that day. "That man in the White House hasn't been able to stop us, so neither will a little rain!"
That got a laugh.
Right now, the oil field is at an interesting point. As an industry, it is seeing the kind of action it hasn't in years.
Tensions with Iran, concern over the dangers of deep water drilling in the wake of the British Petroleum Gulf Coast oil spill, all of this has given the mainland plays more attention and more power than they have seen in decades.
Texas is on track to issue the most oil and gas drilling permits in a single year since 1985, the year just before the entire oil industry crumbled and oil sank to less than $10 a barrel.
On top of that, the U.S. Department of Energy reported that the United States exported more gasoline, diesel and other fuels than it imported in 2011, the first time this has happened since 1949.
At the same time, the political climate is running against them. The BP oil spill hurt public perception of the industry and caused President Barack Obama to place a moratorium on drilling in the Gulf of Mexico.
The industry has known government incentives and tax breaks for years, but in early March the president, in an election year when the haves and have nots keep rising to the surface as an issue, called for Congress to end oil company tax breaks.
When they get together, they talk about the president's agenda.
They firmly believe that in his moves to delay the Keystone XL Pipeline from being laid and his embrace of alternative energy, he is trying to kill the oil industry.
That's a slap in the face to these men because they and their families live and die by the price of oil and risk their lives to bring oil out of the ground and into gas tanks and the other mechanisms that power lives across this country.
A DANGEROUS LIFE
David Glass saw a man die on a rig once, a friend.
He was killed instantly by a heavy steel cable. Glass's face went ruddy and he pressed his lips together as he spoke. Remembering, his brown eyes grew cloudy, darkened and fixed as if he was trying to see something from a long way off.
"It was a freak accident that killed a young man. He's here, right here one second and then he's gone. It wasn't even really that he wasn't paying attention. It's bad. It's horrible," he said, with a sharp shake of his head.
Working in the oil field is dangerous. That's something anyone who's been in it any length of time won't hesitate to tell you. They'll follow it up with reassurances - the accidents don't happen as often these days. Safety is their top priority. A lot has changed, but it is still one of the most dangerous jobs, and the increase in drilling has meant a natural increase in accidents.
There were seven oil-field deaths in South Texas in 2011 alone, up from three in 2007, just before the boom began. A Yorktown man, Adam Weise, was killed when the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded into a ball of fire in the Gulf of Mexico.
Death stalks the people in this field. If you sit down and ask, nearly everyone has a story. John Braudway, an oil-field consultant from Karnes City, still can't bear to talk about the day his friend was killed on a rig. It's been decades, but the memory pulls the smile from his face, revealing furrows of age on his handsome head.
"That's not a story I tell," Braudway said, the words coming out quiet and careful, like someone dropping stones into water, trying to avoid the inevitable ripples.
That's what they all say.
The National Occupational Research Agenda Oil and Gas Extraction Council, a council made up of industry stakeholders and researchers, began meeting in 2008 to understand why so many were dying in the oil field.
Of an estimated 422,000 oil and gas workers in the country, 710 workers were killed between 2003 and 2009, more than eight times higher than the average fatality rate for all occupations, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
But those in the oil field say the benefits outweigh the risks when a play is hot.
The money is the best some of them will ever make. The average oil-field worker gets about $100,000 a year right now, Railroad Commissioner Barry Smitherman recently said at the Victoria Energy Summit.
With so many different plays across the country, experienced workers are hard to come by, so those familiar with the field are in a good position to choose where they work.
At the same time, this means a lot of the guys going out to work don't have any experience at all, and a lot can happen while you're trying to learn the business.
The deaths are caused when workers are struck by flying debris, moving rig equipment and blowouts.
As the Eagle Ford Shale play has continued to thrive, the injuries and deaths have increased as well.
An injury can mean the loss of your hand or your foot, a limb put in the wrong place at the wrong time and lopped off. Then you aren't able to do the work you once did without all of your digits, hobbling around on a new prosthetic leg.
The play is being drilled in a low pressure area, so there isn't as much danger of blowouts, the kind that lead to columns of flame in the sky, like in the movies, but there are still dangers from hydrogen sulfide, which can seep up and kill a worker after just a few breaths.
Every few months a worker dies on an Eagle Ford Shale rig site - the risk is just a part of the job.
Still, this doesn't deter them. David Glass and his sons will keep working and saving and celebrating a little when the money rolls in.
WHAT DOES THE FUTURE HOLD?
Oil has been good to David Glass, but he warned all three of his boys to stay away from the business.
"It's too much up and down in this industry," Glass said, glancing at his eldest son, Justin, who looks like a younger version of himself. He paused, pulling at his bristly, well-kept blonde mustache, sprinkled with gray. "It's feast or famine."
All three of his sons work in the oil field now.
"When you start a boom, you don't realize how good it is until it goes bust, and then the high rolling goes away and you know what you've lost. Yeah, it's like they say, you don't know what you love until you lose it," Justin Glass said.
The entire industry weathered its way through the following decades.
Sometimes there would be a boom, a flurry of excitement over some play or other. But it never lasted long, a couple of years and the play was all played out.
But not the Eagle Ford. The Eagle Ford Shale play is a phenomenon with no end in sight; at least that's what David Glass believes
People in the oil field believe this could be a boom that keeps on going. Some say it'll last 10 years, some say 25.
The Pearsall Shale formation lies 2,000 feet below the Eagle Ford Shale and the formation, rich in natural gas, may be the next big play, Braudway, a longtime energy insider, said. There's also a formation between the Eagle Ford Shale and the Pearsall Shale that is stirring up a flurry of interest among those in the oil field.
Still, booms are as reliable as gravity. Everything that goes up must come down, and this boom will end; it's just a question of when.
The people of the oil field believed the last big boom of the 1970s would never end. Then it did, and cars were plastered with those famous bumper stickers saying, "Oh Lord, Please Give Us One More Boom - I Promise Not to Screw it Up This Time."
Glass has faith. Right now, he believes this will last for years to come - oil gushing up from the ground in his own backyard. He never imagined there'd be something like this - no one did. He's being careful, though. He and his wife are treating all of their children to a cruise next year, but he's not getting extravagant, buying Cadillacs or diamonds.
He's always reminding his sons to be cautious, too - if he's learned anything, oil isn't something you can count on. But talking about the Eagle Ford, his eyes gleam, and he shakes his head in disbelief.
"It's unlike any boom I've ever seen," David Glass said. "It's amazing."
To read the series so far, click below:
Part 5: Man of Oil