All wells are snitches: lessons learned as an Oilfield Pumper

Okay so, there are just some things in the oilfield that are known by all of us, but that we really don’t talk about.

One of those things is the silent rule that after a workover rig has been up on one of your wells, you step carefully around your equipment and stock tanks. New pumpers have discovered this sometimes in a traumatizing way when, in a moment where they really need a rag and realize they used their last one on the last well, they spot one on the ground…you know, over there by the meter house. So they run over and snatch it up and attempt to use it only to find that, uh, it’s been already used and not on any equipment owned by the company, if you know what I mean.

You see, when I was starting in the oilfield, there was no guidebook. I would have given a month’s salary for something like The Lease Pumper’s Handbook. I thought I would take this book on chapter by chapter and discuss a little of it with you every couple of weeks about what is contained in each chapter.

This week we’ll talk about Chapter 1 –Responsibilities of Employee and Employer.

If you don’t read any other chapter, make certain you read this one. It contains at lot of the information that you would think someone would tell you but don’t count on it and here is why:

While this might sound a little negative, there is a very competitive culture that exists in the oilfield. This is true in both contract lease operating and what we call company pumping.

Don’t get me wrong; if I needed help really bad, the guys I worked with would mostly do the right thing and come give me a hand. But I could be sure that when they got together later, they would be discussing how stupid I was over coffee.

Anyone in the business very long learns this reality. It doesn’t mean they’re not your friends. It just is what it is and the sooner you accept that and don’t let it distract you, the happier a pumper you will be.

But when you are the FNG (I’ll let you figure that acronym out but the last two words are ‘New’ and ‘Guy’) it can be pretty uncomfortable.  There is a culture among us pumpers to let you squirm instead of telling you how to do something.

So, often other experienced pumpers will make a guy who asks a lot of questions feel dumb and eventually the guy gets the score and doesn’t ask anyone for any help on anything. This is especially true for company pumpers.

Frankly, it is one of the most dangerous aspects of the oilfield social culture and I still work hard to end it. I have looked into statistics on this tendency and found it to be responsible for up to 42 percent of accidents.

Nevertheless, when I was new…I suffered from this kind of culture and had it not been for my best friend, a 35 year veteran pumper Evelyn Dixon, I could have not only failed but been badly injured.

Evelyn served as my personal “Lease Pumper’s Handbook”.

So, Chapter 1 can help you past some of the most basic questions like who pays for supplies? What all are you supposed to do when you get to each lease? Who buys the pencils? What tools you will need to be successful out there. Anyhoo, read it you will be glad you did.

It can be a mine field out there!

So, back to my first and only lesson about being extra careful after workover rigs have been up on my wells. You see, some companies graciously allow you to take your dog along with you when you are pumping.

This privilege was so high on my list of benefits that they probably could have paid me $1 less per hour than they guys and I would have been happy about it. My dog Nipper was a Cairn terrier – you know, think Toto in the Wizard of Oz.

So she had this really long, wiry hair. She was a wheaten color, so her hair was really blondish. At every lease I operated, Nipper jumped out of my pickup and ran around the lease looking for rabbits to scare up and basically just living a really good life because she got to go all the time. She loved it and it helped me because my days as pumper are long and I am often in remote locations for long periods of time.

It was a Monday and my boss had told me that they had a rig on one of my wells over the weekend and that it was back up and running, but that I should do a report on it right away when I got out to the field.

So I pull up and it’s still pretty cool out, like 45 degrees and Nipper is raring to go. I checked everything out and called Nipper and here she came bounding toward me as fast as she could.

I really wasn’t looking at her, I was just holding the pickup door open so she could get in. And, she jumped into the seat of my pickup covered from her wiry little head to her wiry haired little tail in fairly fresh human poo. I mean, when she decided to roll in this, she took her job very seriously and it was caked even on her underbelly.

oilfiled pumper rules

Now, this dog was not experienced with riding in the back of a pickup and worse, mine was a flatbed. I was about five miles from our central stock tank battery, where I knew I could find a water hose. But I didn’t know how I was going to get her there without the risk of her jumping off the flatbed and hurting herself or what seemed worse at the moment, having her in the cab of my truck.

Times like this are when you are really glad that you supplied yourself with a box of rags and plenty of disposable gloves, something I never leave without now. So I started trying to clean off as much as I could with rags. I then found a piece of wire and used that as a “leash” of sorts and tied her to the headache rack so she couldn’t fall of the pickup and then I drove to a water hose. It was a cold bath, but we managed.

Lesson learned. I now was firmly in possession of that bit of knowledge about some of the more basic things one must consider after other personnel have spent a couple of days and nights on one of your wells. And now, you know it too!

Remember this; all wells are snitches

Okay, so as a pumper, you get to choose what kind of pumper you will be. In Chapter 1 of the Lease Pumper’s Handbook there is a part that talks about honesty. The section covers the importance of correct information being recorded onto your daily books and other basic truths that need to be told; even when you don’t want to.

For a new pumper, this may seem simple. Yet when you get out there you will eventually be faced with a serious mistake and you will likely be tempted to cover it up. I implore you, please do not do this. Obviously, in the first place, it can be dangerous. If you have shut something off that was supposed to be on for instance, and someone comes behind you to work on the well and you don’t tell the truth, it can hurt someone in some cases.

I often have said the oilfield offers more opportunities for the average field worker to lie than any other industry I have seen. So, if you got stuck on a well that was not operating properly on a day and didn’t make it to some of your other wells, tell them that. No, I can assure you it will not be popular. But tell them anyway. Because there is another ugly truth about the oilfield and that is, if you lie, your wells will tell on you – without fail, they will reveal your mistakes and lies and I swear to you, you will think the horse’s head is laughing at you.

Perhaps the most obvious of these examples happened to one of my fellow pumpers; let’s call him Kyle. Kyle was young. His father was a resounding success in the oilfield and owned a business in the industry in a nearby town. But Kyle just didn’t have the drive his father had. So, it wasn’t four weeks after we had hired him and we began noticing that Kyle was completing his pumping days far, far sooner than we all did.

That said, Kyle never seemed to have a well go down or one that was not producing. His books were perfect. If a well was supposed to usually make 35 mcf of gas, by golly it made 35 mcf of gas.

As many pumpers know, and so did Kyle, along with our digital readout meters, some wells also still used paper charts. You know the ones – they show every minute of activity with a red pen that shows gas differential and a blue pen line that shows static pressure. The paper chart is something I always check because I know their proclivity to write a friggin novel about everything you’ve ever done wrong.

And…these eight day charts, well, you have to remember to change on the 1st, 9th, 17th and 25th.

But see, Kyle didn’t understand the significance of those charts because he was new. So after at least 7 days of skipping a certain well, he went by to pick up the chart and found that the day after he had changed the chart, everything stopped.

The chart was still moving but the needle showed zero gas had been sold from that lease for six full days. Being so young, Kyle didn’t even really understand the marks on the chart and so happily handed it in and then pencil-whipped yet another day into his fraudulent books. Job well done, right.

Now, as you smart readers have already guessed, this did not jibe with his glowing reports on the well over the last several days. And those get sent to our corporate office daily. Those charts were laughing at Kyle.

Instead of learning from that mistake, Kyle just got a little better at covering his tracks until one day the boss called him around 3 p.m. and asked him, “Hey, have you been by the “Harper 3-1” yet today?” Kyle nimbly lied, because he had become quite comfortable lying and said “Yes” that he had been by the well.

The lease had a compressor on it and the boss said, “How’s that compressor running?” Again, Kyle lied and said, “Great, running really smooth.” The boss said, “Well, that’s funny because I’m standing right here with it and the supply gas has been turned off and according to the chart, it hasn’t sold gas in three days.”

Kyle didn’t make it in the business. I think the moral to the story is painfully clear. First, do your job. If you are a person who tends to shortcut things, just don’t get into the business. Second, if you forget to turn on or off a valve (you most certainly will make this mistake at some time in your career) just own up to it.

It you don’t, eventually your well will tell on you.

By Rachael Van Horn

AKA Wench with a Wrench

(Visited 311 times, 1 visits today)
  • Stephen Watkins

    I am REALLY OLD!
    I broke out in the oilfield in 1974 digging ditches for Walton Construction Company in Hobbs, NM. I was fortunate enough to work my way from that position to being hired as a “pumper” for Continental Oil Company in 1976. I broke out in a culture far different from what I perceive in “greasebook”. Back then, oil was $5.00 a bbl unless it produced less than 10 bpd and that oil was worth $10.00 a bbl.
    Those days, the experienced hands did their best to train the “newbies”! The “newbies” did the best they could to “learn”, those that did not . . . did not last. The “common concept” between these two groups was “Respect”. We were all out there to earn a fair wage to do a job. There was no competition between “Experience” and “Newbie”, just a learning gap that had to be bridged. The true concept behind this was “train the hand well” that would take Your Place” when you got the opportunity to move up!
    Simple, . . . “common sense”! Don’t work hard just to “keep your job”, “work hard and train the hand that’s going to replace you when your opportunity happens!” This ain’t “Rocket Science”!

  • B Whitman

    Great article and I love this Gal!