The Service Industry Takes Hold
Contributed by Mark Mau and Henry Edmundson
As oil and gas exploitation took shape, an assortment of tinkerers, entrepreneurs and self-taught engineers began inventing and supplying the industry with badly needed technologies. In many cases, the fledgling enterprises created by the early pioneers transformed over the decades into huge corporations whose reach extends into every oil and gas field on the planet. Dresser, Hughes Tool, Schlumberger and GSI are some early examples. But many more were to follow, and collectively they formed the beginnings of the oilfield service sector.
Invention of the Casing Shoe
One such player was Reuben “Carl” Baker of Coalinga from San Joaquin Valley, California. Born in 1867, Carl Baker began his career as a cable-tool driller and in 1898 started his own drilling business. Baker was a capable machinist and resourceful designer. He was especially interested in services associated with casing. Since Drake’s well, installing casing had become standard, but Drake’s wooden shoring was now replaced by wrought-iron or cast-iron pipe. Carl Baker’s breakthrough invention was a new type of casing shoe, patented on July 16, 1907.
A casing shoe is a short assembly, typically a heavy steel collar with a cement interior that is screwed to the bottom of a casing string. Casing shoes had long been used on the bottom of casing strings to strengthen the end of the pipe and drive the casing string through tight hole. Carl Baker had been making casing shoes since 1890. Whereas early shoes were thick and heavy, his 1907 casing shoe had a serrated beveled edge that could enlarge the borehole wall as it was lowered in the hole.
To begin with, Baker’s new casing shoe was built for cable-tool rigs since rotary drilling hadn’t yet arrived from Texas. When the rotary rig was introduced into the San Joaquin Valley around 1908, Baker quickly adapted his casing shoe for rotary use. Then in 1913, he created the Baker Casing Shoe Company, which launched the development of a long line of casing accessories and would become Baker Oil Tools in 1928, a future pillar of the service sector. The design of the Baker casing shoe remained virtually unchanged for 40 years. Carl Baker lived until September 29, 1957. Speaking at the 50th anniversary celebration of the Baker casing shoe patent just two months before he passed away, he remarked, “I conceive practically all of my inventions while I lie in bed at night. I do not get up to make notes or sketches at the time. Instead, I work out all the details of the inventions mentally and it may be a day or even several weeks before I make a sketch of the device.”
A serious problem right from the beginning was water seeping from behind casing and entering a well via the casing shoe. The casing shoe had some ability to shut off water, but drillers were nevertheless forced to be creative. A common solution was to wrap various seeds in heavy canvas or leather around the bottom joint of the casing and wait for them to swell, and in the best outcome they provided a barrier.
The idea of using cement to create a seal between casing and formation was first tried in Russia by a certain Romanovsky in 1859 in a water well. In the US, the idea can be attributed to John R. Hill with his 1871 patent “Improved Mode of Closing the Water Courses Encountered in Drilling Oil Wells.” The patent describes putting cement into a borehole, setting a casing, then waiting for the cement to set, and eventually, as the patent explains, “The drill cuts out the cement from the bore of the well but leaves the water courses closed with said cement.” Experimenting in this fashion, Wallace Hardison and Lyman Stewart of Hardison & Stewart Oil Company were the first drillers to put cement in a well in Pico, California, in 1883. The quality of the cement obviously wasn’t that good because water soon began entering the well.
By the late 19th century, a new type of cement was coming on the market. Portland cement was invented and named by John Aspdin, a bricklayer and inventor from Leeds, England. For some years he had been experimenting with various cement formulations, and in 1824 his efforts were crowned by a British patent entitled “An Improvement in the Mode of Producing an Artificial Stone,” in which he coined the term portland cement. He named it thus because the produced solid resembled a limestone quarried on the Isle of Portland on the south coast of England. Unlike earlier cements, portland cement was made by burning a blend of limestone and clay, and crucially, it could harden in an underwater environment.
By 1890, Hardison and Stewart cofounded an oil company called the Union Oil Company of California, later to be renamed Unocal, and in 1903 decided to try the new portland cement. Frank F. Hill, a director of production for Union Oil, was the first to use the new cement. Frustrated with leakage from unconsolidated sands in a well in the Lompoc region of California, Hill dumped 20 sacks of portland cement mixed with water into the hole. He then raised the casing 30 feet, capped the top and lowered the string back to the bottom. Air pressure forced most of the cement up the outside of the casing into the annulus. Hill still had to drill out the cement inside the casing, but the ruse worked. Later, he tried pumping cement down some tubing with a packer near the bottom. That eliminated most of the redrilling of cement set inside the casing, and thus began the era of modern cement jobs.
Nevertheless, cementing was still seen as a costly procedure. In 1910, Almond A. Perkins, who owned The Perkins Oil Well Cementing Company, made the key breakthrough. In the Perkins method, portland cement was mixed with water to form a slurry. A plug was then inserted into the casing and pushed downhole in front of the slurry. Behind the slurry came another plug, this time pushed down by water. The first plug had the job of expelling the mud up the annulus between the casing and the formation, while the second did exactly the same with the cement. The first plugs used by Perkins were cast-iron with belting discs, with the addition of a leather cup on top of the second plug. Perkins’s two-plug cementing method sped up operations no end, eliminating the need for redrilling cement that had set in the borehole. The Perkins’s cementing business continued to thrive throughout the 1910s as its cementing technique was adopted throughout the US, and Perkins was therefore always in need of recruits. One young man he hired in 1918 was Erle Palmer Halliburton, who joined as a truck driver.
Erle Halliburton was a diminutive man, but his energy and self-confidence made him seem larger than life. Erle was a quick student and a hard worker, and he was soon promoted to cementer. Halliburton had plenty of ideas of his own, and these brought him in constant conflict with his boss. Perkins grew so irritated at Erle’s interference that in 1919 he fired him. Years later, Erle would say, “The two best things that ever happened to me were being hired, and then fired, by the Perkins Oil Well Cementing Company.”
Freed from Perkins, Erle Halliburton immediately established his own cementing company. After borrowing a wagon, a team of mules and a pump, he built a wooden mixing box and started cementing oil wells around Duncan, Oklahoma. His company was rather inconveniently called the New Method Oil Well Cementing Company, later to be renamed the Halliburton Oil Well Cementing Company in 1924.
For Erle Halliburton, increasing the efficiency of the well-cementing process was paramount. Mixing cement with water could be done only in small batches, with workers stirring each batch with hoes and shovels. Mixing enough cement and pouring it down the pipe before the cement began to harden was as difficult as it was critical. To speed up the mixing and pouring process, Erle invented what he called the Jet Mixer. Using this device, workers had only to empty bags of cement into a large tub. The Jet Mixer would automatically add water and stir. From this device, the cement was pumped directly into the casing.
The Jet Mixer did the job so well that it created another problem. Cement was available only in sacks each weighing 94 pounds, the limit of what a strong man could handle, but cementing could consume a thousand sacks in only a few minutes. No man, regardless of his ability, could open sacks fast enough to keep up. Erle Halliburton solved the problem by inventing the Sack Cutter, which quickly and conveniently opened the sacks and dumped the cement into the mixer.
In January 1930, Halliburton established a chemical laboratory at Duncan, Oklahoma, and appointed Count Hayden Roberts as head of research. Roberts started with nine researchers: five chemists, a physicist and three engineers. It was a modest beginning for what would become the industry’s premier laboratory for cementing research and development. The laboratory was used primarily to test the properties of various cement mixes, and they had plenty to work on. Throughout the 1930s, wells were being drilled deeper and into hotter zones, and chemical additives had to be developed so the slurries pumped into the wells could flow and set in increasingly harsh conditions.
With cement still delivered in sacks, achieving a precise mix of cement and additives proved almost impossible. The solution introduced by Halliburton was to store the cement and additives at central plants and distribute in bulk by truck, eliminating the tedious handling of individual sacks and sack cutting. More important, bulk storage also offered the advantage of providing moisture-proof storage, and at the plant the cement and additives could be measured and proportioned for individual jobs. Halliburton opened its first bulk cementing plant in 1940 in Salem, Illinois.
Another key development of the 1930s was offshore cementing. In 1938, Halliburton floated a barge from Louisiana into the Gulf of Mexico to a rig in the Creole field, and performed its first offshore cementing job. Though it was a new procedure, the crew was in familiar territory. For more than a decade, they had been cementing wells in the swamps and marshes of Louisiana. The crew drove their trucks onto shallow-draft barges, loaded the barges with bags of cement, and then floated the barges to the site of the well.
Controlling the Well
“It puffed and it blowed and it roared, and the earth about it fairly trembled with agitation. No one dared to approach it even within the circuit of the falling spray of oil and water.” In the early days, oilwell blowouts like this one, as reported by local oilman Orange Noble in Pioneer, Pennsylvania, in 1863, were quite a spectacle and costly. Noble had to offer US$ 50 to anyone willing to enter the derrick and attach the discharge pipe to divert the flow of oil into tanks.
It wasn’t for the environment but for the economic loss sustained by blowouts that engineers started thinking about blowout preventers (BOPs). The earliest BOP was patented in 1882 by Mike A. Lanagan from New York. The device Lanagan christened “Safety Attachment for Oil Wells and Tanks” was designed to shear the drilling cable and then seal the wellbore with a gate-valve. “It is a well-known fact,” Lanagan wrote in his patent letter, “That if the flow of oil and gas from the well can be quickly stopped or diverted so that the flames cannot reach the same, it is a comparatively easy matter to arrest their progress. In consequence of the intense heat surrounding the burning well, it is also necessary to provide an apparatus which can be easily and expeditiously handled at a safe distance from the well.”
Mike Lanagan’s device was built for cable-tool rigs and it wasn’t much in demand. One reason was the absence of any environmental and safety culture; another was the price. A third reason related to the concept itself. Lanagan’s blowout preventer was designed for oil wells already on fire, not for preventing fires.
In 1903, Harry R. Decker, a well-known figure in the heady days following Spindletop, was granted a patent for the first ram-type blowout preventer. His BOP was similar in operation to Lanagan’s gate-valve BOP but used a pair of opposing steel plungers moving toward the center of the wellbore to close and seal the well. Two men, Harry S. Cameron and James Abercrombie, made the first commercial application of Decker’s patent. They would have a lasting impact on the drilling industry.
Cameron, a drilling tools manufacturer, and Abercrombie, an oilman and wildcatter who was once nearly killed by a blowout, created Cameron Iron Works in 1920. They were perfect partners: Cameron was a machinist who could work miracles with metal, and Abercrombie was a man with big ideas who could motivate others to make things happen. Their greatest innovation came in late 1921 when the Monarch Oil and Refining Company gave Cameron Iron Works a contract to find a way to control the increasing gas pressure in deep wells. Repeated attempts to solve this problem encountered in many wells around the world had failed. But through Abercrombie’s persistence, he and Cameron built the first ram-type BOP and brought it to market in 1924.
Soon, Cameron discovered he had a competitor. Housing developers in Santa Fe, California, had accidentally struck the nation’s second-largest oil vein, triggering a California oil boom in 1923, and William D. Shaffer saw an opportunity to manufacture and sell BOPs. As N.H. LeRoy of Shaffer Tool Works recalled in 1954, “It was during the second Santa Fe boom that Mr. Shaffer conceived the idea of a ram-type blowout preventer to seal around the drillpipe. Mr. Cameron in Texas was also developing a ram-type preventer and both units were developed about the same time. The name SHAFFER or CAMERON immediately became associated with blowout preventers. A French oil operator recently told us that he thought the word “SHAFFER” was an English word meaning preventer which is typical of how expressions originate in the oil field.”
Mud Gets Sophisticated
Two decades after Spindletop, it became apparent that drilling mud had more roles to play than just removing drill cuttings and maintaining the borehole wall in good shape. It had to counteract the high pressures of the fluids found deep in the subsurface, and for that, it often had to be heavier than the conventional muds the Hamill brothers had envisaged.
In 1922, B.K. Stroud, supervisor of the Mineral Division of the Louisiana Department of Conservation, strongly recommended that “drillers should frequently weigh samples of mud.” He warned that success or failure in drilling a well in the Monroe, Louisiana, gas field depended on controlling gas pressure with weighted mud. Stroud recommended adding a heavy mineral such as iron oxide or pigment-grade barite, technically barium sulphate. At the time, barite was sourced from National Lead, a company that used the compound to make ink.
Barite solved the weighting problem but created a new challenge that was apparent to Phillip Harth, a sales manager at National Lead. He noticed that when barite was added to mud, it would settle rather than remain in suspension. What was needed was a viscosifying agent to keep the mixture uniform, and after some trials Harth settled on bentonite, a clay consisting predominantly of montmorillonite, which swells when exposed to water. The clay additive worked, Harth obtained a patent and bentonite became a standard mud ingredient forever after.
The invention of oil-base mud in the late 1930s and early 1940s proved to be an even bigger breakthrough. Oil-base drilling fluids, which use crude oil or refined products such as diesel or stove oil as the circulating medium, were developed to overcome some major disadvantages of water-base muds, in particular the destabilization of shales and the dissolution of salt formations. The first trial of an oil-base mud dates to 1935. Humble Oil prepared an oil mud and used it with mixed success to drill a troublesome shale interval in the Goose Creek Field in Texas. During the late 1930s, Standard Oil and Shell separately pursued oil-base muds, but it was finally George L. Miller who made available the first commercial oil-base mud when he formed the Oil Base Drilling Company in Los Angeles in 1942.
In addition to all the advances in mud chemistry, there were also mechanical issues. During the drilling process, drilling fluid has to be separated from cuttings so the fluid can be reused to drill. Prior to 1930, the reclaiming of mud fluid was accomplished by fluming the mud and cuttings through ditches into the mud pit. Most of the cuttings settled as the fluid traveled through the ditches, and relatively clean mud eventually ended up in the pit. From this pit, the drilling fluid was sucked up and reused.
In 1929, the first mechanical devices for cleaning drilling mud were introduced in the Kettleman Hills oil field of California by the Link-Belt Company, a manufacturer of mining and ore-dressing equipment. A wire-cloth screen vibrated while the drilling fluid flowed across the top of it. The liquid phase of the mud and solids smaller than the wire mesh passed through the screen and were reused, while the large cuttings fell off the back of the device and were discarded. The shale-shaker soon became an integral part of every rig.
This entry is based on Groundbreakers: The story of oilfield technology and the people who made it happen, by Mark Mau and Henry Edmundson. You can find the book at www.fast-print.net/bookshop/1791/groundbreakers.