Muddy work at oil well

Mud. To the casual observer, the ooze coming out of the drilling pipe was just plain mud. But, to Nadeane Klinkenborg, it was more than mud. It was a clue as to what was going on at the bottom of a wildcat oil well, over three miles below the surface of the earth.

From that mud, which serves to lubricate the drilling bit as well as to keep oil and gas from shooting to the surface in an uncontrolled fashion, Miss Klinkenborg could tell what geologic formations the drill bit was slicing through -- and more importantly, whether or not the bit was moving through a formation loaded with hydrocarbons.

For it is the mud logger, or hydrocarbon well analyst, as Miss Klinkenborg and her partner Ed Perry are called, who gives the oil driller his first inkling that he has found oil or gas.

Robert B. Peterson, deputy manager of the producing department for Exxon Corporation, notes, "Everyone uses mud logging as an early indicator of potential hydrocarbons when drilling. It's a significant investigative tool, although it doesn't necessarily mean the find is commercial."

And, if the mud loggers are not doing their job, a well can get into trouble quickly. Recalls Miss Klinkenborg, "There was a well in the Wind River Canyon that had increasing gas pressure levels that were not noted and it blew out and the gas flared for two weeks before they could get it under control."

Mr. Peterson agrees, adding, "On safety alone you can make case for mud loggers."

Because of the surge in drilling activity, in large part related to oil price decontrol, the demand for mud loggers has surged. At Continental Laboratories Inc., which employs both Miss Klinkenborg and Mr. Perry, the number of mud loggers has increased 140 percent in the past year. And, notes Bud Horrell, vice-president for planning and finance at Continental, "Our business grew 81 percent last year over 1979 in terms of gross revenues. (Continental, like most mud logging firms, is privately owned and doesn't break out its profits.)

It hasn't always been a booming business. Recalls Mr. Horrell, "It was a skinny business for a number of years," especially when oil exploration in this country slowed to a crawl. With oil prices under decontrol, however, that has changed and drilling activity is frenetic.

Mud logging is tough work. Consider the daily routine of Miss Klinkenborg and Mr. Perry. They each work alternate 12 hour shifts, seven days per week, usually six weeks at a time. At this particular location, the Uteland Federal 1 -35, a wildcat well in the Overthrust Belt of Wyoming, Miss Klinkenborg has been on the job for as long as 121 days without a break. (When she did take a break if was for 37 days.) Both of them live in a trailer, with a bunk bed, one shower , and smaller kitchen. The living room of the trailer is filled with sophisticated equipment used to analyze the mud.

According to Miss Klinkenborg, this particular location is better that most since it is only about 10 miles from Evanston, Wyo. "I've been on some locations," says Miss Klinkerborg "where it's not only remote, but there are no televisions or radios. You just have to check out the library in the trailer."

In fact, Mr. Horrell says the company tells prospective loggers, "It's one step beyond camping -- and not Winnebago camping. IT's a tough life, real pioneering."

The pay is also nothing to write home about. Starting pay as a mud logger is minimum wage -- $3.50 per hour. However, the loggers work long hours, notes Mr. Perry, and often average 106 hours per week. By way of comparison, the roughnecks, who work on the rig, get paid $10.60 per hour for an eight-hour day. On the average, says Mr. Horrell, a mud logger right out of school will make $17 ,000 per year, not including insurance and paid vacations. With the extras, they make $21,000 per year. If the company hopes to keep a good logger, it adds an employee stock ownership plan.

The pay is low partially because the mud logging companies get paid on a per day basis. At a typical well Continental charges $500 per day. Out of that fee , however, the company must pay for not only the on-site loggers but also the cost of repairs, equipment rental, supplies, electricians, and drivers.

Because of the inconveniences and the low pay, mud loggers come and go with some rapidity. Mr. Perry and Miss Klinkenborg, with two years of experience, are among Continental's most senior loggers in the Rocky Mountain area. "People want to be loggers," explains Mr. Horrell, "because they need the field experience if they want to work for an oil company."

A mud logger with a degree in geology and successful field experience can then find employment with a major oil company, or go to work as a consulting geologist. If not, says Mr. Horrell, "they will just get burnt out and leave the business altogether."

In the case of Miss Klinkenborg and Mr. Perry they both have different motivations and goals, shaped by their backgrounds. Miss Klinkenborg grew up on a farm in Iowa, moved to montana, and went to Makato State University in Minnesota. She did social work in New York City, and taught in Mexico City and Taiwan, where she learned to speak Mandarin Chinese.

In Montana she taught skiing and did contract labor -- doing 15 jobs in five weeks. She ended up as a mud logger after she met another woman logger on a ski lift and got in touch with the company the other woman worked for. However, without a degree in geology, her future prospects are somewhat clouded. "Do I want to go back to school for two years and get a degree?" she asks herself, answering, "I don't know right not, I just take things day by day."

Mr. Perry, on the other hand, comes from Chicago where he graduated from Monmouth College with a geology degree. He has already become a "consulting geologist" with Continental which assure him of much higher pay than Miss Klinkemborg receives. His future, he says, is in the oil industry.

Not only is the job low paying, but there is uncertainty as to whether anyone actually reads the daily logs filed by the logger. "We work so hard," says Nadeane, "and then I wonder, is anyone ever going to look at this?" In answer to her lament, she quietly adds, "When they catch you with a mistake, that's when you know they're looking at your logs."

The logs that Miss Klinkemborg is referring to are long charts showing the geologic cross sections of the rock formations through which the drill bit moves. Interspersed throughout the logs are notations of the points at which the drill bit encountered natural gas, or oil and porous zones.

After every 10 feet of drilling, the mud logger has to go out to the drilling rig and take a sample of the mud coming up from the bottom of the hole. The mud is then placed in a heavy-duty blender, the type that a restaurant would use, and blended in order to simulate the action of the bit at the bottom of the hole.

Then, using a syringe, the logger takes a sample of the mud and puts it under an ultraviolet light. Oil or gas will show up with a phosphorescence. Under a microscope, the rock can be identified and analyzed.

Often the loggers look for poisionous gases, which means the crew on the rig may have to wear gas masks.

The mud logging is then confirmed by subsequent electronic logging performed by such companies as Schlumberger Ltd. From these logs, company geologists, aided by computers, determine whether to test certain zones for gas, or to plug and abandon the well.

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