Drilled Hard: For Thousands of Jobless Texans, Cheap Oil Comes With a Hefty Price

Drilled Hard: For Thousands of Jobless Texans, Cheap Oil Comes With a Hefty Price
Photos by Dylan Hollingsworth

T.J. Arterberry sits on his front porch and watches his two-year-old son, Trey. The boy had been searching for dead fish that washed up in the yard after rain flooded the creek near the house, and now he’s thirsty and trying to take a bottle of wine out of an ice-filled, beat-up plastic bucket.

“Not for you, bubba,” Arterberry says, taking the bottle away before he returns to his phone, checking again for missed calls.

It’s early May, and he’s been expecting a call from his boss at Energy Drilling Co., where he works as a directional driller. He finished a couple of jobs in Midland late last year, then headed to a rig just outside of —Laredo, where he spent the previous three months drilling multiple horizontal wells from one pad site. He finished the last well a few weeks ago, and he’s not sure if he still has a job.

He’s afraid to call to find out. A few months ago, EDC laid off a third of its workforce, just a fraction of the 30,000 jobs lost in Texas in March and April. Since he’s been home, he’s been talking to friends who had been recently laid off from oil and gas fields across the globe, from the Marcellus Shale in Pennsylvania to the jungles in Nigeria. His buddy and former relief driller, Michael “Big Nasty” Morse, lost his job as a driller overseas. He’d been earning about $24,000 a month. Now he’s cutting trees in Louisiana, making less than $2,000 a month.

The feast is over, and famine has returned to the oil patch in its endlessly repeated cycle. An oil-field worker rolling in $15,000 one month is out of a job the next. It’s fast money, but there’s nothing romantic about it. The boom-and-bust creates a constant struggle for families. The oil-field worker is always getting reacquainted with his loved ones, and he’s always a heartbeat away from disaster, if not from a layoff, then often something worse.

“There’s a lot of blood, sweat and tears that go into every barrel of crude pumped out of the ground,” Arterberry says, “and that’s something that everyone needs to realize filling up their vehicles. Not everyone can live with low prices at the pump. That extra 50 cents you may spend more per gallon could mean thousands of middle-class Americans working and providing for their families.”

He’s 30 but looks like he’s still in his early twenties. Stocky like an offensive tackle, he’s gained a little weight since he’s been off work. A ball cap covers his short dark hair, and he sports a few days’ growth on his chin. He’d been enjoying catching up on rest and spending time with the family, but he seems anxious as he scans the gyrating oil prices on his phone. He’s not used to being home this long. He normally spends nine months out of the year working with a ten- to 16-man rig crew. “The lifestyle, it becomes part of who you are,” he says. “I feel homeless now.”

Arterberry’s wife, Robyn, also is having a hard time adjusting to him being home all the time. “I have a saying, ‘They’re gone long enough to want them home, but home enough to want them gone,’” she says. She has a schedule for the kids to follow: Rise early, finish chores, play a few hours and back to bed at 8 p.m. “I’m very OCD about my routine,” she says. “So when he comes home, it all gets screwed up. It pisses me off. But I try really hard not to be a complete control freak, because I know that everybody misses each other.”

Once an aspiring model, Robyn works at a hair salon in Granbury. Her platinum blond hair is shaved on one side with a shooting-star design. Tattoos decorate her pale skin. She’s dirty from an afternoon spent clearing a flower bed, getting it ready for when the rain finally stops.

“I was so glad when he went directional driller,” Robyn says. “Our washing machine doesn’t smell anymore. It used to smell like gasoline. We all smelled like oil-field trash.”

Arterberry doesn’t get nearly as dirty working as a directional driller. He no longer wrestles the pipe but guides it. He’s earning about $150,000 a year, but the job is still dangerous. Since he started working in the oil patch in late 2006, he’s been hit in the face with a chain and crushed his hand twice, losing the fingertips on his right hand from the weight of the drill pipe. “I don’t want to compare it to being a military wife, because he’s not getting shot,” Robyn says. “But he is working over a bomb. I mean, basically a giant bomb. He’s drilling into darkness, and he doesn’t know what is down there. If they hit a gas pocket and it ignites, everybody on the rig is dead.”

Arterberry tries not to think about the danger, but it’s always in the back of his mind as the drill moves closer to the gas zone.

The last time he was out on the rig, in early April, all he could think about was the impending layoff. Some of the other rig workers were even trying to sell their toys to him. “I’m in the same boat you are,” he told them. “I don’t got a job after this one is finished either.” He had saved enough money to last about a year, and he says he can draw unemployment for a short time. But he still needed to find something else that paid enough to make up for the money he would be losing if he wasn’t able to return to work.

Arterberry had been laid off before, in 2009. Then, he started a lawn service and managed to pay some of the bills with the help of his wife’s income from cutting hair. But they didn’t have much money to save in case of an emergency such as a car breaking down or a child getting sick.

Arterberry lights another cigarette, pours a cup of wine and checks the oil prices again. He’s been watching them since they started falling in late 2014 from $115 a barrel to $40 a barrel in early January. He knew that each well they drilled on the pad outside of Laredo may be their last. Too much oil had been produced and stockpiled. When OPEC decided not to cut oil production in November, it pulled the plug on the current shale boom, and hundreds of rigs in places like Midland and Laredo, all the way north into Pennsylvania.

“Everybody is saying a year, but nobody knows,” he says. “It’s day by day. Just have to watch the oil prices and see what they’re doing.”

T.J. Arterberry wonders if he’ll be drilling another well after he finishes the job in Fort Worth.
T.J. Arterberry wonders if he’ll be drilling another well after he finishes the job in Fort Worth.

Arterberry’s time away from the oil and gas fields in 2009 was short-lived. A wave of rigs had set up shop in the Marcellus Shale in northeastern Pennsylvania, and Arterberry’s company, Patterson-UTI Energy, operated more than 30 of them in an area once home to the lumber industry until the Great Recession. Small and medium-size sawmills closed, and larger lumber companies slashed their workforces by almost half. Communities like Tunkhannock gladly welcomed Texas’s gas-drilling rigs and their promise of economic relief.

Arterberry had followed the rigs since Mitchell Energy perfected the combination of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing in North Texas’s Barnett Shale in 2005. The new technique opened up previously unreachable pockets of gas and oil trapped in shale. It also lessened the surface impact of well pad sites to extract it because one rig could drill multiple wells, producing more oil and gas than ever before.

Oil and gas companies began buying up thousands of acres of mineral rights. Foreign investors from Holland, India and China spent billions for the rights to drill in Arkansas, Texas, Oklahoma and Louisiana.

By the time Arterberry joined the Great Shale Rush in late 2006, the boom had expanded from the Barnett Shale into the Eagle Ford Shale in South Texas. Nearly 14,990 shale gas wells had been drilled since the boom began, and drillers expected about 4,200 more by 2010.

The gas boom created an additional 600,000 jobs that paid more than $12,000 above the national average in 2011, according to a report by the American Petroleum Institute.

A family member got Arterberry a job on a drilling rig working as a roughneck for Patterson-UTI in the Eagle Ford Shale. Arterberry had been a printer at the Hood County News and a salesclerk at Staples in Granbury, earning about $1,500 a month. He was a high school graduate with a felony conviction for several charges, including driving while intoxicated. Robyn told him she “couldn’t be with a man who continued to fuck up.” So he asked her stepfather, Tom Larkin, if he could get him a job in the oil field, where a man’s criminal or educational history didn’t matter as much as a willingness to work hard.

In northeastern Pennsylvania, Arterberry was a night relief driller. He’d often cover for his daylight relief driller, a giant of a man whom everyone called “Big Nasty,” because he’d often showed up to work still hungover from the previous night of drinking at the bar in town. In the oil patch, you always watched out for your brothers, Arterberry says, and he was just glad to be working in the field again. His layoff came when oil prices fell below $60 a barrel, and he received the news a day after he married Robyn. He spent the next six months mowing lawns around Granbury until his phone rang with a job offer to work as a derrickhand up north in the Marcellus Shale.

Communities in the Marcellus Shale region were just beginning to show the effects of the boom when Arterberry arrived in late 2009. The small, picturesque towns in northeastern Pennsylvania were about to be transformed by the 9,848 shale gas wells scheduled for production by 2012.

Arterberry says the Marcellus isn’t as hard to drill as some of the Texas formations, but the cold weather was harsh on the Texas transplants. Temperatures often fell into the low teens in the middle of the night, making shifts miserable for roughnecks working the rig floor. Arterberry worked for three years 90 feet above the rig floor, guiding the drill pipe, before he was promoted to driller.

In his new job, Arterberry sat in a captain’s chair inside what looked like a spaceship’s cockpit, guiding the drill with a joystick. His post on the Patterson 251 “walking rig” was high above the rig floor, and he could see the roughnecks hovering around boilers to keep warm. He didn’t blame them. He still wasn’t used to wading through chest-high snowdrifts just to reach the job outside of Tunkhannock, a borough of about 1,800 people just north of the Susquehanna River.

The new rig was known as a “walking rig” because it didn’t need to be dismantled to move to the next hole. It hydraulically lifted up on its “four legs” and slid forward to drill the next hole as if it were walking. He thought it looked like a Transformer the first time he watched it move. He was like a schoolboy watching a new toy.

The rig operated 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Two teams of five or six people worked 12-hour day and night shifts to drill about 10,000 feet, then the directional driller took over and drilled the “bend,” the curve the well takes to reach the horizontal portion of a gas or oil pocket. Drilling a well took between 21 and 24 days.

Arterberry quickly became friends with Big Nasty, who had earned the nickname because he somehow attracted more dirt, grease and grime than anyone else on the rig. “I wasn’t the best relief driller in the world at the time,” says Big Nasty, who now trims trees for a living in Bossier City, Louisiana.

Over the course of the next year, Arterberry spent all night drilling and slept all day. As soon as Big Nasty relieved him, he’d call his wife and assure her that he was okay. Sometimes he’d tell her about problems on the rig, a flare-up or hitting a gas pocket. “Well, what happens if it blows up?” she would ask. And he would tell her that if gas started traveling up the pipe, an alarm would sound, giving everyone “about 20 seconds to get the hell off the rig.”

If he didn’t call or text, Robyn would spend all day checking the Internet and watching the news, searching for some sign of danger on the rig. “I’ve heard all the horror stories,” she says.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics says 663 workers were killed nationwide in oil-field-related industries between 2007 and 2012, and 40 percent of those incidents occurred in Texas. The Houston Chronicle reported that in Texas, 253 oil-field workers reported to insurance carriers they had lost limbs, were crushed or suffered burns, while 675 others claimed that they had broken bones in oil-field-related accidents.

Whenever the rig stacked to move to the next location, Arterberry would head to the local bar with Big Nasty. His large friend liked to have fun, and he’d often buy drinks for everyone at the bar while wooing the local girls with his Texas accent. At 6-foot-4 and stocky, the 33-year-old was an imposing figure, but he treated strangers as if he’d known them for years.

Arterberry didn’t spend his money as freely nor make friends as easily as Big Nasty. He spent most of his time fighting with locals. “Go to the bar and walk out fighting,” he says. “People didn’t like us up there. They thought we took their jobs, is what they were saying. But nobody up there knew how to work on a drilling rig.”

As the gas boom began to slow down to a steady rhythm, Arterberry decided he wanted to keep his job more than winning a fight. He’d learned from veterans like James “Speedy” Burgess, and he impressed his directional driller, Jeremy Pearcy, who worked as a third-party contractor for Energy Drilling Co. “When you look at a driller,” Pearcy explains, “they manage the hands well, they’ve got understanding of how a rig operates and address problems on the fly and understand down the hole. That’s one of the most important things. T.J. knew what was going on down the hole. He knew how to operate it.”

Pearcy offered Arterberry a job working as a directional driller on rigs in Midland, where the gas boom had drawn an additional 40,000 oil-field workers. The offer came at the right time for Arterberry, who was angered by how Patterson-UTI had handled his mentor Burgess, who was paralyzed when an unsecured rig light dropped 90 feet from the derrick above and struck him in the back of the neck. “I’ll be fine,” Burgess later recalls saying, but when he tried to rise, his body wouldn’t respond. His neck was broken.

Arterberry says company executives wanted no one to discuss Burgess’s injury publicly. Then they transferred him to a hospital in Houston.

“Patterson was real hush-hush about it,” Arterberry says. “If you talked to anybody, you’d get fired. ‘Don’t spread rumors,’ they warned. ‘Don’t do this.’ Hell, you’re supposed to be your brother’s keeper. Patterson tells you that in one of their pamphlets. Well, if we’re a family out here, you take care of your family. You don’t just ship them off to Houston and forget about them.”

So he said good-bye to Big Nasty at an airport in Pittsburgh in late 2013, gave Patterson the middle finger and headed back to Midland to begin work as a directional driller.

James “Speedy” Burgess has been living in a hospital in Tyler, battling pneumonia for six months. His wife stays with him every day.
James “Speedy” Burgess has been living in a hospital in Tyler, battling pneumonia for six months. His wife stays with him every day.

Arterberry stood behind a blue box on the rig floor, steering the drill horizontally as it approached its targeted gas zone about 7,000 to 9,000 feet below the rig in the Permian Basin. He was back working on an old brake handle rig just outside of Midland in November 2013. Instead of using a joystick to steer the pipe, he used pressure gauges, handles and mathematical calculations to drill the well horizontally.

Mitchell Energy’s technique of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing had provided more than $62 billion in additional federal, state and local tax receipts in 2012 and was projected to provide more than $111 billion by 2020, according to estimates by the petroleum industry. Midland was the epicenter of the Great Shale Rush.

Thousands of workers from across Texas, Oklahoma and as far away as Alabama had moved to the Midland area. Monthly rents for small two-bedroom frame houses jumped from $600 to $1,500. Landowners who once farmed or raised cattle began opening “man camps” and charging oil-field workers hundreds of dollars a month to park their RVs in fields outside of town. Rumors of oil wranglers striking wells that produced 1,200 barrels a day, a $10 million payout, had circulated far and wide, and the unemployed had come running. There were even plans to build the “Energy Tower,” a 58-story skyscraper intended to symbolize the horizontal drilling boom, in downtown Midland.

This boom was unlike anything that had struck the area before. High pay in the oil fields meant businesses had to raise their hourly wages just to compete. Retailers like Albertsons, Dillard’s and Walmart offered starting wages of $13, $14 and $16 an hour.

Arterberry avoided going into Midland during his off time. He lived in a small mobile home on the rig location, and after he finished his shift, he showered, grabbed a bite to eat and called Robyn and the kids. He was earning approximately $15,000 a month as a directional driller compared with $6,000 a month as a driller for Patterson. And his pay would continue to increase as he gained more experience.

But instead of spending his money on boats and monster trucks like other rig hands earning top dollar, Arterberry started saving his money and investing it. He’d bought his father-in-law’s house outside of Granbury, paid for Robyn to go to beauty school and helped his father, John, buy two semi-trucks with trailers to haul sand used at hydraulic fracturing sites across Texas. His father told him that they would earn approximately $30,000 per month, and for a time they did even better.

Arterberry picked up on directional drilling quickly. It wasn’t a physically demanding job like working as a floor hand, but it was mentally taxing and repetitive. He mainly had to watch for formations caving in around the drill as it neared its targeted gas zone. If dirt packed in around the well, then pressure could build and cause a blowout. Or, his biggest fear, the drill pipe could get stuck, costing millions of dollars in equipment loss.

He worked 14 days on and 14 days off. During his off time, he ate dinner with his family, spent time with his wife doing odd jobs around the house and drank beer occasionally. “We live comfortably with our necessities,” Robyn says. “But we have a philosophy — if we can’t pay for it with cash, it’s not worth having.”

Arterberry had gone to visit Speedy Burgess in Houston when he returned to Texas in late 2013. Strapped to machines that helped him breathe, Burgess looked swollen. His hands and feet were puffy and fixed, almost unnatural. He could move his mouth as if he were talking, but the sound was more of a gurgle than actual words. “I felt awful seeing him like that,” he says.

He was so moved by seeing his former boss struggling to stay alive that he collected money from other rig hands and sent it to Burgess’s wife, but he never returned to visit him.

In some ways, Speedy served as a reminder of a possible future that awaited every drilling hand who sets foot on the drilling rig. Arterberry had heard tales of rig hands falling to their deaths from the derrick 90 feet above the rig floor because they had forgotten to secure their safety harnesses. He’d done it himself on a few occasions. Forgetting the danger is easy when you’re rushing to finish a job.

“There’s a certain pride to it,” Arterberry says. “Not everybody can do it. It’s not a job for the timid.”

Robyn Arterberry worries about the kind of work her husband does, but is ready for him to go back.
Robyn Arterberry worries about the kind of work her husband does, but is ready for him to go back.

By this January, Arterberry had moved on from Midland and was drilling wells just outside of Laredo when he heard the oil bust had finally hit West Texas. Friends who had lost their jobs were looking for work as oil prices dropped by more than 50 percent since June 2014, but drilling jobs in Midland had dried up. Oil-field workers who had flooded the area had left to find work elsewhere. Mobile homes that once housed them now sat empty in fields on the edge of town with for-sale signs advertising “Low Prices” swaying in the wind. Damaged roadways were the only reminders of the oil-field traffic that once congested highways for miles around.

Local companies like Sierra Valve & Equipment that provided products to the oil and gas industry tried to remain optimistic. This wasn’t Midland’s first bust or last boom. Someday the jobs will come back, says Gary Stephens, an outside salesperson for Sierra. “It’s not a matter of if the oil boom returns, but when.”

For now, Arterberry is one of the lucky ones. He was out of work for two months after we first spoke to him in May before getting a call. There was one more well to drill, this one in Fort Worth, but he’s not sure if there will be another once he finishes. He says that all depends on oil prices. They’ve risen from $40 a barrel in January to $60 a barrel just a few weeks ago. Arterberry has an app on his phone sending daily alerts. He’s tried to think of other things besides the layoff looming on the horizon, but that’s nearly impossible with phone calls from friends who are all hoping that there will be one more hole for them to drill, too. Big Nasty still hasn’t found a drilling job. He’s living with his parents, eating Spam and struggling to make his truck payments.

If he does get laid off after the Fort Worth job is finished, Arterberry isn’t sure what he’ll do. His dad’s business was crushed before it took off when oil prices plummeted. His dad sold one of the semi-trucks. Now he was driving the other one over-the-road for a fraction of what he’d been earning hauling frack sand in the oil patch. He could start up his lawn service again, but he’s not sure if he wants to spend his days riding a lawn mower. He’d earn only a small part of what he’d been earning in the oil field.

Arterberry recalls the mood on the rig in Laredo before the layoff. Not many of his coworkers had prepared for a bust, and everyone was worried, and not just about money. They were saying good-bye to friendships forged from spending nine months out of the year on a rig together.

“You become family out there,” Arterberry says. “You spend more time with those guys out there than you do your own family. They become your bros.

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