Plains Folk

Oilfield Trash


The petroleum industry is transforming the landscape, again, up and down the Great Plains. I say “again” because this is hardly a new thing. On the southern plains, where the Mississippi Lime shale play is heating up, and on the central plains, where the Niobrara shale play is a bit more established now, the processes and vocabulary of a petroleum boom are familiar, and people take them in stride.


It is mainly on the northern plains, where the Bakken play has lit up the press and the heavens, that there is great angst about current levels of petroleum activity. Despite previous experiences in the Williston Basin, people talk as though this were a singular and shocking development.


It is true the levels of activity in some provinces of the plains is unprecedented, but a more fundamental reason for current alarms has to be the lack of historical memory. We have a century of experience with this sort of thing. Quite a bit of this experience is detailed in a good book from Texas A & M University Press—Oilfield Trash: Life and Labor in the Oil Patch, by Bobby D. Weaver.


Here’s what drives me crazy when people start talking about an oil boom—the way they lapse into the phrase, “these people.” The sense is that “these people”—meaning the workers associated with petroleum development—are something other than real people, they are transient, they have no culture, and they are not to be admitted to polite society.


A reading of Weaver’s book proves quite the opposite. There developed, mainly on the southern plains about a century ago, an elaborate culture of petroleum development. This culture was populated with specialized workers possessing expert knowledge and deep craftsmanship, along with a fair bit of personal courage. They were, and are, a ready and resilient culture worthy of respect.


Weaver sketches in the job descriptions of the people who brought in the wells. Rig builders, swinging their rig axes—tools with both a hammer head and cutting blade—were, as Weaver says, “renowned throughout the oil patch as a special breed of worker.” They could throw up an eighty-foot rig in three or four days, or in a pinch, in one day.


Then the drillers, the “lords of the oil patch,” took over. Skilled on the platform, they were equally pugnacious off-duty, leading to brawls between practitioners of old-fashioned cable-tool drilling and operators of those newfangled rotary drilling rigs. A man’s craft, after all, was worth fighting about.


“When a man can’t do nothing else,” the old saying went, “he goes to pipelining.” Pipeline cats had a hard lot. The most feared workers in the oil patch, though, all of them “physically imposing specimens,” according to Weaver, were the tank builders, who spent their muscular days hammering hot rivets into sheet iron.


And the most fearless denizens of the oil patch were the shooters, the guys who filled torpedoes with thirty quarts of nitroglycerine—often on a hot day—dropped them down the hole, and then ran like the dickens in their Witch Elk lace-up boots—because a man has to look stylish when he puts his life on the line.


So, we can talk about the environmental and economic issues associated with petroleum development, because I have my own concerns about these, but let’s nest any such discussion on a platform of respect for the working people who fuel our industries and balance our budgets, a people with a history and a culture. Personally, when I make petitions to the Lord above, I like to include the clause, “God bless our roughnecks.” It would do my heart good to hear that petition uttered by a Lutheran pastor in a Sunday service.

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