Oil Spills and Mudlogging

In 1974, during a high school summer vacation, my parents took me on a cross-country drive from D.C. area to California. I fell in love with driving the car and scenery, especially when we visited Grand Tetons -Yellowstone National Parks. I got an early interest in geology by reading Geology of the National Park System. But my joy turned to sorrow when we visited Santa Barbara, California by finding the beaches were still covered by the black tar oil spill that occurred five years earlier.

Here are some specifics on the Pacific Ocean oil spill:

  • A blowout on a Union Oil Co. well happened on Jan. 28, 1969.

  • The well was under under Platform A, roughly 5 1/12 miles off the coast.

  • An estimated 3.3 million gallons of oil spilled.

  • The well was capped on Feb. 7, but oil continued to vent from cracks in the sea floor for months.

  • On Jan. 31, the oil slick was reported to be 30 square miles.

  • Oil was spotted onshore from Pismo Beach to the U.S.-Mexico border.

This event contributed to public outrage that resulted in the EPA begin created in 1970 and several new laws including the National Environmental Policy Act, Coastal Zone Management Act, Clean Water Act, Marine Mammal Protection Act and Endangered Species Act, all within a three year period.

My interest in college focused on environmental science issues but there were few prospects for jobs. After graduating with a geology bachelor’s degree in 1980, I found a job from a newspaper advertisement in Denver to work for an oil service company as a “mud logger.” The first day on the job we meet at the office at 8 am and spent the day gathering supplies. It was January, got dark early, and we didn’t leave town until late in the afternoon. I recall driving on Interstate 70 West, up past Eisenhower tunnel, and then heading north to the oil drilling rig site. We arrived around midnight and my “mud logging boss” said I must collect samples in bags off the shaker every 30 minutes and he would show me the next day what to do. He went to bed and I kept working along with the drilling crew that kept going 24/7. So my first day on the job I worked 24 hours straight. But I also learned that first night to drink lots of coffee to stay warm causing me to became wired. I learned the drilling site was an exploratory well to see if economical oil or gas existed by drilling over one mile deep at a cost of over $1 million.

We examined the samples making a descriptive log and checking for natural gas under an ultraviolet light. The primary environmental impacts included road construction and drilling pads, drilling solutions added in the well, diesel exhaust, noise, salt water disposal wells and mud pit wastes, This job lasted about two weeks and then we moved on to the next site. I worked in several Rocky Mountain states, eventually becoming the boss so I could work daytime and sleep nights. Working in the Rangely Basin in northwestern Colorado, I learned that the well field became highly fractured so many new wells would be needed to recovery oil. I also heard stories that earthquakes were caused by oil companies injecting water which USGS confirmed that close to 1000 minor earthquakes occurred in the 1960’s.

I worked “mud logging” for seven months before returning to graduate school at the University of Wyoming and knew that I wanted a career involving water quality more than working in the oil fields.

A great book to read about the many hazards of the oil and gas industry is by Steve Coll, Private Empire: Exxon-Mobil and American Power published in 2013.

I will write more about my direct and indirect experiences in coming blog posts.