In 40-plus years in the drilling business, I’ve certainly see my share of changes in the industry. I can remember taking all winter to drill one well with a 36L Bucyrus, and watching those hole-punchers with their new-fangled rotary rig, rig up down the road. We all thought they’d drill so fast, they’d miss the sand and not make a well! We had a lot to learn, and in order to stay in business, we learned it. It has been the same to this day – new technology, methods and business opportunities come along. In order to stay in business, we have to be aware of them, and be prepared to adapt. Just because grandpa did it a certain way does not mean it’s carved in stone and will work forever.

Right now, the drilling industry is facing some of its greatest challenges ever. Things are changing, and if we’re going to keep up, we need to see the opportunities, and be prepared not just to react, but be able to anticipate them and be prepared.

This year, the most obvious change is the down-turn in the housing market. I know some drillers who have specialized in and become very successful drilling house wells, and who now are watching their rigs rust. Sometimes it reminds me of how the buggy-whip manufacturers must have felt when Henry Ford showed up. What they didn’t realize was that the same plant that made buggy whips could make other things, if they’d adapt to changing times.

There are a lot of things our skills and our rigs can do besides drilling domestic wells. The geo-exchange market is starting to mature, and there some good opportunities there. Over the years, one of the obstacles to geo-exchange drilling has been that the heating and air conditioning for a building often was specified long before a driller got involved. Usually, architects designed the heating and air conditioning systems with little thought to the energy efficiency of the unit. Since the heat pump didn’t really show, and they didn’t have to pay the power bill, they were more likely to design Grecian columns or hot tubs that made them look good, rather than increase the efficiency. Home buyers are becoming more energy-conscious now, and specifying heat pumps upfront in the original design. Once the driller gets his foot in the door, the efficiency makes for an easy sale.

Another hot spot is mineral exploration drilling. Remember: If it can’t be grown, it must be drilled for. The prices of precious metals and basic industrial materials has gone through the roof in the last couple years. This has attracted a lot of new money, looking for the next major ore body. Your rig doesn’t care if it’s drilling for water or gold, as long as it’s drilling.

If any of you have filled up your truck with fuel lately, you’ve probably noticed a small increase in the price of oil. The oilfield is booming, and every rig that can raise a derrick into the air has all the work it wants. You may say, “My rig isn’t big enough to get that deep.” Not necessarily so. In the past, when oil was $15 a barrel, drillers would target the most productive horizons, often passing good oil sands to get there. Now that oil is pushing $140 a barrel, a lot of those shallower, less productive sands are profitable, and they just might be in range of your rig. A lot of the “sky-is-falling” types in Congress will tell you that we can’t drill our way out of an oil shortage. To my way of thinking, this is a lot like telling a starving man he can’t eat his way out of starvation. We may not solve the problem forever, but we certainly can provide the lifeblood of the economy until practical alternatives are on line. Just as with the starving man, if we feed him until a crop comes in, we have solved the problem.

When looking to expand your horizons, and keep turning to the right, you’ve got to consider a few things. First, the right rig for the job. Just as you wouldn’t drill a house well with an oilfield triple rig, you don’t put a 1,000-foot rig on a 3,000-foot job. The right rig for the job yields the best efficiency and safety. Fuel efficiency is a big deal now – and getting bigger every day. I know some drillers who are charging a fuel surcharge on their bills, just like the truckers do, and I think it’s a good idea.

Next, bit selection. Drill bits have come a long way since Howard Hughes perfected the tri-cone bit. Consider bits in terms of cost per foot of hole drilled. There are times when a little less penetration will yield good numbers at the end of the job. Diamond bits, PCD bits and replaceable insert bits all have their place. Chuck Mills builds one of the lowest cost-per-foot bits I‘ve ever run, if it‘s properly stabilized, but a lot of drillers won‘t try it because grandpa didn‘t use one. I guess they just keep making buggy whips.

Another item on the horizon is good solids control. A better hole, a cleaner location, faster moves and less pump wear all add up to better efficiency, and that adds up to money. Drillers and customers both are starting to see the advantage of not digging a strip-mine in the customer’s yard.

I think we have a unique opportunity right now. With the oil prices like they are, the public is becoming more and more aware of the service drillers provide. There even is a very popular TV show about drilling on right now. We need to take advantage of our time in the limelight to educate the public. They are receptive, and can see the advantages better than ever before. If we work to build public trust and appreciation of our services, we can be assured of work for years to come. If not, we might as well go back to making buggy whips.