A typical drilling job or project starts with a contract and job location where the landowner requires a hole to be drilled for water, geothermal, natural resources or construction purposes. These industrial drilling jobs are relatively straightforward, providing drilling services for a customer on their land or land to which they have the mineral rights. However, industrial drilling for cathodic protection wells removes the typical and straightforward from all installation sites.

Cathodic protection wells are installed in a wide range of jobsites, from industrial complexes to rural rights of way to suburban neighborhoods. Each jobsite has project-specific rules, oversight, and limitations that require drillers to become surgical at drilling and installing cathodic wells. Surgical drilling is the approach of utilizing the best drilling method for the geological conditions with precision and efficiency, with minimal impact and disruption to the jobsite and surrounding area. When a surgical drill job is executed accurately, no one can tell that drilling took place. To be surgical requires the planning of the drilling process, site-specific safety, location-specific rules and consideration of environmental concerns.

The Impact of the Drilling Process

The first step to surgical drilling is to understand the result of the project’s drilling process. Consider a 10-inch hole drilled to 400 feet. That hole contains over 8 cubic yards of material before considering drilling fluid influence or hole erosion. The drilling process and geologic formations will determine what condition the borehole material is in when it is brought to the surface. If the project is in southwest Texas on a rancher’s property and the drilling method is air rotary, there is a good chance the solids will be semi-dry and quickly contained. However, if the project is in southeast Michigan in a suburban neighborhood with a high water table, the drilling method is mud rotary, requiring a containment plan that prevents drilling fluid and wet solids from entering nearby homeowners’ yards.

The choice of the correct drilling method for the location must consider the impact to the jobsite and possible disruption to the surrounding area. Regardless of the project location, whether it is populated with homes or cattle, proper solids containment starts before the job with a plan that incorporates drilling method, containment, disposal and restoration. 


The second step to surgical drilling is a good safety program. It starts with standard personal protective equipment (PPE) required for all industrial drilling, and adds fire resistant clothing in case there is an incident with a subsurface utility or flammable gas is encountered in the drilling process. Air quality monitors should be a standard in all drilling projects, but are especially necessary for developed industrial complexes and aging oil fields, which can have man-made and naturally occurring gases trapped in the ground. A surgical drill team will have multiple air quality monitors ready to alert the driller and helpers to hazards. Finally, projects will require job safety analysis and risk assessments for every process from start to finish. You cannot be surgical if you are not safe.

The Rules

The third step is to study, know and follow all project-specific rules. These rules can come from multiple sources: the pipeline company, engineers, environmental agencies, local government and even a property owner. The goal of all these rules is to maintain the original image of the jobsite with minimal disruption.

The pipeline company and engineers typically have scope-of-work rules that are aligned with creating a new or replacement well that can provide maximum protection.

Environmental agencies develop laws that protect groundwater with proper grouting procedures. Next, these agencies require a toxicity report for all drill cuttings and fluids before disposal. Lastly, they will require appropriate erosion control to protect sensitive environments.

Now the local government is where the rules start becoming less standard. Depending on project location, drilling and construction on new rights of way can be viewed as a positive or negative. When a pipeline project is positively received, it is essential to maintain that positivity by respecting all the local traffic laws and operating ordinances. If the project is negatively received, being surgical is more critical than ever. That includes moving equipment on and off location with little impact to the surrounding area, utilizing noise mitigation, mobilizing equipment that is not overweight and following specified hours of operation. 

Finally, knowing and memorizing the concrete rules of the property owner for the right of way is imperative. Remember that the goal is to minimize disruption, and the property owner is your number one customer that you should never meet. These rules start out simple like, “Remove all garbage from the jobsite and work only on the right of way.” But they can quickly get more complex: “Don’t mess with the bull; he can get real mean. Don’t forget to shut the gate and stay out of the hay.” OK, those rules are from a Tim McGraw song, but I have seen similar provisions in a contract. Property owner rules come with stiff fines for any employee that fails to comply. The utility company and property owner negotiate these rules and fees. One contract I heard of listed a cost of $500 for the first gate left open on a cattle ranch, and the charge doubled for every additional gate left open. Another contract listed the price for hitting a cow at $35,000 and a deer at $50,000. The rules and fees are set in place as a peace of mind for the owner, so the surgical driller’s goal is to never meet the landowner.

A surgical drill company operates with the idea that oversight is watching every step from start to finish, and upholds the highest level of integrity.

Environmental Concerns

The fourth and final step to surgical drilling is evaluating all environmental concerns for a project. It starts by determining if the project is located on wetland or environmentally sensitive areas. Next, it is essential to learn about any possible ground contamination before drilling. Often, cathodic holes are installed at refineries and aging oil fields that are known to be contaminated. If the project takes place on a contaminated site, proper disposal of drill solids and fluid can either be the location’s responsibility or the drilling company’s. Disposal cost can easily double the price of a job when hiring a third party to dispose of the solids by vacuum truck or roll-off container.

Next, a surgical drilling company will plan for situations where their equipment could impact the environment. Rigs and excavation equipment require fuel and fluids to operate, and a good plan will consider emergency containment for spills or a line rupture. Minimizing disruption means planning for unknown equipment failures that could lead to soil or groundwater contamination by having an emergency spill kit on site. 

Surgical drilling is about planning, preparing and fully understanding all aspects of the jobsite. Understanding the impact of the drilling process is easy: A driller can study drilling methods, fluids, solids control and disposal to create a borehole with minimal impact. The more laborious process is incorporating new safety standards, site-specific rules and environmental concerns. Surgical drilling encompasses all aspects and executes with precision, maintaining a jobsite image that appears as if a rig and crew were never there.