In my almost 30-year career as a geotechnical driller, I have seen a few “new big things” generate a lot of work. For some of those things, work peaked and leveled off quickly. Other types of jobs led to years of sustained earnings for both drilling and engineering companies. But nothing delivers sustained long-term work like large horizontal infrastructure projects.
A new pipeline contract can keep multiple offices or companies busy throughout numerous states. An interstate rebuild can provide years of work in one metropolitan area. Most interstates were built in the 1950s or ’60s. When is the last time they underwent a full rebuild, not just surface repairs? The American Society of Civil Engineers in 2017 gave the country’s infrastructure a D+ overall.
As we drive to work and around our towns, cities and country, we need to ask ourselves a couple of questions. What is the condition of the road we are traveling on? That bridge we just crossed is in good repair. Has it been inspected recently? If so, what grade was it given? Has that pipeline that runs across the field we just worked in outlived its design life? During the last heatwave or cold snap, did our utilities struggle to provide service?
The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) estimates infrastructure in the U.S. is in need of $4.5 trillion in investment by 2025. In recent years, there have been a few high-profile infrastructure failures. In California, the Oroville Dam spillway failed in 2017, causing mass evacuations. In 2007, the Interstate 35 Mississippi River bridge collapse injured 145 people and killed 13. Infrastructure repair seems to be a buzzword around Washington, D.C., and state capitals. Politicians from both parties say something should be done, but little funding has materialized.
Imagine all the work generated by really prioritizing the repair of our roads, bridges, airports, electrical grid, wastewater systems, drinking water systems, schools and rail lines all at the same time. The work generated would last for decades, and create economic stimulus by providing good paying jobs for men and women capable and willing to do the work.
Normally, this is a drilling safety column, but something happened the other day that brought this topic to the forefront of my mind. The president business manager of the organization I work for was talking to someone with knowledge of a deficient bridge in our area. This person told him off the record that this bridge was one of the worst in our state and should be closed. The man went on to say there was tremendous pressure to keep the bridge open because there were no funds available to do repair work, let alone replacement. Since our organization is in the construction industry, and we have our members and their families crossing this bridge in a major metropolitan area every day, my organization requested the most recent inspection of the bridge through the Freedom of Information Act.
The state Department of Transportation sent us the report heavily redacted, with much of the important information and pictures blacked out. The report was so heavily redacted because “it would be a threat if people knew how bad it was.” This begs the question of what they were trying to hide. How bad could it really be?
We have one of our signatory contractors on a jobsite parallel and adjacent to the eastbound section of the bridge. We asked if we could use their jobsite to take photos of the bridge ourselves. What came back was beyond troubling. Each picture showed spalled and cracked concrete. We saw bent beams, rusted connections, bearing supports sitting on cracked columns, and safety rails anchored into broken concrete. All of this is on a major interstate that sees countless cars and trucks a day. This is a safety article — the safety of my family and your family, your company and your competitors, and every man and woman and child who moves around this country of ours. Must we wait for another catastrophe, another failure, before action is taken? We must get our leaders to act now!
How are we to do this? We’re in the age of social media and cell phones. In my state, an organization has started a “look up” campaign. When people see infrastructure in disrepair, they are encouraged to take a picture and post it to social media with the hashtag #lookup. This approach can work anywhere in the country. My state is ranked fifth in the country for infrastructure in disrepair. That means that there are four other states with worse infrastructure problems. This approach could save lives, as well as generate decades of sustainable jobs for the drilling and construction industries.
This — paired with lobbying already being done to promote green energy, clean drinking water, smart electrical grids and mass transit improvements -— could lead to a renaissance for the drilling industry. In New York City, all city-owned buildings will be 100-percent clean energy (geothermal, wind or solar) heated and cooled by 2050. What if other cities and towns followed suit? Drilling work can’t be outsourced from the U.S. People still need clean drinking water, and all of these structures must be supported by soil or rock.
It may not be a giant asteroid like in the movie “Armageddon,” but by banding together with our families to demand something be done, drillers could save the day.