We hear the term “sustainability” often these days. What does it mean? Oxford lists these two definitions: “the ability to be maintained at a certain rate or level” and, secondly, “the avoidance of the depletion of natural resources in order to maintain an ecological balance.”

I have seen both definitions at play in the drilling Industry. My good friend Leif Larsson, who retired from Atlas Copco, used “sustainable” to describe a goal in DTH hammer manufacturing. His use of the word means that, as the hammer is utilized, it maintains its original level of proficiency. He made choices regarding hammer design and material specifications with that sustainability in mind.

This type of sustainability is important to the drilling contractor. As the hammer slows through loss of proficiency, profitability suffers. Having a more sustainable hammer translates to better value for money spent. Loss of proficiency can be difficult to see for water well contractors, since they may attribute slower penetration rates to the formation rather than the hammer. Besides, operators may not notice gradual proficiency loss unless specifically looking for it. Larsson offers this rule of thumb: A 10% loss in productivity/penetration rate makes it profitable to replace the hammer. Do you track your hammer performance well enough to notice?

The second definition of sustainability has to do with renewability. In particular, we think of reducing our reliance on fossil fuels. Renewable energy includes things like solar, wind, water, and geothermal. Coupled with this effort is the desire to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Typically, we associate improving sustainability with engine makers and electric generation plants. Transportation and electric generations eat plenty of fossil fuels. As drillers, we mainly use equipment powered with diesel fuel. So how do we do our part to improve sustainability?

Obviously, we can consider fuel efficiency when we purchase a rig or service vehicle. When I thought of reducing my own emissions or fossil fuel use, my thoughts went to HVAC and vehicles. That’s why I drive a Prius and have geothermal HVAC. Do you consider fuel efficiency when buying a rig?

I was in a conversation with Tom Purcell of Mincon about drill pipe when the talk turned to ongoing projects at Mincon, including improving hammer performance in more environments. A hammer that drills faster reduces the use of fossil fuels as we increase the speed of completing the drilling portion of a job. We can reduce the use of fossil fuels and, thereby, emissions by utilizing better tools — even if these tools themselves have no emissions.

I found this concept fascinating. Manufacturers that do not make products that burn fossil fuels or create emissions can participate in increasing sustainability. Hammers and bits are an obvious place to look to improve performance. What about improving your mud mixtures or other drilling fluids? In a previous article, I wrote how companies like Driconeq were producing drill pipe that speeds job completion, reducing fuel use and emissions.

This aspect of sustainability has many naysayers. What if the wind doesn’t blow at night? Like it or not, we all will be dragged along as vehicle manufacturers go electric. This applies not to just personal vehicles, but also big equipment like rock trucks. There have been large electric blasthole drills for decades, but they needed an electric cable. There is also a wide range of electric equipment for underground mining, again requiring an umbilical cord.

Epiroc brags on their zero-emissions fleet of battery-powered equipment for underground mining. The company’s website features this statement: “We are leading the charge toward sustainability in mining through battery-electric, zero-emission equipment.” Other manufacturers offer electrics or have them in development.

Automakers will introduce more EVs (electric vehicles) within the next 5 years, with a few committing to be combustion engine free in the near future. Some countries have committed to end sales of combustion engine cars within the next 5 to 20 years. California will ban these sales in 2035.

It looks like we all will be dragged into an EV future — some kicking and screaming all the way.

Recently, I saw a photo passed around online that showed an EV charging station powered by a diesel engine. An EV owner today may plug in their car at night to charge by electricity generated in a coal-fired plant. When plugging into the grid, the emissions generated to produce the electricity to charge a car’s battery is far less than the emissions from a combustion engine car running the same distance. So yes, it still can produce emissions but not nearly as much. Even a diesel charging station is likely better than running a diesel engine vehicle. Of course, if you charge your battery from solar panels, you are emissions free.

So, we have manufacturers going there. We have governments going there. We have mining going there. We have cost pointing us in that direction. People like companies that go green, so public opinion is also driving us there. I came of age during the muscle car era, and like others of my generation might miss that combustion engine. But Ford is offering an all-electric Mustang Mach E in 2021, with power enough to go zero to 60 in about 3.5 seconds.

In the drilling industry, we have already seen the effect on the coal Industry. I have read that 70% of all oil use in this country goes toward transportation, with about 45% powering personal vehicles. That does not bode well for the U.S. oil industry, as our production costs tend to be higher than other countries. Do we mourn for these industries? During my 15 years with geothermal HVAC, I do not mourn for the 7,500 gallons of heating oil I did not need to buy. It is what it is, and we are heading down that road to sustainability. That is a good thing.

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