The petroleum industry is the subject of frequent controversy in America. On the left, fossil fuels are falling increasingly out of favor because of their environmental impact; on the right, the industry is urged to increase production, especially offshore, in order to reduce the nation’s dependency on foreign oil. These pressures—along with volatile oil prices, unexpected booms (and busts) in states such as North Dakota, and public tragedies like the Deepwater Horizon explosion—help explain why the industry has shed 100,000 jobs in the last two years.
Julie Cruse works for Scientific Drilling International, a company that specializes in surveying and designing oil wells, in Casper, Wyoming. In her role as a technical-services coordinator, Cruse helps drilling companies design their oil wells. For The Atlantic’s ongoing series of interviews with American workers, I spoke with Cruse about her perspective on the industry, including how it has changed in the 16 years since she started and what it’s like being a female employee in a male-dominated field. The interview that follows has been edited for length and clarity.
Jeremy Venook: How did you get into this line of work?
Julie Cruse: I have a degree in petroleum engineering; I took a drilling class and found that I really loved the drilling part of it. It was by chance. Growing up in Alaska, petroleum was a big part of our community. My father and my grandfather were both involved in the petroleum industry. Looking into different types of engineering, I was interested in petroleum engineering because it included geology, rock mechanics, a lot of math, and also incorporated a bunch of the different sciences. You get to use hydraulics. There was so much involved in it, the multiple disciplines that were incorporated. I love the challenge of it, that every well we drill is different. It’s fun to see the changes that we make, even from well to well. You can see changes in growth and increases in knowledge.
Venook: How long have you been working for Scientific Drilling International, and how has it changed since you started?
Cruse: Next month, it will be 12 years. When I first started in the oil field, I started working offshore in the drilling rigs in the Gulf of Mexico. It was very different to move from there to the land work, because offshore, you were on the rig. You wouldn't leave the rig until your job was completed. I’ve been full-time in the industry for 16 years, the safety culture has changed hugely; there's more of a focus on safety. Before, it was much more laid-back.
A lot of technology changes, too, with bits, with motors, the equipment that we use, how they drill the wells. It wasn’t long ago, even on land, that most of the wells were just vertical wells. They had larger targets. You weren’t as concerned with anti-collision, or watching the wells around you. That’s a big part of it now, is making sure that we are not getting too close to any existing wells or future planned wells. There’s new formations [of petroleum] that they’re drilling through that they found just by chance. Some of them they’ve even drilled through in previous wells, and we go back into those wells and drill into a formation that they didn't realize was productive.
Completion technology has changed the way they can perforate the wells. That’s had a huge effect on how we drill them, because we can drill longer, horizontal wells where your average horizontal well now is 10,000 feet down and 10,000 feet out. It’s a balance between your oil prices and your rig rental rate. Right now, we're seeing independent companies that are drilling one or two wells.
Venook: The oil industry is only 19 percent female. What’s your experience been working in such a male-dominated field?
Cruse: It is very much a male-dominated field. The majority of the field personnel, who work on the drilling rigs, are male. I found more females when I was working offshore, and I think part of that had to do with, they were working at larger operations. You see more and more females in it, but not as much out in the field on the rigs themselves. At the bigger drill ships, you would see more females.
You don’t see women a whole lot. It's still that way. Some of that was just due to housing capabilities. You have to work harder to get to the same level in some senses. There have been times when I first started that I would pull in one of the other guys, from the shop or elsewhere, and I would let them talk on the phone [with male workers]. I just told him what to say, because the guy didn’t want to listen to a female.
It’s been tough to go through, but one thing I feel makes you much stronger in any type of a management role and the oil field is putting in some time on the rig and understanding what it’s like to be away from home, away from your family. It operates every day, all day. There are times that you get a call in the middle of the night, or you’re in the middle of dinner—the phone rings and you need to answer it and make sure that they get taken care of because the rig might be shut down waiting for you to get them answers and what they need.
That’s something that’s hard to understand for a lot of people, that even though we are in an office role, we’re on call all the time because those rigs do run all day everyday. There’s a lot of it that's dependent [on us]. Our field personnel keep us going; they're the ones that are out there day-to-day dealing with it in person.
Venook: How is the day-to-day experience of working on a land rig different from working on an offshore rig?
Cruse: If you're looking at it from a field perspective, it’s much higher-end just by the nature of it when you’re drilling offshore. The costs are higher, too. Everything is remote operations when you get into the deep-water stuff. You’re transported out there either by boat or helicopter. The logistics are much more complicated in that you have to plan for getting your equipment out there in time. A lot of the deep-water stuff, that’s higher-dollar work. I think that’s where some of the drop-off happened [when oil prices tanked], a lot quicker than the land stuff, just due to the economics of it. You see some of that on the more remote operations on land, depending on weather and road conditions. You see the same thing when you're looking at 10 to 14 hours of transportation time from the shop to the rig location.
Venook: How have major public tragedies, such as the Deepwater Horizon spill, affected the industry?
Cruse: That was an incredibly horrible event. By its nature, when you're drilling for oil and gas, there are risks associated with it. Being on the drilling rigs is a dangerous job. All steps are taken to mitigate the risks associated, but you still have risks.
We were what they called “zero discharge” when we were working offshore. Nothing went overboard. Even the mud and the cuttings [the broken pieces of solid material that get pulled up from the hole], they tested everything before it went. We had grinders that ground up any food that was disposed of to a certain size to ensure safety.
As far as environmental concerns, I feel like the industry gets hit hard. I know from a personal standpoint, and from our company standpoint, we take every step we can to make sure that we are taking care of the environment. That's one of the things that has changed, too, in that by drilling more wells off of a single location, there's less land disturbance. Rather than 16 individual locations, we build one location and drill 16 wells off of it.
Venook: Are these changes a direct response to calls for lower environmental impact, or are they byproducts of other changes?
Cruse: I think it’s both. One is reducing the environmental impact, and also reducing the costs of it. To drill one location that’s slightly bigger is more economical, as well as more environmentally friendly than building multiple locations.
Any spill on location is cleaned up. The way they build the locations is designed to contain spills. I know they do a lot of testing with the mud and equipment that they use on location and are very careful with all of that. We include that as part of safety measures.
Venook: How do you see the industry changing and adapting for the future?
Cruse: As far as energy consumption, some of it is going to be driven by practicality and economics when we look at alternative energy, how we use those, and how obtainable they are. I don’t see us moving away from fossil fuels for many, many years when there's so many factors that play into that. A lot of it is economics. Here, it’s super windy and we looked at the practicality of putting up a windmill for some of our electricity, and it was cost-prohibitive.
We don’t have the best reputation, as the oil-field industry, and I think a lot of times people forget that it’s real people. For every one rig that comes down, even on a small rig, you’re looking at at least a dozen families that are affected. It has huge impact, and we see a lot of that in Casper. It’s not as much as the last downturn, because we have more variety in the industry, but Wyoming in general is a very energy-related state and you see huge effects on every business as the oil field rises and falls.
You see that effect across the board, where you have more people that are working or more people that are not working, or pay cuts, or pay raises and that affects the entire area—everybody from truck drivers to small businesses. It has a big effect, and I feel like sometimes that gets lost. As an industry, they really are trying to find that balance between making sure that we are providing the energy that we need and doing it in a safe and environmentally-conscious manner.
This interview is a part of a series about the lives and experiences of members of the American workforce, which includes conversations with a NASA engineer, a civil engineer, and a wind turbine technician.