Alaska in the Spotlight – Sept 7, 2015

On this labor day we talk about five things that happened in the news the week of August 31, 2015:

  1. The President Talks Energy Policy in Alaska
  2. Marco Rubio Seeks Oil and Gas Friends in Oklahoma
  3. Palin Teases Trump Partnership
  4. Hillary Keeps Inching Away from Oil and Gas
  5. Oil and Gas Trade Association Merger Rumors

And we replay our March 2015 interview with Texas Monthly contributor Christian Wallace.

 1.  The President Talks Energy Policy in Alaska

The President traveled to Alaska last week, becoming the first sitting President to travel above the Arctic Circle.  He spoke on Energy Policy at high school in Kotzebue.  He touted his Clean Power Plan and connected his climate policies to the coastal erosion in the state.

2.  Marco Rubio Seeks Oil and Gas Friends in Oklahoma

Last week, Marco Rubio visited Oklahoma and gave a sneak peek of his soon-to-be-released energy plan at a speech to an energy-industry group.  He said he wants more exports, less regulations, and more state autonomy:

There are multiple nations on earth with a great deal of oil and natural gas. There are multiple nations with access to important oceanic and hydroelectric resources. There are multiple nations with lush forests and tillable land. But there is no nation that has all of these at the same time and to the same extent that America does….

One of the first things I will do as president is lift the ban on crude-oil exports. This ban is a perfect example of just how outdated Washington has become. President Nixon signed it into law in the 1970s — long before the economy had been fundamentally transformed by globalization and technological innovations, long before the hydraulic-fracturing and shale revolutions had launched a new era of American energy….

Here’s another common-sense step I will take as president: I will stop the EPA’s Clean Power Plan, which, if enacted, would have a devastating impact on affordable energy in exchange for little to no environmental benefit. It would result in the closure of coal-fired power plants around the country. It would kill thousands of jobs. It would jeopardize the reliability of our national power grid. It would truly be one of the most costly regulations ever created. Despite these consequences, Hillary Clinton has pledged to make defending and expanding it a “top priority.”

I will also work to empower states to regulate energy production within their own borders. Washington is currently on a crusade to take control of the production of energy, especially oil and gas, away from the states. Yet state and local governments are far better equipped to oversee energy production and balance it with environmental concerns.

3.  Palin Teases Trump Partnership

Sarah Palin did an interview last week on CNN’s State of the Union, and she made news for a number of reasons.  She provided some commentary on the President’s trip to Alaska, and then commented on her potential role under President Donald Trump:

I think a lot about the Department of Energy, because energy is my baby: oil and gas and minerals, those things that God has dumped on this part of the Earth for mankind’s use instead of us relying on unfriendly foreign nations.  I’d get rid of it.  And I’d let the states start having more control over the lands that are within their boundaries and the people who are affected by the developments within their states.

As Vox.com points out, the Department of Energy does not ha

Palin is alluding to the fact that the federal government owns billions of acres of land and coastal waters, containing quite a bit of oil, gas, and coal. Industry groups have long complained that President Obama hasn’t opened up nearly as much of this land to drilling as they’d like. And a few groups out West have even demanded that much of this land be returned to the states.

Except this all has very little to do with the Department of Energy, which mainly oversees the nation’s nuclear weapons program — a task consuming nearly half its budget — and conducts energy R&D.

 4.  Hillary Keeps Inching Away from Oil and Gas

Hillary Clinton made an appearance on New Hampshire TV as part of WMUR-TV’s “Conversation with the Candidate” series, co-sponsored by the New Hampshire Institute of Politics and Political Library (NHIOP).  She continued to talk about pushing for clean energy while taking away fossil fuel “subsidies.”  She also refused to take a position on the Keystone XL.

5.  Oil and Gas Trade Association Merger Rumors

Politico reports:

The American Petroleum Institute and America’s Natural Gas Alliance are in talks to merge, according to multiple sources close to the organizations, a move that would bring together two of nation’s largest oil and gas industry groups and could cement API chief Jack Gerard’s position as one of Washington most influential players….

The positions and priorities for API and ANGA have grown more closely aligned in recent years, particularly in lobbying for greater latitude in exporting natural gas and oil amid the boom in production from the shale fields in states like Pennsylvania, North Dakota and Texas.

Interview with Christian Wallace, Contributor to Texas Monthly

Christian grew up in Andrews, Texas, right on top of the Permian Basin.  The oil field seems to be at the heart of the town’s identity.  Christian did not grow up in the business, but he spent some time on a workover rig after college and documented his experience in a recent Texas Monthly piece entitled “Learning to Roughneck.”

Christian got his job with an email to a childhood friend, and started work back in the boom days of 2013.   At the time, jobs were plentiful.  He frequently saw folks hired on the spot at local gas stations.  People came in from all over the country looking for work.  Christian said it was quite a thing to behold.  For many, drilling for oil is the family business.  Christian found that jobs on the rig come with a level of respect in the community.

A workover rig’s main job is pulling up pipe from an existing well that is having some kind of problem.  The rig is mobile and Christian’s had a four man crew doing three different jobs:

  • Floorhand (Two per rig) – Responsible for working the tongs, which is more or less a jumbo, hydraulic-powered wrench used to break connections on the rods and tubing.
  • Derrickman – Stationed high above the ground on a “tubing board” to unclamp the rods and tubing so the blocks can travel down for another haul.
  • Operator – The captain of the ship, who is running the engine and the brakes.

New guys on the crew are called “worms,” and have to wear green hats for their first few months on the job.  They start out on the floor and generally move up to the other positions based on experience and on the job training.

In many cases, the workover rig is owned and operated by a company that is contracted out to a producer that needs a well serviced.  So in Christian’s case, he answered directly to his rig operator, but on a job the rig operator answered to the “company man” who was in charge of the well.  Some jobs are quick, but most seem to last a few days or less.  Sometimes a rig will have downtime between jobs, or the well operator may have caused some kind of delay and the rig will be paid just to stand by.

The job of a roughneck remains a physical and dirty job.  Each segment of pipe comes up full of decades-old drilling mud and dumps it on the floor hands.  That mess will freeze on a cold day, and metals can be dangerously hot in the summer.

Safety is always a concern, and Christian had one scary experience.  His crew was swabbing a well, which basically means pulling rubber cups on a wire through the pipe in order to clean up any junk in the well.  Christian did not actually have a role in the process, but he was on the rig floor to deliver a message to the operator.  The “sand line,” which is the wire pulling up the rubber cups, snapped and hit both the operator and the other floor hand.  Christian managed to jump out of the way and ran about 40 yards away from the rig, but the floor hand needed a trip to the hospital.  The injuries were not serious, but apparently that type of accident is often fatal.

Christian said he feels like accidents are fairly rare, but they do happen.  Missing fingertips are not unusual, and just last week several people from his town were killed in a work over rig explosion.  At the same time, others can go their entire career without a mishap.  When something does go wrong, fingers get pointed and people can get fired.

The oil field seems to draw a range of personalities, but Christian seemed to find career changers were not particularly common.  He met some preachers, a teacher, and a lawyer.  But, more commonly, the workers had been in the field since leaving high school.  Many had spent time in prison.  And the ex-lawyer Christian knew wound up being injured and leaving the field on bad terms.

Christian’s story seems to have a happy ending, though.  He found that most his coworkers felt a strong sense of pride about their jobs.  The work is tough, but is a somewhat-rare opportunity to make a comfortable living doing blue-collar work.  Many folks proudly wear the label “oil field trash.”  The work gave Christian an opportunity to pay down some debt, work near his family, and better understand the place he grew up.

You can see Christian’s work at: www.texasmonthly.com/contributor/christian-wallace and www.christianhwallace.com.