Whoosh. The mix of gas and coal and water screamed up the well to the drilling rig. The mixture shot up the vertical outlet pipe only a few feet from where she was standing next to the drilling foreman, a man called Bates, on the platform at the bottom of the drilling rig. Kelly jerked backwards involuntarily. Although she had been warned what to expect, it was all so sudden, and as loud as a crack of thunder. Shielding her eyes against the sun, Kelly saw that the burst lasted ten minutes, then dissipated dejectedly as the final bunch of coal particles fell to the ground away from the rig.
The drilling rig was in the heart of the San Juan basin, one of the premier natural gas- producing basins in American history. Kelly had been sent out there as part of her introduction to well completions, the group she was assigned to in her Houston home-base.
Kelly Owens was a young petroleum engineer, age twenty-two, who had recently joined the oil-and-gas company called Bundaleer. She had shoulder-length reddish hair, green eyes and a turned-up nose which she had always thought was unattractive. She fit into her work jeans quite nicely, according to a faint comment she caught from two rig hands she was walking behind. She was the only woman at the well site and the year of 1992 was still early days for female engineers at a drilling site. Companies had to retrain their rig-hands to change their sometimes crude language and actions when a woman was present. This situation cemented Kelly’s goal of succeeding as a petroleum engineer in a man’s world. As a salient part of this, she had to earn respect from men like Bates, the drilling foreman.
Cavity completions were one type of well completion, specifically adapted to coalbed methane wells. Much more common were hydraulic fracture completions, or frac completions, that had been around for 45 years and were used on over 70% of all wells of all kinds. Kelly knew when she hired on that the company plan was to introduce her to frac completions later, but their policy was to encourage diversity with new employees.
The rig, taller than a four-story building, was located in a valley close to the Animas River which flows from the spectacular mountain town of Durango down to Farmington in the desert of New Mexico. The river’s full name is Rio de las Animas Perdidas, which means River of Lost Souls. Had she been a psychic, Kelly might have felt an omen there.
In a beautiful site with Cottonwood trees changing to gold as Fall set in, the drilling rig was surrounded by steep hills that contained sandstone benches jutting out one above another, each separated by a slope of softer shale rock. After climbing to the top bench on the previous day, Kelly had been surprised to see the tracks of a mountain lion. She looked around warily, as she recalled an incident in which a mother was hiking with two youngsters in this area. One of the youngsters darted away to pee behind a large boulder, when a growl and a cry was heard. Confused, the mother ran around the boulder to see a large lion carrying away her four-year old by the neck. Frantically the mother ran after the lion pelting stones at him. The lion dropped the child and ran off, but it was too late . . . the child died in her arms.
“Well, what d’you think of that?” the rig foreman asked in a deep voice, referring to the whoosh of the well blowdown. Bates McCollum was close to six feet six inches and a hefty giant with a strong jawline, which Kelly imagined to be typical of a guy used to making quick decisions. Although his body-language usually matched his physique — strong and exaggerated — in this instance he smiled at Kelly and gave a quick wink.
“Amazing.” Kelly nodded but decided not to wink back. She was still feeling her way in this her first oil-and-gas field job, one which historically was an all-male setting. She was determined to succeed, and as a bright young engineer, she wanted more than food or drink to impress the rig foreman. “I find myself thinking about what this does to a coal seam – the gas source — down there at 3,000 feet underground.”
Bates spread a small frown above his eyes and pulled on his earlobe. “What do you think it does?” asked Bates, always eager to test any bright young engineers the company hired.
Kelly paused and took a swig from her water bottle. If she felt confident, she liked communicating with men. She had a knack of teasing a little, not quite flirting, but close enough that most men responded positively. “Well, the sudden pressure drop when you open the valve at the wellhead breaks up the coal at the bottom of the well, because coal is a soft rock, and the rapid flow of gas and water carries smaller pieces of coal as well as coal dust up and out of the well.”
“Okay”. Now Bates came alive and pointed the index finger of each hand at Kelly’s middle. “So, the underground coal is broken up. Some of it is carried out of the well, as you say. And we already know some of it, the heavier pieces, stay in the bottom of the well and sit right there until we clean them out. So, a cavity begins to form around the drillpipe, right?” He paused and stretched his arms away from his brawny chest. “What I really want to know is, how large is this hole, this cavity behind the drillpipe that allows the gas to rush into the well? This is the key to a cavity completion, you know.”
Kelly was smart enough to suspect a motive behind the question. “Do you already know the answer and are just testing me?”
“Hell, no!” Bates raised his deep voice to add emphasis. “Lots of steak dinners have been bet on how big this cavity is. Nobody knows.”
“Really,” she replied with a twinkle in her green eyes. “It can’t be that hard to figure out.” It was an impulsive statement, running out of her brain like water out of a garden faucet as soon as it’s turned on. The insecure part of herself immediately worried whether she’d been too rash. Her hands got clammy.
The words stopped Bates cold. He leaned back and his eyes bored into Kelly’s face. “How would you figure it out Kelly?” Kelly knew only a little about Bates McCollum, since this was their first meeting. She had heard he was from Wyoming, raised on a cattle ranch. This fitted the type of take-charge rancher with decisive opinions about guns and the role of government. It would be pretty easy for Bates to wrestle a calf to the ground and hold him there for branding. If there was a soft side to Bates, she hadn’t seen it yet and she would tread carefully.
Kelly glanced away from his penetrating eyes. Her eyelids started twitching, which they did when she felt insecure or stressed. The twitching, which the doctors couldn’t cure, was embarrassing because it forced other people to break eye-contact and look away from her. Although she had developed a bag of tricks to quiet her twitching eyelids, it always took a little time.
Kelly’s insecurity in this particular moment had roots in her history — she found it hard to trust another person to believe in her and her ability. Her parents had always encouraged her to strive to win, but never complimented her skills and abilities. As a result, Kelly lacked self-confidence from when she started high-school. When she played basketball she kind of froze and held back rather than jumping in with dash and determination. As she matured, to compensate for this insecurity she tended to speak up and challenge everything. She became a fighter.
Kelly spoke slowly and carefully. “Just measure the size of the cavity hole using some kind of a tool that can go down the well.”
“Impossible!” Bates shook his head vigorously.
“Why?” Kelly asked – a little too quickly. She winced.
But Bates didn’t appear to notice as he followed up with his own challenge. “There are oilfield tools that measure the size of a well, but not if its larger than a foot in radius. We expect this cavity to be many feet in radius.”
Kelly’s mind raced from one idea to another. To organize her thoughts, she delayed by taking another swallow of water. Suddenly, a small sense of excitement welled up inside her and her eyelids stopped twitching. “I’ve got it. I think there are sonar tools that can measure the size of large caverns that they store natural gas in for emergency use. Maybe we could use one of them.”
Bates laughed. “Not bad for a newbie,” he nodded graciously. “I haven’t heard about such tools.” He pulled on his earlobe again. “Maybe you should check your idea out… I think it’s a good one.”
Kelly relaxed and her face brightened. She had passed the first test, and her heartbeat skipped a little in private joy.