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Always a Messy Business

From the earliest boomtowns of Pennsylvania and Texas to the most sophisticated multinational operations today, the business of extracting oil from the ground -- or "production," as it's generally called -- has often been an unpredictable, messy, and even dangerous business. The difficulty begins with the nature of oil underground. The porous rocks and cracks where oil is found hold pockets of oil, gas, and water, all at elevated temperatures and pressures. Oil does not necessarily flow well from one part of an oilfield to another, and multiple drilled paths may be needed to retrieve much of what is below.

Vertical drilling is done in stages. As the hole deepens, it is flushed with mud, and its sides are repeatedly filled with a metal casing and cement to keep the wall from collapsing. When a depth is reached near which oil is expected, and if a range of tests give the right indications, steps are taken to prepare for the flow of oil: the well casing is perforated with explosives, a smaller pipe is inserted and fixed into position, and a multi-valved device called a Christmas tree is attached to the well head to control flow. Then, to start the oil flowing, acid is pumped into the well's bottom to dissolve the rock containing the oil, or a pressurized slurry is used to further perforate the casing. Finally, the oil drilling rig is replaced with a pump attached to the well head, and production can begin. Since the late 1980s "directional drilling" has added the capacity to drill downward at an angle, expanding the well's reach into an oilfield and dramatically increasing the quantity of oil obtained from a single site.

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Workers have been employed in the oil business since the dawn of the industry in the latter part of the 19th century.
Although the image of the gusher is a common one, any uncontrolled flow from a well -- called a "blowout" -- is actually a wasteful and dangerous event. The first gusher at Spindletop, for example, destroyed the drilling rig, throwing six tons of pipe into the air, and let loose a plume of oil causing a deafening roar heard in the neighboring town. Fires are also a problem, since oil is commonly associated with natural gas that can easily be ignited by sparks from drilling equipment. Few have the expertise to handle oil-well blowout and fire conditions, and one particularly skilled and successful at this practice, Paul "Red" Adair, became a legend in his field -- and beyond.

In most cases, however, oil must be pumped from the ground, and often with a good deal of help. The injection of steam into the well is one approach to force more oil out. Another is the practice of "miscible flooding," which involves the addition of substances that mix with oil (liquid hydrocarbons like ethane or propane, as well as carbon dioxide) to make the oil less viscous and to ease pumping.

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With the possibility of increased oil extraction in Alaska comes the prospect of more well houses like these covering the landscape.
All of this work can leave dramatic impacts. Before production even starts, dry holes from exploration and access roads can scar the landscape. Blowouts, explosions, leaks, and other accidents can injure or kill workers, and mar the terrain. The early oil rushes in Pennsylvania, Texas, and elsewhere brought with them throngs of independents in a kind of "Wild West" culture accompanied by ample greed, waste, fraud, and violence.

Today, in the modern business dominated by "Big Oil," a combination of market and political pressures have led to the development of some more environmentally benign techniques such as directional drilling and oil rigs with smaller footprints, sometimes accessed by helicopter. Still, heated disputes over the impacts of drilling the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge are reminders of the heated debate that surrounds oil production, at least in developed countries. Meanwhile, the political, economic, and social impacts of production on oil-producing by otherwise poor nations often remain largely unaddressed by either domestic governments or the multinationals.

-- Edwin Adkins

Modern Production
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