OTC 2011: Students get close-up look at drilling process

The most popular question on the Offshore Technology Conference exhibit floor today was “how much does that cost?”

The query didn’t come from hardened professionals looking to trim dollars on their next big capital acquisition. Instead, it was often asked by the roughly 200 high school students who took  in the displays as part of a daylong OTC workshop. As appropriate with vessels several football fields long and emergency equipment capable of stopping gushing oil, the answer usually involved the word “million.”

Students from across Texas began their day doing science experiments before they were unleashed in small groups to tour the exhibits on display at OTC.

Roughly a dozen juniors from O’Connell High School in Galveston climbed aboard a medium-size Loadcraft land drilling rig capable of drilling to 12,000 feet.

Pepper Jones, with Loadcraft, gave them a quick course in Drilling 101.  He showed them the hoisting system, described how the drilling bit turns and explained the function of drilling muds. He also outlined a few drilling truths — such as the economic consequences of drilling dry holes.

After Jones described the relationship between drilling contractors and operators, teacher Linda Mignerey asked: “So this is kind of like, ‘have rig, will travel?’ ”

After Jones told the 11th graders how much the rig cost — $2.5 million — and its day rate ($18,000), 16-year-old James Mayville gave a respectful nod.

Mayville said he was excited to see the equipment on display and get a glimpse at the wide range of businesses that make up the oil industry. Although Mayville is familiar with the maritime industry — his father works as a port captain for the Houston Pilots — the junior said the OTC tour “broadens my horizons.”

Mayville said it was good to get exposure to other career paths, “rather than just working on the boats.” And he learned that oil and gas workers get one big potential perk: “I hear they make good money,” Mayville said.

At Expro’s exhibit, the students saw cameras that can be run downhole and a riser control module that allows quick disconnection in up to 10,000 feet of water.

A worker at the Schlumberger display demonstrated how the company’s Losseal fluid can be used to plug tiny fractures in a formation.

Each student took a turn at trying push the thick, chocolate shake-like substance out of a hole at the end of a syringe. No amount of brawn — or egging each other on — did the trick.

Also a big hit: National Oilwell Varco’s display of equipment that can be used to remotely manipulate and move drill pipe. And the students were intrigued by NOV’s red “iron roughneck,” which can twist drill pipes and joints mechanically — taking the place of roughnecks spinning them manually.

While fellow students looked on, Mayville took the controls of a boat simulator at the display by Marin, the Maritime Research Institute Netherlands. As he piloted the boat, Mayville got a little friendly advice — and some ribbing — from backseat drivers.

“You’re headed back to the Netherlands!” called one student.

“We think you’re off the coast of Africa right now,” Mignerey joked.

As the day went on, the high-tech gadgets and offshore equipment sometimes paled in comparison to giveaways on the show floor. When a group of fellow students passed the O’Connell group, they recommended the “best freebie of the whole show:” A gizmo Mustang Engineering was handing out that combined a flashlight, level and ruler.

Katherine Hogan, 17, said it was “really amazing” to see all of the equipment. “The people who make it are so intelligent,” she said.

Even though she lives in Galveston, Hogan confessed that oil production has been a bit of a mystery — at least until last year’s Deepwater Horizon disaster.

“With the oil spill, that was the first time I ever really learned anything about oil” and where it comes from, she said.

In fact, one display’s popularity with the students stemmed from the spill: the blowout preventer and pipe-cutting shear rams that T-3 Energy Services was showing off. As students looked at an array of drill pipe cut by T-3′s new shear rams, Mayville manipulated a model of the rams.

“The neatest thing was the blowout preventer, because of BP” and the Gulf spill, said Melanie Lofaro, 17, as the group’s tour came to a close. It was interesting seeing “what could have prevented the whole thing.”

Lofaro said she was taken aback by the scale of the equipment she’d seen. “I didn’t realize how huge everything was,” she said.

Lofaro’s uncle is an accountant for an oil firm, so she had a basic understanding of the depth and breadth of the industry before ever entering OTC. But seeing the companies and equipment displayed on the exhibit floor magnifies it, Lofaro said.

“This whole conference here — it’s amazing,” she said. “You can see how the whole economy works, and how oil is such a big part of the economy.”