Walking Dogs, Christmas Trees, and Spudding In

All of these terms are from the oil patch, although not all of them are used today. I grew up around family members who were in, or who had retired from, the blue-collar end of the oil business. One great uncle built and maintained derricks, one worked as the chief of a seismograph crew, one had been a roughneck before becoming a toolie . . . I learned about steel Christmas trees, walking dogs that didn’t go places, cat crackers, and other mysterious terms.

I was reminded of the jargon while perusing a local museum. It has a fantastic section about the oil and gas industry, with some updated exhibits about the technology of fracking and “directional drilling.” When I was younger, we called it slant-hole drilling, and it was as illegal as illegal could be. Oil leases were elongated cubes. You had a permit to drill straight down. You were not to wander into a neighbor’s lease, no matter how good his find might be. Today, drilling to a certain depth and then changing directions to make a horizontal hole is common. I suspect it made the lawyers handling the older leases rub their hands with glee, because each lease holder would have to be compensated if the horizontal hole produced. I also suspect that how oil leases and permits are written has changed to match the times and technology.

A “Christmas tree” is the cap put on a well once it is producing and the drilling equipment is no longer needed. When they top an producing well, lights and hoses and valves stick out of the heavy steel cap, which stands about 4-6 feet tall. From a distance they look a bit like trees, and since the royalty money buys stuff, Christmas tree it is, especially the ones with lights on them.

A walking dog is the other name for a pump jack, the large rocking pump that lifts oil up into the storage tank or collecting line.

Fair Use under Creative Commons. Original source here: https://amu-photo.blogspot.com/2017/09/pumpjack-oil-rig-in-sunset.html

A cat cracker is a now out-dated term for the cracking towers, the long tubes in a refinery where fractional distillation takes place. This is the process of separating crude oil into all the various components, by weight, from gasses at the top to automotive fuel to naphtha to paraffins (kerosene) to diesel fuel and down to asphalt.

A toolie was someone in charge of the different tools, and sometimes other equipment, used on the rig and around the well. He made sure things were in good repair, and checked equipment in and out as needed. You don’t want to hear “has anyone seen [critical thing]?” at the wrong moment. Nor do you want to discover tools where they ought not to be.

A doodlebugger worked with the seismograph crew. He set out the dynamite used to make the thumps needed for the seismographs to do their magic and tell the geologist what hid below the surface. The little crater looked like the nest of an ant-lion, or doodlebug, thus the name. Today they use thumper trucks and other things, since toting around explosives is either illegal, bad for the environment, or seen as an invitation to “borrow” the dynamite for other purposes (like terrorism. Or at best, for fishing. Which is also illegal).


11 thoughts on “Walking Dogs, Christmas Trees, and Spudding In

  1. Fractioning (distillation) and cracking are different processes. I’m not sure they can coexist in one reactor, because the catalyst is a fine powder which won’t evaporate during the distillation process, and thus won’t be carried from level to level in the tower. Moreover, it must be separated from the product by centrifugation, whose high velocities and forces seem at odds with the carefully calibrated fugacity effects, which depend on pressure. Centrifugation is based on non-uniform pressure along the radius of the flow.

    But this is about as far from my specialty as mining and counter-mining.

    • Jinx, njc, but it was part of my tech specialty.

      Many catalysts are bonded to larger carrying elements, Like Raschig rings or similar packing solids, to provide a lot of surface contact area in minimal volume. Liquids or vapors flow around and over all the activated surfaces, react and break down. Some are on fine particles, and need separation (centrifugal or fine filters) for physical recovery. The equipment is big and usually paired; this way, when one catalyst bed needs physical cleaning and regeneration, it’s shut off and flow goes to the other unit only. That’s also a good way to introduce junior engineers to the practical and icky side of process and plant maintenance.

  2. Cat cracker, short for catalytic cracker, is current. Separate equipment set from the vertical distillation towers. Inputs come from the medium or low (vertical) fraction outputs of distillation columns – heavier stuff. Long chain or large hydrocarbons are “cracked” with a catalyst at moderate temps to make short chain molecules with high demands, like the naphtha (gasoline) and paraffin (diesel, light lube oil) fractions. These go into the distillation column feed for further separation of gases and liquid constituents.

  3. Fishing is only “best” because of the fun quotient.
    There are any number of better uses.

    (I live within city limits. I can’t have any fun against the dadblamed stump out back or the annoyingly barren spot in the middle of the yard. At least, not without costs I’m unwilling to bear.)

    • To spud in a well is to start digging the hole. The bit used looked a little like a shovel used for digging potatoes (spuds), and was a spud bit. You spudded in to a certain depth, then changed bits.

  4. I worked in seismic data processing for a couple of years in the 1970s. It’s changed extensively since then, but it was interesting at the time. Calculating shot-hole offsets and other “adjustments” was a royal pain. Never worked as a juggie, but I knew a few people that had. NOT a fun job.

    Interesting article. I knew most of it, but you did fill in a few spots.

    • Thanks! It’s intriguing to see what has changed over time, and what remains, sometimes only as a little linguistic ghost.

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