How Oil Drilling Works

By: Craig Freudenrich, Ph.D. & Jonathan Strickland

Oil Drilling Preparation

Once the site has been selected, scientists survey the area to determine its boundaries, and conduct environmental impact studies if necessary. The oil company may need lease agreements, titles and right-of way accesses before drilling the land. For off-shore sites, legal jurisdiction must be determined.

After the legal issues are settled, the crew goes about preparing the land:


  1. The land must be cleared and leveled, and access roads may be built.
  2. Because water is used in drilling, there must be a source of water nearby. If there is no natural source, the crew drills a water well.
  3. The crew digs a reserve pit, which is used to dispose of rock cuttings and drilling mud during the drilling process, and lines it with plastic to protect the environment. If the site is an ecologically sensitive area, such as a marsh or wilderness, then the cuttings and mud must be disposed of offsite -- trucked away instead of placed in a pit.

Once the land has been prepared, the crew digs several holes to make way for the rig and the main hole. A rectangular pit called a cellar is dug around the location of the actual drilling hole. The cellar provides a work space around the hole for the workers and drilling accessories. The crew then begins drilling the main hole, often with a small drill truck rather than the main rig. The first part of the hole is larger and shallower than the main portion, and is lined with a large-diameter conductor pipe. The crew digs additional holes off to the side to temporarily store equipment -- when these holes are finished, the rig equipment can be brought in and set up.

Depending upon the remoteness of the drill site and its access, it may be necessary to bring in equipment by truck, helicopter or barge. Some rigs are built on ships or barges for work on inland water where there is no foundation to support a rig (as in marshes or lakes).

In the next section, we'll look at the major systems of an oil rig.

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