But after the trucks hauling unrecognizable equipment, along with chemicals, sand, casing, piping, welding equipment, testing labs and even portable offices are gone, the trucks keep coming.
Because each active well not only brings oil to the surface, but copious amounts of salt water as well.
As any high school chemistry student should know, oil and water don’t mix. At the well site, oil is separated and sent into a pipeline; the salt water goes into a series of storage tanks.
Of the material brought to the surface by an average well — oilmen say there is no such thing as an average well, each is unique — 88 percent is water.
So the holding tanks have to be emptied regularly by vacuum tankers. An overflow is dangerous, messy and, as a by-product, produces a lot of paperwork.
The job never ends until the well stops producing. Fleets of tankers are on the local highways every day. One is driven by 44-year-old Jeff Steele, who works for the Willco company in Refugio.
In the pre-dawn hours of Monday, Steele checks the oil in his Peterbilt tractor, cleans the windows and the headlights and fills out his logbook. The fog and mist have turned the company lot into a muddy morass.
It is 7 a.m.; he will not be back for 16 hours.
Despite the weather, Steele is comfortable. He’s at home in tractor 211, driven it for years and knows its quirks and mannerisms — which will prove decisive in a few hours.
Steele started driving trucks in the U.S. Army when his vision prevented his flying helicopters. His hard hat proudly displays a U.S. Army decal.
“I’ve driven in Bosnia, Germany, Kuwait, Iraq — the Persian Gulf.”
His eyeglasses reflect a dashboard with 15 gauges, three display panels, two switch bays, a radio and satellite receiver and a single toggle switch, obviously installed by a previous driver.
“I’ve wondered about that for years,” he chuckles. “I’ve never been able to find out what it does.”
On the overhead is a blank spot where he used to have a CB radio. “My handle was ‘Muleskinner.’ I took it out, because I’m supposed to get a new truck any day now.”
On the windshield, a note says the next oil change is at 289,000 miles; the odometer reads 286,000.
The cab is as clean as Bee County drizzle and oil field mud will allow. A label-maker sign on the dash reads:
YOU DRIVE IT,
YOU CLEAN IT.
OR DON’T DRIVE IT.
“I learned this in the Army. If you take care of your equipment, it will take care of you. Wipe your feet.”
The first tank is southwest of Kenedy, so Steele has plenty of time for personal history.
He likes history — he graduated from Mary Hardin-Baylor with a B.S, in history and a minor in journalism.
While living in Refugio, he started teaching high school in Runge, including world geography, world history, American history, government, economics, journalism and speech.
“The cost of gas was killing me,” he explains as the dawn begins to reveal the prosaic landscape on Farm to Market Road 202.
“I like to think I made history come alive. Our class re-created D-Day with water pistols and water balloons. The next year, I took the class to the Obama inauguration.”
Steele asked for a raise to help offset the fuel costs.
The school wasn’t interested.
“I still had my CDL (Commercial Driver’s License), so I went back to driving trucks.”
The high school’s loss was his gain. In the first six months of teaching Steele made $34,000; as testimony to the dynamics of the Eagle Ford oil boom, this year he expects to bring home more than twice as much.
The sun tries to break through low clouds as he maneuvers 35,000 pounds of tractor and trailer into a Marathon oil company facility.
“Marathon is our chief client,” he explains, as he backs the trailer next to a tank full of salt water.
Salt water isn’t volatile, but Marathon demands stringent safety rules: he wears flash-proof clothing and a hard-hat. His may be the only truck around, but he has to surround it with fluorescent-orange warning cones. He places chocks under the wheels and, finally, firmly attaches a grounding cable.
“A lot of this may seem unnecessary for hauling salt water, but Marathon makes the rules. It’s just like the Army; I do what they tell me to do.”
He then connects the trailer to the tank with a large, rubber hose.
He disconnects the drive train, raises the r.p.m. to 1,100 and flips a lever, which starts an air pump to reduce the pressure in the tanker, which draws in the salt water.
The process takes about 15 minutes.
Steele carries two cellphones, one for the company, one for personal calls.
The company cellphone rings like a 1940s dial telephone, loud and jangly.
“Yes, Sir?” he answers, reflecting his army days.
On any given day, Willco has eight trucks servicing wells. Steele often is asked to coordinate the routes with other drivers.
Picking up the salt water is only half the job. It has to go someplace. Trouble is, there are a lot more wells than places called disposal tanks.
That usually means a bunch of tanker trucks in line at the half-dozen disposal facilities in the area.
Once accumulated, the salt water is further processed to remove impurities and then pumped back underground in injection wells.
The companies who run the disposal facilities know the daily routine of the truckers and do what they can to accommodate them. They have rest rooms, for instance.
And to walk into the office is to enter a diminutive convenience store.
On a shelf are potato chips, Fritos, Doritos, cream pies, cookies (Oreos are the favorite), peanut butter crackers, bottled water and sodas.
Unbelievably, Steele says he has lost weight since he returned to trucking.
As he pulls away from the Marathon site, the “feel” of the tractor takes on a different character. The truck is 20 tons heavier.
Half an hour later, when he pulls into a disposal facility, a grey-haired man ahead of him is disconnecting the hoses and relieving the air pressure. He glances back at Steele, who rolls down the window.
“I knew you were old, but you don’t have to move like pond water,” Steele yells.
The man straightens up to stretch his back, smiles and notices that Steele isn’t alone in the cab.
“I didn’t know you were so old you had to bring along help.”
“This is the fun part of this job,” Steele says. “That’s JJ — he’s been doing this for 30-40 years.”
That’s the extent of their conversation. JJ’s truck is ready for another load; he hurries off to get out of the way so Steele can unload.
The sun is out; it’s getting warmer. Dust instead of mud.
On his third or fourth load of salt water, while the truck is climbing a small incline near Charco, the engine’s noise changes. The speed slows from 65 to 45. A “Check Engine” warning about two inches long appears on a dashboard display.
“This is one of the things I won’t miss about this truck,” Steele sighs.
It is a good bet that he would be peppering the sentence with other punctuation, were he alone.
The problem is the loss of power. The needle on the manifold pressure gauge drops, and the tractor is straining to maintain 25 mph uphill.
“I have to pull over to the side, turn the engine off and wait two or three minutes,” Steele explains. “Or five...sometimes 10.”
Finding a place on a two-lane county road to pull an 18-wheeler over isn’t easy. But, because the truck only has problems when Steele is carrying a heavy load and going uphill, he knows just the place — a row of abandoned buildings next to a small house.
“Last time I stopped here, I had a nice conversation with the guy who lives there. We could become good friends if this keeps up.”
A few minutes later, he starts the truck and continues toward the disposal facility, under full power.
Steele says the company mechanic has worked on the problem again and again, with no results.
In a couple of days, Steele will invite him to accompany him on a run to watch what happens. He will, but the problem will persist.
The work, and the intermittent check engine light problem, continues for the rest of the day.
Steele ends the day on what he says is the worst run — miles of miles of dirt road, pot-holed and rutted. Marathon requires a speed limit of 25 mph on such roads. Steele says he wouldn’t want to be in the cab if he drove that fast.
It ends at a facility where hydrogen sulfide wafts through the cab.
“See that windsock?” Steele asks. “You can see those gases will be blowing away from us, which is good, because they are poisonous.”
A lack of disposal facilities becomes critical. The first he tries is closed.
At the second, so many trucks are waiting it means a 2-1/2-hour wait.
“This is the hardest thing I have to do, Steele admits. “I hate waiting. I have to be moving to consider that I’m accomplishing something.”
He decides to try another facility, in Beeville.
The check-engine light appears again. When the truck stops, south of Pettus, the sun has long set.
“It’s time to change the bugs on the windshield,” he says, grabbing a bottle of Windex.
When he pulls into the disposal south of Beeville, there’s another hour’s wait.
But, however quickly he wants to end the shift — the Texas Department of Transportation limits him to 16 hours — he finds time to love a black dog he calls “Princess.”
“She recognizes my truck when I pull in.”
Steele then decides to try the facility in Sinton.
Thankfully, he’s the only truck there. It’s 10:30 p.m.
While the tanker is offloading, Steele plays football with an Irish setter.
Steele ends the day as he began, driving in the dark, occasionally using the windshield wipers.
“You know,” he says, “the old days of trucking are gone. I go to truck stops now, and all I see are drivers 21, 25 years old. Are they even old enough to see over the dashboards?”
He pulls into Willco at 11:15 p.m. In 16 hours, he has driven 436 miles to carry 25,200 gallons of salt water — 108 tons.
He works six days on, two off.
“From the time I was a kid, all I wanted to do was to drive trucks. I enjoy it.”
In six hours, he starts the whole process over again.