Several times, back in 1964 or so, a Fayette County deputy sheriff spotted a tan, 1955 Chevy pickup driving by with twelve-year-old Mike Shellman peering over the steering wheel. Shellman sat on a nailed-together bench—a piece of wood propped up on six-inch legs—as he drove himself around to the oil wells his father owned to record readings on their gauges. On each of these occasions, the lawman would call Shellman’s father and warn him against giving his unlicensed son the keys to the truck. Shellman’s father would murmur agreement, but the next day, Mike would again drive from the family home in Flatonia, a small town halfway between Houston and San Antonio, to make his rounds.
Soon after, Shellman began working on rigs whenever his father was drilling new wells in search of oil. At age fifteen, he learned to “throw chain,” lassoing hundreds of pounds of steep pipe dangling from the derrick with a strand of heavy chain and wrenching the pipe tight. His childhood was full of such oil-field labor. “I didn’t go to swimming-pool parties,” he says.
Shellman tried to go to college (at what is now Texas State, in San Marcos), paying his way as a roughneck, but he dropped out after a couple of years. It was too tiring to both work and keep up with classes. So instead, he did his learning by doing—and by asking questions. “I can talk engineering with any engineer and geology with any geologist,” Shellman says as we sit on inexpensive folding chairs in a grove of cedar trees, on a mid-October afternoon on a farm between Luling and Flatonia.
Dragonflies buzz overhead. Grasshoppers launch themselves underfoot. About two thousand feet below us lies the Reklaw Formation, a watery layer of partly sandy, partly silty rock deposited by a rising sea about 50 million years ago. Pump out the water, and you’ll get a small cut of light, sweet oil—the most valuable kind because it flows like water and doesn’t contain sulfur. A few feet away from where we’re sitting, a rig is preparing to drill down to target that oil. It will be the final well in Shellman’s 59 years in the business. At 71, he plans to soon sell his company, retire, and fish for trout.
We’re only a few miles from where he got his start. “The farther away I got, the bigger the wells, the worse it got for me,” he says. He built his oil company by focusing on low-cost, shallow wells near Flatonia. Before he sits, he walks around the rig, talking to workers he has known for decades and checking in on small operational details. He is a man in his element, taking a last lap and enjoying every second. He wears a wide, toothy smile.
Yet retirement beckons. “I’m tired,” Shellman says. “I’ve had to do it all. I’ve created ideas, made maps, leased land, sold deals, drilled wells, completed wells, then managed wells for the next forty, fifty years. I’m looking forward to sleeping through the night.” Drilling happens around the clock, so when problems arise, he gets woken up to make decisions. He has drilled several hundred wells over the years. None were gushers, but none were particularly expensive to drill, either. His secret, he says, was “being happy to hit singles and not home runs.”
Last year, Shellman’s company produced 42,880 barrels of oil, making it the 535th-largest oil producer in Texas. His is one of the companies that make a modest but important contribution to a Texas oil industry dominated by big corporations that drill hundreds of large, deep, expensive wells. The one hundred largest oil companies in Texas produce 90 percent of the state’s oil. The other 10 percent comes from about three thousand small operators—companies such as Shellman’s.
Over at the rig, I pop my head into the trailer that serves as both the drilling headquarters and a warehouse of wrenches, drill bits, and everything else one might need to punch a shallow hole in the ground. The 66-year-old tool pusher (the drilling supervisor) is lying down, watching something on his phone. He sits up and introduces himself. “Sam Hill,” he says, vigorously shaking my hand. “Like ‘What the Sam Hill,’ ‘Who in the Sam Hill.’ ” He helped drill one of Shellman’s first wells as an operator, back in 1980 or 1981. As we chat, Hill spits generous tobacco-stained globules on to the metal floor. He has drilled hundreds of wells, all within one hundred miles of Luling (except for during the three years when someone convinced him to take a contract in Siberia).
Shellman’s last well won’t be too difficult, Hill says. It is not a big Permian Basin well where the bit might go down 8,000 feet, then turn and run another 10,000 feet parallel to the surface. There will be no crew to hydraulically fracture the well, pumping in ponds of water under extraordinary pressure. This is a small, shallow well. Maybe 2,100 feet deep. No fracking or adding acid to dissolve the rock is required, just a pump jack. Hill tells me his general approach to drilling: “Set it straight and turn it to the right.”
Sam Hill and Mike Shellman aren’t the only things on the drilling site that are weathered. The rig itself, 68 feet tall, was manufactured right about the time men first walked on the moon and has been in continuous use ever since. Its owner, Charlie Krueger, says it still has the original blue-and-white paint job. That’s hard to verify, because its colors are hard to see. The blue is now speckled with decades of rust and stains. The diesel-motor housing, the walkways, and the derrick itself could all use a fresh coat of paint. But what they lack in looks, they make up for in dependability. The only thing that appears new is the drill bit. It is painted a bright blue, the hue of Superman’s costume. Shellman carries it up the stairs to the rig floor, beaming like a kid, and deposits it near where the well will be drilled.
A chain attached to the derrick hoists a pipe segment into the air. “In a little bit, we’ll be on our way,” Shellman says to no one in particular. The diesel motor belches every minute or so. A roughneck wrangles the pipe by embracing it in a full bear hug, guiding it into place with his whole body. There is no driller sitting in a control chair fiddling with joysticks to control the pipe, as you see in the Permian Basin. Those modern rigs are like Cadillac Escalades with heated seats, adaptive cruise control, and other high-tech gadgetry. This one is a stick-shift Volkswagen bug with hand-cranked windows. Shellman says he once was put at the controls of a multimillion-dollar rig in a simulator. “I killed everyone in five minutes,” he laughs.
Looking around the land cleared to drill the well, denuded of cedar trees and brush, it could as easily be 1972 as 2022. Shellman’s team is drilling this well the same way Texans have drilled for decades. Only the late-model pickup trucks and Broncos give away that we’re in the twenty-first century. After a few minutes, the roughnecks screw the new, football-size bit onto the end of the pipe, then torque the pipe until the bit is secure and ready for its subterranean voyage.
Into this collection of weathered hands strides Catherine Shellman, a tall Southern Californian who beams her sunshiny demeanor over the rig floor. Mike and Catherine have been married for fifteen years, after a successful pairing on Match.com. Catherine says she likes accompanying Mike to jobs. “I love the vibe here,” she says. I have never heard a Texan talk about the vibe on a drilling pad. It turns out, Catherine migrated to Austin in the nineties when a former husband got a job there. “All my exes live in Texas,” she says.
Catherine wears a hard hat over a red bandanna with two loosely tied pigtails hanging over her shoulders. She bends her knees and plants a kiss on the bit. A brief discussion among Krueger and the rig workers followed about the importance of spitting on the bit, an oil-field superstition. If anyone expectorated on the bit, I missed it. Someone must have, because a minute later, the pipe was descending into the earth at a surprising speed. The well is on its way.
Shellman has lived through $8 oil and $140 oil, and everything between. He watched the fracking boom drive drilling costs up twofold and leasing costs up tenfold. And don’t get him started on government regulations. “I’ve survived nine different presidents all trying to shoot arrows in my back,” he told me.
By the end of this year, Shellman will have exited his company. His only child, Alison, earned a doctorate in child psychiatry and has no interest in taking over. (Shellman’s company is MCA Petroleum, which stands for Mike, Catherine, and Alison.) He expects to sell to a 32-year-old employee named Greg Grahmann, a local from Hallettsville, who plans to rename the company but otherwise keep drilling the same kind of wells in and around Flatonia. Grahmann said he fully expects the region’s sweet oil to remain in demand even as more passenger cars electrify. Oil from nearby wells is trucked to a refinery in Three Rivers where it is used to make lubricants, a petroleum product in demand for everything from factory machinery to gearboxes on wind turbines. “There’s plenty to do here the rest of my lifetime,” Grahmann says.
Later that night, in the cedar grove, Shellman hosts a large barbecue with brisket, beans, and the usual fixings. His extended family shows up, and so do the families of many rig workers, cementers, and others he has worked with over the years. The three roughnecks on-site take turns coming over to eat because the drilling continues.
This is Thursday. Shellman stays all night, and all of the next day. At 1 a.m. on Saturday, the well reaches 1,966 feet. This is no dry hole. Oil flows from the bottom. The next day, a little after noon, the well is completed. Mike and Catherine Shellman drive home and catch the first few innings of the Astros game before falling asleep. The rig is taken down and moved off. A wellhead is installed. In all likelihood, Shellman’s final well, the Arnim-Warren No. 4, will produce a few barrels of oil a day through 2050 and beyond.