In his five decades in the drilling industry, Ray Brazzel has bored down to the things that really matter.
“Technology has improved and rigs are safer now, but they need to be,” said Brazzel, an area vice president of the Permian Basin Petroleum Association board of directors. He first began working in the oil patch as a roughneck in 1956.
“The hands we hire now are not like the hands we used to hire,” he continued. “The challenge is to find someone that if you had a flat tire on the way to the job, they would know how to change it. When we put people through our training, we have to teach them not only what to do on the rig, but we also have to teach them how to work. We have to teach them to get up and go to work and get along with people. I don’t see it getting any better. It is not just the oil and gas industry, either. It is everybody. I often tell people that the local surgeon is hiring from the same gene pool that we are. The only difference is we drug test our employees. That is scary.”
Brazzel’s lament is the challenge facing anyone who has to hire inexperienced workers in the booming oil and gas industry these days. It is the emphasis on safety, however, that has been a driving force behind Brazzel’s business for nearly 40 years.
That, plus a vigorous work ethic and a strong commitment to his workers.
“He’s admirable, honest, and upright. A handshake person.” So says Jim Phillips, a former employee of Brazzel’s, and now an owner of a business himself. Phillips is a partner in San Angelo-based Blue Line Drilling. He worked for Brazzel’s Bandera Drilling from 1984 to 2000.
“Ray’s pretty much a self-made person,” Phillips said. “In my personal opinion, he is the best at his business that there is, anywhere, in drilling oil wells and handling equipment.”
Phillips said that Brazzel does what he says he will do. “And you can take it to the bank.”
Asked why Brazzel was so good at his work, Phillips attributed it to smarts and dedication.
“He’s extremely intelligent,” Phillips said. “And he is dedicated to his employees. He knows that his employees are the most important thing in his business and he really supports them. Plus, he’s a great teacher. Sometimes you don’t agree about everything your teacher teaches you, but then when you get out on your own, you realize that he knew what he was talking about. That’s Ray Brazzel.”
“My son works for him now as a contract man. My son didn’t step into my shoes, but he did take my job, and I can see that my son is much better at what I was doing, because of Ray’s ability to teach a young person like him. He is a better contract man that I was at his age.”
Ray and Ann Brazzel formed Bandera Drilling Co., Inc., in Abilene in October 1975. Ann was an elementary teacher who learned office management through trial and error. Together, with Ann keeping the books on the kitchen table and Ray working in the field, Bandera Drilling acquired or manufactured a total of nine rigs over the next seven years. A trucking operation was started, too, that grew to a fleet of 22 trucks. Brazzel also formed partnerships establishing 14 oil-related corporations. Bandera now employs nearly 120 workers.
In March 2004, the International Association of Drilling Contractors recognized Ray and Ann Brazzel as Contractors of the Year, an award presented annually to those who have achieved excellence in the industry. It was during this period that Brazzel first began planning a “new generation” drilling unit.
“The idea is to keep people safe,” he explained, “to get people off the derrick where accidents a lot of times are fatal and to get people off the rig floor.”
He acknowledged that change to new generation drilling units has come slowly in West Texas.
“The old box-on-box 1950s rigs are finally beginning to disappear and the new equipment is beginning to be accepted,” Brazzel continued. “As late as 2010, it was hard to sell a top-drive rig.”
He said a box-on-box rig is cheaper, but the biggest reason for the slow change to the newer rigs was simply that “people don’t like to make changes.”
Bandera’s “new generation” rig, which was put in the field in May 2009, includes an electric top drive, triplex pumps, iron derrickman and iron floorhand, hydraulic disk brakes, and air brake. According to Brazzel, the rig is specifically designed and constructed to rack 90-foot stands of pipe and collars on trips, and to make connections while drilling with no personnel in the derrick nor on the fig floor.
The Gray Oil Tool Iron Floorhand is a system that makes procedures more efficient and safer, while reducing fatigue, according to the company’s website. This system replaces the pipe spinner, Kelly spinner, and manual tongs. Bandera’s “new generation” rigs also feature Eaton Air Brakes that replace hydromatic brakes for more braking power and efficiency, a hydraulic cathead, air slips, drench showers, and the Pason Electronic Drilling Recorder System, which is a system of computers networked around a drilling rig to provide drilling data to well-site personnel.
The company’s second “new generation” rig has been performing well since March 2012.
Brazzel said Bandera’s two “new generation” rigs have the ability to drill 15,000 feet straight hole and even deeper on horizontal wells. The company also has three double smaller rigs that can drill about 8,500 feet vertical depth and have drilled to 13,500 feet measured depth horizontal.
Bandera has one rig currently operating in Stephens County. Brazzel pointed out that his company has done a lot of work in the Barnett Shale in the Fort Worth Basin and
has always worked all over West Texas, all the way to the New Mexico state line.
He added that Bandera also has operated a fleet of trucks since 1978. That fleet currently consists of 14 rig-moving trucks and 32 trailers.
“We do some rig moving,” he stated, “although we are not out there every day soliciting business. But we do move rigs for other companies. In West Texas, a lot of drilling companies don’t have enough trucks to move rigs and some companies don’t have any trucks at all. We started moving rigs for other people because we had the trucks and there weren’t any independent trucking companies in West Texas.”
Brazzel noted that the nation’s rig count is down, dropping from a high of 2,300 a year ago to about 1,800 today.
“But those rigs are drilling as much footage as they were before because of new technology,” he added. “Companies are spending as much money, too. There has been no decrease in drilling budgets, there just aren’t as many rigs.”
Whether it’s a matter of hauling oilfield equipment or operating in the field drilling wells with its “new generation” rigs, Bandera’s safety policy and strong enforcement procedures are evident in the company’s stated commitment to the standard “a job is done well only if it is done safely.”