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Alberta Online Encyclopedia
Canadian Petroleum Heritage
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Oil-Drilling Rig

Oil steam engineIn the infancy of the petroleum industry, cable-tool rigs were used to drill for oil and gas. The first well in North America drilled at Petrolia, Ontario in 1858 used a cable tool rig. They were used to “punch” into the ground. A twenty-five metre wooden derrick was constructed, with legs braced with horizontal and diagonal struts. On the derrick floor there were three cable reels wound with steel cable. One cable was the drilling line, another cable functioned as the bailer, and the third cable was used for lowering and pulling the casting. There also were three large wheels operated by a steam engine. Many of the men who worked on these rigs moved away after the oil industry slumped in the early 1900s. They took their knowledge and technology with them to Europe where they found work.

Oil rigThe invention of the rotary-drilling rig made cable-tool rigs obsolete, for all intents and purposes. The rigs, named for the rotary table through which drill pipe is inserted and rotated, could make deeper holes because they used a bit that drilled rather than pulverized the rock formation. Between 1915 and 1928, rotary rigs slowly replaced existing cable-tool rigs. The appeal was that rotary rigs eliminated the laborious, time-consuming bailing process used by cable-tool rigs to remove rock cuttings from the hole. Instead, drilling fluid was circulated down the drill pipe, through the bit, and up to the surface so rock cuttings created by the bit were lifted by the fluid and carried to the top. Cable tools do not effectively control subsurface pressures, and blowouts were common in cable tool operations. By the 1930s, the use of steam-powered engines gave way to the internal-combustion engine as the most important prime mover. Today’s modern rotary-drilling rigs are powered by diesel and diesel-electric engines.

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