Pumpjacks Represent Symbol Of Life In American Oil Fields (2024)

Pumpjacks Represent Symbol Of Life In American Oil Fields

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Pumpjacks have been part of the American landscape for decades, and they remain essential in today's shale fields.


In recent years, the boom in shale drilling has put thousands more pumpjacks in the field from south Texas to North Dakota. Pumpjacks nod up and down day and night, sucking hydrocarbons out of the earth, like solitary prehistoric birds dipping for a drink. But they're more than oilfield equipment. They're an American symbol of life in the oil patch. NPR's John Burnett sent us this story.

JAMES WHITE: You want to kick the pumpjacks on?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Through walkie-talkie) You want them one at a time, or you want them all at once?

WHITE: Just kick 'em on.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Through walkie-talkie) Will do.


WHITE: My name is James White. I am facilities manager of the Permian Basin Petroleum Museum. I have worked around pumpjacks for 30 years.

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: James White used to roughneck on drilling rigs in West Texas. Today, he takes care of the impressive collection of historic pumpjacks at the Petroleum Museum in Midland, Texas. Three operating pumpjacks are installed in front of the museum. What does it make you think of when you hear that sound?

WHITE: That's the sound of making money. Every time that wellhead is being pulled up, oil is going into a tank.

BURNETT: A pumpjack is like a windmill. It brings liquid to the surface in a low-pressure well. The bobbing horsehead, it's called, assisted by counterweights and an electric motor raises and lowers a sucker rod that extends thousands of feet into the earth where it operates a downhole pump. The oil well can make three barrels a day or 3,000 barrels a day, depending on its age. Pumpjacks are such a fixture in the Permian Basin of West Texas that they're a rite of passage for some daredevil adolescents. White remembers back in the day.

WHITE: One a nice, warm summer night, we were liable to pop a few tops on some beers and get the machismo going. You know, the testosterone between teenage boys and having a good time, somebody would always get brave and feel like they could climb the ladder and get on the walking beam and sit up there and go up and down with it for a little bit.

BURNETT: The Petroleum Museum is adamant. Do not try this. The Midland County EMS chief confirms that every few years, they respond to a horrible accident with a young man and a pumpjack. It never seems to go out of style because pumpjacks never go out of style, which explains why two years ago General Electric paid $3.3 billion for Lufkin Industries, the largest and oldest pumpjack manufacturer in America. GE made a big bet on the continued expansion of shale drilling in places like the Eagle Ford in South Texas and the Bakken in North Dakota.

ANDY CORDOVA: Fracking has opened up more wells. It needs larger pumping units.

BURNETT: Andy Cordova, downhole product leader for Lufkin Industries, stands inside their huge Buck Creek plant in the city of Lufkin, located in the piney woods of deep east Texas. There are more than 600,000 producing oil wells in the United States, and he says more than 80 percent of them require pumpjacks.

CORDOVA: We're using up to 40 to 60 trucks a day getting this equipment to the well site, to the customer.

BURNETT: Lufkin Industries has weathered a century of oil price gyrations. Executives like Andy Cordova were more bullish a year ago when crude was selling for twice as much as it does today.

CORDOVA: Well, we know this is going to be a tougher environment going forward for us. We're sure there will be a slowdown. The good thing for us - we have such a large install base, we will continue to do the maintenance because they have to keep the wells running.

BURNETT: In other words, as long as we're addicted to oil, we'll need pumpjacks. John Burnett, NPR News, Lufkin, Texas.

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Pumpjacks Represent Symbol Of Life In American Oil Fields (2024)


What is the purpose of a pumpjack? ›

A pump jack in an oil field. A pump jack is a device used in the petroleum industry to extract crude oil from a oil well where there is not high enough pressure in the well to force the oil to the surface. These pump jacks physically extract the oil for use.

What are the pumps in farm fields? ›

A pumpjack is also called a beam pump, walking beam pump, horsehead pump, nodding donkey pump (donkey pumper), rocking horse pump, grasshopper pump, sucker rod pump, dinosaur pump, Big Texan pump, thirsty bird pump, hobby horse, or just pumping unit.

What are the names of oil pumpjacks? ›

- A pumpjack (also called donkey pumper, nodding donkey, pumping unit, horsehead pump, rocking horse, beam pump, dinosaur, sucker rod pump, grasshopper pump, Big Texan, thirsty bird, or jack pump) is the overground drive for a reciprocating piston pump in an oil well.

How do oil pumpjacks work on land? ›

An electric or gas-driven engine rotates a counterweight, attached to an arm that moves a pivoting beam up and down. A cable at the opposite end pulls a rod assembly up, and drops it down again. A hollow chamber with a simple valve opens and fills each time the rod descends, then closes and lifts it up to the surface.

What is the history of the pump jack? ›

In the 1870s-80s, the metal device named pump jack, first conceived by Plackross in 1877, replaced the wooden structure that served the early industry so well, and it then spread over the south and west of the United States.

What is the nickname for a pumpjack? ›

Pumpjacks are alternatively known as a donkey pumper, oil horse, pumping unit, nodding donkey, rocking horse and grasshopper pump among other names.

Are pump jacks still used? ›

It's estimated that over 96% of US oil wells will need to use a pumpjack at some point in their lifespan. Typically, pump jacks are gas or electricity powered and can remove up to five barrels of oil per minute from the ground.

What is a pump operator in oil field? ›

Pump operators run pumps that move everything from oil and gas to runoff slurry from mining operations, and even powdered material used in manufacturing.

What's the difference between an oil derrick and a pump jack? ›

Their valves and operation differ slightly. They also produce different rates of extraction, with pump jacks typically pumping faster than oil derricks. Pump jacks also usually require more power for operation.

What is the nickname for oil workers? ›

Roughneck is a term for a person whose occupation is hard manual labor. The term applies across a number of industries, but is most commonly associated with the workers on a drilling rig.

Are pumpjacks used for water? ›

The two popular pump jack units described below are used to pump oil and fresh water and for water recovery from gas wells at moderate production levels. We closely monitor each stage of the manufacturing process to ensure that our pump jacks offer consistent quality and dependable long-term operation.

How much electricity does a pump jack use? ›

An average 100 horsepower jumpjack uses around 9,960 kilowatt hours a month, at eight cents a kilowatt hour that's almost $800 a month for a single pumpjack.

What do oil field pumpers do? ›

As an oilfield pumper, you operate and maintain all auxiliary equipment that pumps oil. Your responsibilities are to install a pump system, monitor the pumping rate, and separate natural gas from oil.

Does drilling for oil destroy the land? ›

Exploring and drilling for oil may disturb land and marine ecosystems. Seismic techniques used to explore for oil under the ocean floor may harm fish and marine mammals. Drilling an oil well on land often requires clearing an area of vegetation.

What is the advantage of a pump jack scaffold? ›

Pump jacks are appealing for certain applications because they are easily adjusted to variable heights, and are relatively inexpensive.

What is the difference between pumpjack and oil Derrick? ›

Their valves and operation differ slightly. They also produce different rates of extraction, with pump jacks typically pumping faster than oil derricks. Pump jacks also usually require more power for operation.

How to use pumpjack in Minecraft? ›

Once it's powered and an empty pipe is connected to either fluid port, the jack pumps at a rate of 15 mB/tick. If there's a reservoir below it, it brings the fluid to the surface. Multiple Pumpjacks in one chunk increases the rate of extraction.

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