When Brian Fribley’s phone rings at 2 a.m., the owner of Basinwide, LLC is out of bed and in his truck within five minutes. Those predawn calls often send him bumping down remote gravel roads to an oil rig 100 miles away. For Fribley, there’s never a typical day or night; it’s always something different, which makes his work an adventure and him a jack-of-all-trades in petroleum geology. A phone call from an oil company contracting his expertise might require him to correlate and document a new oil discovery or replace a clogged vacuum hose to a gas chromatograph on a drilling rig; he might monitor gas detection in real-time via his cell phone while hundreds of miles away, identifying trace elements of hydrocarbon gas in rock thousands of feet under the ground—gas that could be potentially dangerous.
Fribley, who earned a geology degree from USI in 2002, considers himself a hands-on petroleum geologist, and operates out of two offices: a high-tech one set among farm fields in rural Posey County, and a small trailer he tows to sites far from home. Although he jokes his neighbors think he’s always headed camping, in reality, the trailer is a low-tech toolbox on wheels containing the equipment necessary to maintain rigs on-site, as well as a high-tech lab equipped to analyze rock cuttings and core samples. Because Fribley might be in the field 22 hours at a time, the trailer is fitted with a kitchen, shower, and bed. “Some days I sleep a couple of hours then get up and do it all over again,” he said.
Even though 21st century technology has made his profession a little easier, Fribley admits the most exciting aspect of the work is relatively low-tech. During the oil-exploration phase, he works as a well-site geologist reading core samples of sediment and rock as they’re pulled from the ground. “The most fun for me is getting to see the rocks. I love seeing the micro-fossils in a core sample. These are fossils that are hundreds of millions of years old, and I’m the first one to see them. It’s a good feeling,” he said. “Of course, finding oil also is a pretty good feeling.”
As an independent contractor, Fribley concedes the oil business has changed since the early 20th century when the oil boom brought businessmen from big oil and gas companies into the Tri-state looking for the next gusher. Then, oil derricks and rigs popped up across gently rolling farmland. Today, you’ll still see wells in rural areas, stubbornly pumping away, supplying American-produced petroleum.
It’s on these wells that Fribley primarily works. His geology company specializes in working with oil companies located across Illinois, Indiana, and Kentucky’s petroleum and mineral- rich Illinois Basin. Working in the basin has given him an appreciation for the geology in his back yard. Too often, when students think of geology, he said, they think of rugged canyons and mountains out west, or the time-worn regions across the Shenandoah Valley. No matter what the area, however, geologists’ work is always the ground beneath their feet.