“Man ain’t nothing but a man
But before I’d let that steam drill beat me down,
I’d die with a hammer in my hand.”
--Woody Guthrie , John Henry

The land drilling industry is undergoing debate on its own version of an American folk tale about the steel-driving legend of John Henry versus the machine.

You recall that legend, probably through the Woody Guthrie song , but the short version tells the story of a steel-driving crew foreman who constructs tunnels for the railroad in the 1870s when the railroad owner decides to replace the crew with a steam-powered hammer. To save his job, John Henr y challenges the owner to a race between his crew and the steam-powered machine. John Henry wins — thus creating a heart-warming American folk tale — only to die of a heart attack at the finish line.

A similar legend is unfolding today in the concept of drilling efficiency, the latest buzzword in the oil patch. Like most legends, the story, now embellished, is largely over when the tale hits the public-discussion phase. But the issue is the same: What counts more for efficiency gains in drilling unconventional shales — is it iron (technology rigs), or is it people?

A newly published Tudor, Pickering, Holt & Co. study confirms that the John Henry-versus-the-machine legend is, in fact, an apt analog when it comes to rig efficiency. Experienced crews and the ability of the industry to capture learnings in unconventional plays over time accounts as much for drilling efficiency improvement as the class of rig.

More on that study in a moment, but first some background.

Drilling efficiency surfaced in a big way in Eagle Ford shale during the summer of 2012 as one operator after another outlined how improvements in drilling cycle time enabled their companies to meet well targets with fewer rigs .

Since then, the drumbeat on rig efficiency has hit with rhythmic regularity at industry conferences and generated thousands of words in trade publications. Rig efficiency is not a new topic, though the frequency at which the concept was discussed accelerated with the 2010-11 newbuild rig push as operators ordered fit-for-purpose rigs to meet developmental programs in unconventional shales . Previously, the debate had been parochial to publicly held service providers in the land sector, often at investor conferences, during the first decade of the 21 st century following the