Exclusive interview with Colin Rice

November 28, 2023
Colin Rice, Owner, Colin RiceExploration Drilling Advisory
Colin Rice, Owner, Colin Rice Exploration Drilling Advisory

Colin Rice is the owner of Colin Rice Exploration Drilling Advisory, a company that provides consulting and training services to the exploration drilling sector.

In the early years, Colin was one of the founding partners of SAMCHEM (Pty) Ltd; Professional Diamond Drilling Equipment (Pty) Ltd; and Borehole Survey (Pty) Ltd, which was the first company in sub-Saharan Africa to utilize advanced electronic survey tools successfully.

He played a key role in establishing the National Diploma in Drilling Practice at Technikon SA and has been teaching drilling and exploration-related courses at various institutions and in several Southern African countries for the past three decades.

Colin launched the Drilling Industry Certification Authority of South Africa (DICASA) and is a past President of the Borehole Water Association of Southern Africa. Furthermore, Colin has been recognized as an Honorary Fellow of the Geological Society of South Africa. Recently, he contributed to the development of the newly registered QCTO Driller qualifications as a member of the working group.

In 2013, Colin launched DrillSafe as a mechanism to share safety information and to improve the ability of the industry to manage safety on drill sites.

Grigor Topev: Colin, thank you for agreeing to this interview. Let’s start at the beginning. How did you decide to replace a career in teaching mathematics with drilling? Which aspects of the drilling industry did you get involved in?

Colin Rice: When I went to university, I went for the sole purpose of becoming a Mathematics teacher and so I majored in Mathematics and Chemistry. After I finished university, I taught senior school mathematics in Zimbabwe for eight years.

In 1984, my wife and I decided to emigrate to South Africa. We left Zimbabwe with our little daughter, who was two at the time. I didn’t want to go back into teaching, so I looked for a job elsewhere. The mid-1980s was an incredibly difficult time in South Africa, and finding a job was not easy. Eventually, I was offered a job as a development chemist for a company that manufactured drilling fluids. I knew nothing about drilling, I didn’t know what drilling mud was, but I was desperate for a job, and I grabbed the opportunity with both hands. So, I didn’t make a conscious decision to move into the drilling industry – it just happened.

As I look back over the past 35 years, I consider myself to be extremely lucky because the lessons that I learned in those early days have been foundational for my career going forward.

GT: What was drilling like in the 1980s and 1990s?

CR: South Africa hosts the deepest gold mines in the world and so, many boreholes were drilled to depths of up to 4000 m (13 123 ft).

Back in those days, the South African gold mining industry was dominated by four major gold mining companies and each of those companies had its own ‘in-house’ drilling company that did the bulk of its drilling. The in-house contractors got work whether they were good or bad, it didn’t really matter because they were part of the family.

In addition, each of the major mining companies also owned their own equipment manufacturing company and it was very difficult for independent contractors or suppliers to get work from the four dominant drilling companies.

I am sure that many people would disagree with me, but I believe that the development of the industry was inhibited because of the structure of the industry.

Once the downturn hit in the late 1980s, deep gold exploration work dried up and the big in-house companies had to bid for shallower work in other sectors of the industry. They simply could not compete with the smaller, more agile independents and they all eventually closed.

GT: You mentioned that South Africa hosts some extremely deep holes. Please elaborate on that and share some stories from the 80s and 90s. What is the deepest hole you know of in the region?

CR: One of the first deep holes I worked on as a young mud technician, was a 3800 m (12 467 ft) gold exploration borehole. The contractor was having a problem with an over-pressured shale band, and I was asked to help stop the caving. I decided that a small increase in mud density would solve the problem and so I set about mixing up the mud system.

In those days, B-size wireline drill rods couldn’t reach deeper than 1400 m (4593 ft), so the borehole was drilled conventionally with a 3 m (9.84 ft) single-tube core barrel. Typically, it would take 45 minutes to fill the barrel, then 13 hours to pull and another 12 hours to lower the drill string! I had to be on site when the bit was on bottom, so I drove to the site, watched them drill for about an hour and then I drove back to my office for a day’s work while they pulled and lowered.

These deep and ultra-deep boreholes were very costly to drill and always involved a great number of deflections. All deflections were done using steel wedges and so many boreholes took several years to drill.

I was also lucky enough to have worked on some small oil rigs that were brought into South Africa to drill some ultra-deep boreholes. The boreholes had to be drilled very quickly and so they were piloted using tricones to approx. 3000 m (9843 ft) and then cored 4.8 in (12.19 cm) to the target depth.

As with any new technology, the first few months were not terribly productive. Open-holing the top sections through extremely hard rocks was difficult and slow and once the rigs got to coring, bit life was a huge problem. Eventually, they got things right and they did some amazing work.

I remember setting up the mud system on one of the last boreholes that the rigs drilled on the day they spudded. I was again on the rig 84 days later when the borehole was at 4048 m (13 280.84 ft)! 4048 m in 12 weeks – that has to be some sort of record.

Colin Rice in action
Colin Rice in action

GT: You managed a company called Professional Diamond Drilling Equipment (Pty). What products did you manufacture?

CR: After I left the mud business, I met up with an old friend, Graham Martin. We were both looking for something to do and we decided to purchase a company called Professional Diamond Drilling Equipment (Pty) Ltd (PDDE). PDDE was the Southern African agent for JKS Boyles, a very famous Canadian drilling equipment manufacturer. The products that JKS Boyles manufactured were a perfect fit for the Southern African exploration industry at that time and so the business grew very quickly. Graham was the most incredible business partner; we were business partners for 31 fantastic years.

In 2000, we saw an opportunity to purchase a diamond bit manufacturing company and that decision was probably one of the most significant decisions that we ever made. As a major manufacturer, we became a significant player in the Southern African industry, so much so that our company was acquired in 2003 by the Craelius Division of Atlas Copco.

GT: What are the main aspects of your current business – Colin Rice Exploration and Training?

RC: I consider myself to be the luckiest guy in the drilling industry because I have had exposure to a number of aspects of our industry and that has pretty much shaped how my career has developed. I guess my current business involves three main areas of activity:

  • Consultancy: I do consulting work for a number of mining companies around drilling issues; I do a lot of development of tender specifications and evaluation of tender submissions. I have done a number of reviews of exploration projects, and I have developed a lot of cost models for a number of mining companies.
  • Safety: I am involved in safety auditing for many different companies in several different countries.
  • Training: The third aspect of my business probably developed because of my teaching background. Back in 1987, I started presenting training programs for geologists aimed at improving their understanding of basic drilling principles.

Over time the demand for courses on safety and drill site supervision increased and so I have developed and presented a fairly wide range of training programs, for many mining companies, for industry organizations, for universities, and even for contractors.

As I have aged, my appetite for travel has diminished and so about six years ago, I migrated all of the programs onto an online platform. We now have people from all over the world involved in our programs.

Training is one of the most satisfying parts of my work – there is nothing more satisfying than seeing people being able to apply a skill or a piece of knowledge that you have taught them. I really love the training part of my business.

GT: Please share with our readers about DrillSafe Southern Africa. How did you start the initiative and what has been its impact? What’s its ultimate goal?

CR: DrillSafe was originally launched in 2013 as an attempt to improve safety performance in the industry. I have always believed that there is nothing proprietary about safety – if I know something that can save an arm or a life, it is my obligation to share that information.

Initially, we published technical articles with a safety focus, and we published safety information – incident and accident reports. Through a number of sources, I was given incident and accident reports from many different places in the world. I would then ‘sterilize’ the report by removing all references to a person, a product, or a place. All I wanted were the learnings from the incident so that we could share the information on the website and hopefully prevent a repeat.

The website took off very quickly, but after a couple of years, some mining companies decided to no longer share incident and accident information across the industry and the initiative lost momentum.

By October 2017, I had been involved in a great number of safety audits and investigations and I became increasingly frustrated at seeing the same safety issues time and again at every project I visited. Large and small contractors alike had the same fundamental lack of understanding of basic safety principles and thus I decided to refocus and relaunch DrillSafe.

I believe that one of the biggest problems our industry currently faces is a lack of skills and contractors have people working on drill sites who have no, or very little experience or training. All training given to new entrants is focused on getting them onto site – little is focused on technical or safety issues. Every driller is expected to complete a pre-start check of his rig, but often the driller does not really know how to identify a defect. In many cases the driller has not been trained to identify defects in equipment or processes, and critical safety issues are not identified.

To help with this, I decided to create a series of ‘Drillers Resources’. These are a series of A3 posters that deal with specific safety aspects, such as how to inspect a flexible hose, how to inspect a steel wire rope, the risks associated with pressure relief valves and so on. These resources are available for free on DrillSafe.

Our overarching objective of the initiative is to encourage the sharing of knowledge and experiences, and we are fortunate to have the support of remarkable companies like Anglo American and Major Drilling who believe in the initiative. I am very proud of DrillSafe and I hope that more people in the industry use the resources on the website.

GT: How do you manage to adequately identify drill site hazards and associated risks when so many diamond drilling contractors refuse to reveal incidents, occurring at their drill sites?

CR: Despite what I said earlier, over the past few years there has been a dramatic shift in attitude among a number of mining companies and they now very openly share information. I am part of a couple of ‘safety groups’ made up of safety leaders from all the major mining companies, Anglo American, Rio Tinto, Newcrest, First Quantum, Newmont to mention only a few. We meet on a monthly basis and have amazing discussions on safety issues, equipment and trends, and experiences and learnings are openly shared.

GT: What are the most common drill site injuries and how to avoid them?

CR: Instead of talking about common injuries, I would rather use this opportunity to talk about the significant risks on drill sites! I believe that drill site safety revolves around four key elements:

  1. the equipment that is used, the drill rig, compressors, boosters, rod loaders, etc;
  2. the people who interact with the equipment on a day-to-day basis;
  3. the activities or procedures that take place on a routine and non-routine basis and,
  4. the local environment that may alter the way that certain procedures are conducted.

All these elements are interrelated, and all affect one another, but very frequently mining companies and contractors focus only on equipment safety.

We must never forget that equipment doesn’t kill people, processes kill people. Very seldom do we hear of a catastrophic equipment failure in the industry, we only hear about failures in procedure that have caused an accident or a fatality. We have to rely on people, drillers and offsiders to conduct the procedures and everyone in the industry is acutely aware of the shortage of skills and experience in the industry.

Our greatest risk, I believe, is not the equipment that we use, it is the people that use and maintain it.

GT: Considering your extensive knowledge and experience, can you think of a drilling development that at one time was hailed as revolutionary, but turned out to be a fad lost to time?

CR: This is a difficult one, I don’t think I can identify one particular development that failed. Many lessons learned from an apparent failure have helped develop a new product or technique.

I have always tried to approach drilling issues from a technical perspective. Everything that happens on a drill site can be explained in terms of physical principles and so, I am in full support of companies that innovate and try new processes or techniques.

Unfortunately, many people often put more energy into explaining why something won’t work than they do trying to make it work – I find this attitude incredibly frustrating.

Back in the 1980s many of the old ‘conventional’ drillers said that wireline would never work – well it did!

GT: What is your experience with directional drilling?

CR: I got involved in directional drilling, not as a driller but as a supplier of technology to drilling contractors. Back in the early 1990s, all directional surveying was done with film-type magnetic survey tools. There was only one major manufacturer and in South Africa, the sole distributor was very expensive, so we were asked by some of our customers if we could source the same equipment. It didn’t take much effort to source the same equipment at very much reduced costs and that was our entry into the surveying business. Eventually, we started a contract survey company, Borehole Survey, that used to survey very deep gold and platinum exploration boreholes using film-type multi-shot tools.

Surveying a 3500 m (11 483 ft) deep borehole using a film-type multi-shot tool was fraught with difficulty and in 1995, we decided to purchase two electronic multi-shot tools from Reflex, the Swedish manufacturer. These were the first electronic survey tools in sub-Saharan Africa and they totally revolutionized the deep hole surveying in Southern Africa.

We became the local agent for Reflex and at one point our little business was responsible for selling 25% of Reflex’s production of electronic survey tools. This was how I started understanding the survey business.

One of our major customers was a large coal mining company that was attempting to develop a technique for drilling surface-to-inseam boreholes for dolerite detection. I believed that the steering technology that they were using was inefficient and I convinced them to change to a mud pulse telemetry system. This technology was well-established in the oil and gas industry but had never been used in a mining application before.

Eventually, they decided to switch to the new technology and the project really took off. The value of the information that the boreholes provided to the mining company was immense and I consider that particular project to be one of the most successful and satisfying projects that I have ever been involved in. This was a pivotal moment as directional drilling became a significant part of our business.

At that time, one of the large gold mining companies was drilling some very deep gold exploration boreholes in South Africa. On two of these holes, very long deflections were required to reach some hard to get to targets, so we got involved in running small diameter, 23/8-in, downhole motors at depths of 3000 m (9842 ft). Again, this was brand-new technology applied in very difficult conditions.

One of the boreholes was a remarkable success and the other was not so successful! In the second one, we got a bit ambitious with the build rate and we created a dogleg at very great depth that eventually caused the borehole to be abandoned.

Today, there are numerous successful directional drilling techniques that are widely applied in deep exploration boreholes. I think that the industry has developed a good understanding of what is and isn’t possible and I believe that directional drilling has a massive role to play in the exploration industry.

GT: What is the state of the drilling market in South Africa nowadays? Which are the main players, what are the biggest projects?

CR: South Africa is not enjoying its finest times in terms of exploration and mining, policy uncertainty and many other structural problems make investment in long-term projects unattractive. Most major mining companies have left the country and there is not as much greenfield exploration taking place as in other African countries. By far, the bulk of exploration work is ‘on mine’, essentially for ore body extension.

Drilling rates are extremely low compared to other countries and local contractors have had to become incredibly efficient to survive and make money. Companies like Rosond Exploration, Zaaiman Exploration, Hall Core Drilling and Master Drilling are among the largest local contractors.

GT: Building from the previous question, is there anything that the global industry can learn from the South African market?

CR: Wow, this is potentially a very dangerous question. From a technology point of view, the South African industry just does not have the critical mass that other countries have and so investment in technology has been far short of other countries. Having said that, one South African contractor, Rosond, has undoubtedly led the way in terms of true, hands-free drilling technology. The company currently runs a massive fleet of state-of-the-art drill rigs involved in diamond core drilling, grade control and rotary percussion applications. To my knowledge, Rosond’s fleet is by far the largest of its kind in the world and that is something that they can be very proud of.

I would also add that in many respects standards of safety on some South African exploration projects are as good if not better than in many other countries. I think it is fair to say that South African contractors have embraced safety initiatives, therefore contractors are no longer part of the problem – they have become a part of the solution to improving safety standards.

GT: Various companies in our industry are releasing autonomous drill rigs and rod handlers. Please share your opinion on these developments… Do you think they can make the work of drillers truly safer?

CR: Mining companies and many manufacturers perceive drill string handling to be the most significant risk in an exploration drilling operation, so ‘hands-free’ rod handling became the target. Unfortunately, mining companies did not define what hands-free means to them and many systems were released that were not at all hands-free. A great deal of time and money were expended for very little reduction in risk. In fact, many systems increased risk.

Designing a mechanical rod handling system for rotary percussion and RC drill pipe is relatively easy and many rod handlers have been developed that significantly reduce risk and make drilling safer. Mechanically handling wireline drill rods, however, presents several additional challenges – the requirement for accurate thread alignment, the requirement to clean and lubricate threads, and for correct compensation when making or breaking a connection are critical and unless these requirements are addressed, the consequential damage could easily outweigh any benefit. Some manufacturers have successfully managed these challenges and they will undoubtedly make the work of drillers safer.

I do not believe that drill string handling does in fact present the greatest risk in a wireline drilling operation. I think that wireline retrieval represents the greatest risk but very little work has been done on mechanical inner-tube handlers. I have recently seen a couple of add-ons to existing drill rigs that assist in inner-tube handling, though I do not believe that they are the complete answer. The industry must be encouraged to look at solutions. I am absolutely convinced that some workable systems will begin to be introduced in the short term.

We must not forget that every piece of technology that we add to drill rigs brings with it its own set of risks and it is essential that these risks are fully assessed and mitigated. If we don’t, we will continue to hurt people in our industry.

GT: Teaching the new generation of drillers and mentorship are the cornerstones of our industry. How should companies approach teaching the ropes to newcomers? What can young drillers do to develop their skills and knowledge?

CR: I think that this question hits the nail on the head. Without a doubt, people represent the greatest risk in any drilling operation. While ‘human-free’ drills are the objective, we will still need human beings to interact with drilling equipment for the foreseeable future and the only way that we can manage the associated risk is to ensure that people are correctly trained.

Based on many interactions with large and smaller contractors, training is focused on two objectives: getting the person approved to get onto site and teaching the person enough that they can produce meters. We need to do more than just this, we need to deepen drill crews’ understanding of basic drilling principles, the equipment, surface and downhole, that they use and how all systems in a drilling operation affect one another.

GT: What are the latest developments in drilling fluids and additives? Is there anything different today compared to when you first entered the industry?

CR: Bearing in mind that drillers used water instead of drilling fluids back when I started, I would say that there have been some significant changes in the drilling industry over the years.

One major shift is the increased emphasis on environmental considerations. Nowadays, drilling operations are much more environmentally conscious than in the past. In the old days, we didn’t pay as much attention to environmental impacts, but today, there’s a greater awareness of the need for responsible practices.

Another development is the improved understanding of fluid technologies. Drilling companies now grasp the benefits of using additives, both in terms of managing geological risks and enhancing drilling efficiency. This understanding has grown significantly since my early days in the industry.

While I don’t closely monitor the mud industry anymore, it appears that the industry has become quite competitive in recent times with some new companies making significant inroads, challenging the established players.

GT: What is the most important lesson that you have learned for yourself during your career?

CR: I guess there are three lessons that I would pass on to any young person entering the industry:

  1. All business is based on relationships. relationships take many years to develop but they can be destroyed in seconds. Build relationships and value them, don’t destroy them.
  2. Trust is everything. If your customers trust you, your chances of getting work from them are very good. Always act with integrity, always under-promise and over-deliver.
  3. Never stop learning. Use every experience, whether it is a good or a bad experience, as a way of deepening your understanding. Ask questions and then ask more and more, but do not believe everything that you hear on a drill site!

GT: You claim that in order to be good in the drilling business you have to know the process from the beginning until the end. What are the main things in your view?

CR: As I mentioned earlier, an exploration drilling operation is made up of a great number of systems that affect one another and the better our understanding of these systems and their relationships, the more effectively we can manage an exploration drilling project.

None of these systems are terribly complex, but often, I see cases where a driller does not understand the most fundamental aspect of the work.

I recently completed a review of a very large number of drill rigs and not one of the drillers could tell me what their pump output was – not one!

Consequently, none of them knew what their annular velocity was, and none had any real idea of what flow rates should be.

These are very simple concepts and so to answer your question, the main things that we need to understand are basic drilling principles.

GT: You’ve had several truly successful businesses in your career. What do you think is the most important personal quality to run a successful business in the industry?

CR: I am very flattered that you believe that I have run successful businesses. I am not sure how one measures success in business, but if I have been successful then I guess my appetite for work has been a major contributor. I truly love what I do, and I have absolutely no problems getting up in the morning to face the day.

I must also add that no one runs a business or develops a career in isolation, many people have been pivotal in my career: my wife held my family together all the times that I was away on business; Andre Ferreira gave me my first job, the late Mario Paro gave me my first order for drilling fluids in 1985; Stu MacGregor asked me to audit an exploration project that he was managing and that opened up the world of safety auditing for me; Graham Martin has been my business partner for over 30 years, and my daughter Erin played a huge role in developing the training part of my business. Without these people, I would not be where I am now, and I am forever grateful for their influence and help.

GT: Where are you currently located?

CR: My wife and I moved to Melbourne in April because all my children and grandchildren have been here for eight years now. We have a very close family, and it is fantastic to be able to spend a great deal of time with them. We have a beautiful home here and over the next couple of years, I would like to wind down so I can spend even more time with my children and grandchildren.

GT: How is a normal working day for you nowadays?

CR: I am still working on several projects in South Africa and other African countries, so my day usually starts at about 3 p.m. and runs through until about 10 p.m.! The time difference between Melbourne and South African time takes some getting used to! I am not sure that I have adapted fully yet, but I am grateful that I have so much work.

GT: What are your interests outside of the drilling industry?

CR: My wife would tell you that I have no interests outside of the drilling industry! I am extremely lucky that I am kept very busy on projects for the wonderful companies that have supported me over the years and I learn something new from every project I do. I guess, maybe my wife is correct – the industry is my hobby!

For more information visit: colinriceexploration.co.za and drillsafe.co.za