The Hunters


A controlled burn of oil from the Deepwater Horizon/BP oil spill sends towers of fire hundreds of feet into the air over the Gulf of Mexico June 9. (Credit: US Coast Guard/Petty Officer First Class John Masson)


I’m not writing to offer an apologia, but I have to say, life in the oilfield was wonderful. How much of that wonder was due to my youth—as well as the specific joy of youthfulness in the 1980s—and how much of the wonder was due to the nature of the work—the joy of the hunt—I cannot be sure. I think it must have been mostly the joy of the hunt, for there were old guys (there were almost never any women) who pursued the oil and gas with just as much fervor as the younger geologists.

We never called it crude, or black gold, or Texas tea. There were no clever nicknames, there was only the pure thing itself—oil if in the liquid state, or gas, if gaseous—that, and our pure and steady fever, our burning. If we ever referred to it as anything other than oil or gas, we called it pay. Four feet of pay, twenty feet of pay, thirty feet of pay. Sixty feet of pay was a lot, enough to change your life.

I worked for a small independent oil and gas company, which was owned by a wealthy individual who drilled his wells with the aid of a group of a dozen or so investors, rich people who believed in him and in us, but who were also entirely willing to stop believing if we one day ceased to be successful.

Speaking only for myself, I didn’t ever worry about that. I never mapped a prospect, never drilled a well that I didn’t believe was going to find pay. Success rates were somewhere in the neighborhood of baseball batting averages—between ten and thirty percent—but the baseball metaphor does not carry much further than that, other than perhaps the ability to salvage a game—or a career—with one certain swing, a key strike at the most critical time.

It wasn’t like baseball at all. It wasn’t like anything. The closest thing was maybe hunting—pursuing, with blind instinct and whetted desire and only a handful of clues, the hint of one’s quarry far into the wonderful wilderness of the unknown. Lands no man or woman ever saw, or ever will see, ten thousand feet below the ground. Beaches that received sunlight and warm winds hundreds of millions of years before the strange, momentary experiment of mankind arrived, cold and shivering and with neither fire nor fur. Beaches that were then buried over, still hundreds of millions of years before we first stirred, so anomalous and far from the spine of the main and older tree of life.

*    *    *

You were haunted by dry holes. The nature of the work—the rarity of the treasure—dictates that you’re wrong more often than you’re right. This rarity is what makes the pay-off so spectacular. But despite knowing this, after each dry hole, you couldn’t sleep. You couldn’t believe your maps were wrong. The earth was wrong, you told yourself. You must have just missed the pay by a few inches. Not by miles, but by inches.

I believe the word for such behavior is denial, a noun commonly associated with its closest cousin, addiction. We were addicted to the intensity of our hunger—the almost limitless depths of it—and to the certitude that we were needed, that we were vital. Such a feeling is not quite as wonderful as the condition of being loved, but it is similar, with its dependencies, and far more reliable.

Something that’s not being reported in the press is how deep the blowing-out formation is, or if BP even knows from what formation the hydrocarbons are spewing, or how thick the formation is. Typically, the larger reservoirs are deeper, but the fact that this one is blowing black oil (deeper horizons generally contain oil that is greenish in color and, at even greater depths, exist as natural gas rather than oil, due to the pressure at those depths) suggests the resevoir might be a shallower formation than BP was prepared for. Shallower, and yet larger: maybe the biggest in the world. Maybe they punctured, and tapped into, a thinly buried transoceanic pipeline. Is anyone missing a few million barrels of oil—half a day’s worth or so?

Why is this formation, this reservoir, behaving so monstrously, with enormous and apparently increasing flow rates? Is an immense salt dome—plumes of salt, ten thousand feet thick—swelling and bulging, flowing like a gel and squeezing this reservoir? Is this reservoir belching its gas in erratic hiccups and burps? What makes us so sure, with all the geologic intestinal pressure, that the relief wells won’t blow out?

Highly experienced oil rig operators from Norway, the Netherlands, and elsewhere are offering their assistance. So far, it seems, we haven’t accepted much more than oil-skimming booms and other bits of equipment. Why aren’t we accepting more help? National pride? Strange maritime laws? Film crews, photographers, and reporters are also apparently restricted from entering public air space near the Deepwater rig, and some journalists say they’ve been denied access to oil-stained beaches by Coast Guard and BP officials. Who benefits from this secrecy—other than BP?

Has anyone thought about the fact that hurricanes in the northern hemisphere rotate counterclockwise? When—not if—one strikes, this will likely drive the oil up onto the Texas coast. I’m sure Texas governor Rick Perry has the oil booms and the National Guard already mobilized, right? We’ll see how firmly he’ll hold on to his Tea Party secessionist dreams at that point. My guess? He’ll be crying for the feds’ billions faster than you can say, “Bobby Jindal.”

*    *    *

It’s not enough to distrust BP, or any large corporation. These days, you have to know how they work, the ins and outs of each industry, and the secret heart, secret ethos that governs the spiritless movement of each through our stressed history.

I’m here to tell you, BP doesn’t intend to just walk away from this beast, this monster, empty-handed. They will be lured back to it again and again.

What I am wondering is why BP hasn’t tried to cap the well yet, now that they have a housing over it—to insert a one-inch tube into the pipestring, the slender mile-long straw they currently have attached to the makeshift cap, and pump concrete down that tube. While BP has tried the so-called “top kill” maneuver—an unsuccessful attempt to push heavier-than-water drilling fluids down into the well to eventually stop the jet of oil—to my knowledge they haven’t yet tried pumping heavier-than-everything concrete.

If oil can go up that pipestring, as is currently happening—tens of thousands of barrels a day—then concrete can probably be pumped down. This seems to me to be BP’s best chance to deliver a knockout punch and cap it and kill it before the hurricane season really gets going.

Apparently no one has thought to ask this. The BP folks are sitting on this, and so many other things, like a secret. Their inside knowledge of a not-so-terribly complex technology is their power. Unlike the formulas for the secret recipes of benzene and toluene that Halliburton pumps downhole into these same wells—their “frac” (short for fracture) fluids that are potent enough to dissolve the interstitial cement of the aeons, allowing a little more gas to seep up the wellbore—this knowledge is not a trade secret. If oil can come up the makeshift string, concrete can go down it. I haven’t heard one person ask about this. We’re just standing by the side, vesting our power and authority to the people who least should have it.

We’re all indignant—we, who with every mile driven, every mouthful of food eaten (organic or otherwise), are complicit—but ours is not a righteous indignation, and we know it. Instead, we feel the grief and depression wrought by extreme self-loathing; and there is much to loathe, these days. It’s extremely hard to imagine a path to rehabilitation. We need a model for changing identity and renouncing addiction, and yet there is none. No wonder we’re frightened and angry.

I used to live down on the Gulf and I feel guilty that I am not more depressed—more devastated—by this toxic gush into the heart of the Gulf, or what remains of the Gulf, riddled already as it is with massive dead zones and floating islands of plastic three miles long—islands large enough to colonize and build resorts upon.

To possess an ecological awareness, wrote the American ecologist Aldo Leopold seventy years ago, is to understand that we live in a world of wounds. The shrimp were on their way toward extinction in the Gulf anyway, due to our channelization of the Mississippi River, the great source of their nutrients. Our flood control of that vast living system is robbing billions of tons of sediment that would otherwise keep building the Louisiana delta and marshes that the shrimp nurseries depend upon, and which serve as a buffer against hurricanes. South Louisiana is sinking fast without this sediment. As this happens, the shrimp populations will blaze out with one final pulse of productivity (toxic productivity now, for as the marshes sink and disintegrate beneath the storms, they will release one last burst of nutrients themselves)—but there is no more capital; the marshes are living on the debt of the past.

That doesn’t make what BP did right.

*    *    *

The corporation of BP—possessing now, due to a rightwing Supreme Court, the constitutional rights of an individual, but none of the responsibilities—is buying up ad space on the internet under the phrase “oil spill.” They are contributing billions to Congresspeople who grovel before them. The oil companies tell us we can’t afford to combat global warming, and that we can’t afford to not drill in sensitive areas. Such bans will make the cost of oil go up, cry the watchers of Fox News. But what we are not acknowledging in our addiction is that oil and gas are as heavily subsidized as any other American industry. Many of the corporations’ costs are externalized to the consumer, so that our energy consumption, energy addiction, is dependent upon such sleight-of-hand accountings as those that attend to any of the other socialized price supports that right-wingers pretend to find so terrifying.

The multinational oil and gas corporations—the biggest companies in the world, which in no way care whether America lives or dies, is free or captive, healthy or poisoned—have long succeeded in manipulating the US Congress to assume many of the costs of production, transport, health care issues, global warming, the clean-up of toxic spills, etc. Part of the secret of “cheap oil,” as we are finding out, is that it is not so cheap. Instead, we are paying our giddy debt forward with ferocious momentum.

Even when they drill on US-held properties—public land and government leases owned by the government—they refuse to let the government know what’s going on: even when the government is a partner in the drilling, via farm-out and override royalty interests, the oil companies refuse to let the government see certain papers and equations, such as the formulas of the fracture fluid the oil companies inject into the well bores and into those public lands, where the fluids make their way into public drinking supplies. It’s a trade secret, the oil companies say.

They could patent the toxic brew, the earth-killing concoction, and protect their trade secret that way. Maybe they don’t because they know it’s so toxic it would be illegal. But it’s illegal to not share it. Our government just lies down, intimidated by the myth of science, and by the power of big oil. Even today, big British oil is telling the media that they’ll be around in the Gulf for the long haul. What cheekiness! Isn’t it we-the-people who should be telling them that it’s actually we who will be the ones deciding how long they’ll be around? The $20 billion “trust fund” Obama negotiated is a drop in the bucket.

This brings us to the matter of the so-called relief wells that BP keeps promising to drill.

In more manageable environments, a relief well is slant-hole drilled, with the new well bore trying to angle in and intercept the existing wellbore of the blown-out well, so that heavy mud or concrete can be pumped into the reservoir, tamping down and ultimately extinguishing the well. New technologies make it easier than it used to be, but still it seems a long-shot proposition—imagine the odds of intercepting the same slender bore hole (ten-inch diameter) from a thousand or more feet away and maybe ten thousand feet above—trying to aim two miles of flexible pipe toward such a miniscule target while drilling through ancient stone. Sometimes it works; other times the pipe gets stuck or breaks. The truth is that nothing has worked so far.

My fear—my belief—is that we’ve gone way too far out into the deep end, to a place where not only are the old-school inland physics of the oilfield profession irrelevant or misleading, but to a place where the pressure of deep-horizon reservoirs and their behavior is largely unknown. We’re drilling on theory, but in the meantime the earth is blowing out its spume in reality.

Sometimes—sometimes—a well blowing out with tremendous vehemence will eventually collapse on itself. The formation will begin to cave in around the borehole, without pipe being set, sealing off the formation like a boulder, or boulders, being rolled in front of a cave. We might eventually get lucky—too little, too late, of course, and despite BP’s secrecy and ineptitude. Is this the best we can hope for? But even if it does collapse on itself and we are saved from our own dumbness by dumb luck, then what?

The disparity between what we don’t know and the depth of our hunger is a gulf of terrifying size and immediacy. What’s going on in these deepwater prospects is reminiscent of gold mining in the 1880s, where crews would turn giant hydraulic hoses on entire mountains and sluice the whole mountain away, washing it downstream, bathing the spoils in acid in order to gather the scant nuggets within. Barbaric, we say of those miners and those times, primitive. But it was all they knew. Their technology was not commensurate with their appetites. Nor will it ever be. Call it the inverse of Moore’s Law; human appetites have always been expanding at a rate greater than the rate of technological advance; this disparity is what helps fuel technological advance.

If the first well blew out despite the heavy drilling mud, why on earth does anyone who knows anything about this think the second and third well won’t blow, too? No one knows the size and nature of this reservoir that’s been discovered—no one. The only way to drill with heavier mud would be to use concrete, which is what you use to plug a well, not a producer, so why bother?

What I suspect the BP executives are thinking is this: We’ll try and get some other boreholes into this reservoir and produce it before the government shuts us down. Yes, it’s a risk, but maybe we’ll get lucky, maybe we can manage to keep the monster in check next time. Maybe it’s not as big and strong as we fear it is, and yet as we hope it is.

It’s worth the risk, they must be thinking. If the relief wells blow out too, what’s more oil on top of oil?

They can’t help but be doing the math. Sixty thousand barrels a day from two wells multiplied by 365 days a year at eighty dollars a barrel with a thirty-year reservoir must be starting to look like real money. Why, that’s over $100 billion, from just two wells?  It makes the $20 billion relief fund seem but a drop in the bucket. A profit.

*    *    *

In every industry, in every country, our old economic models are falling apart like wet cardboard. The old models hold up for a while, but they are not holding up anymore, and hurricane season is upon us.

BP needs to try to put a thinner tube down through their well housing as fast as they can, pump concrete into the formation, and then walk away.

They will never walk away.

Maybe it sounds hypocritical, my nostalgia and support of the small independent oil and gas producers who work not in fragile public wildlands, but in old inland basins in the south and east, where the wilderness has long fled. And maybe I am something of a hypocrite. I have solar panels on my home, I drive an old Subaru—but still, my footprint is huge, and my appetite is huge.

Every time we blink, we are using oil; the food distribution systems that give us our calories to blink, to speak, to laugh and love, to rail against the government, come from petroleum, we are choking and drowning on oil, our affluence is short-lived and unsustainable, and now, with the same sudden panic known perhaps to the brown pelicans whose oil-soaked wings will no longer keep them aloft or afloat on the shining gulf waters that were their home for the last 40 million years, we are sinking, overburdened, going under.

People are scrambling, trying to rescue us, and we are trying to rescue each other, but we are all going under.

The true price of oil in my estimation is currently somewhere around $300 a barrel. Too expensive! you cry, even as we are shelling out $325 for it right now. Carrying BP’s water. Carrying their buckets of oilsoaked sand. Carrying the trillions of dollars of productivity being lost due to global warming. Like children, or adolescents, we ignore the consequences of our choices, day after day, and the full and extended costs. There may not be an industry or a corporation we don’t carry on our backs, whether health care or automakers, banking or real estate speculation or home mortgages or mining or logging or farming. It is all imperfectly accounted for, we have all been living too high, hiding the true costs of things.

When I remember my days in the oilfield, there’s one image that comes to me most often.

I was in my late twenties, working eighty-hour weeks: burning the candle at both ends. We were drilling a deep well down in the swamps of south Louisiana, in a location so far beyond the end of the road that we had had to construct our own floating road of lashed-together boards—broad planks of cypress—to go out into the swamp another mile or two, extending our reach. It was a big project.

It was dark and I was driving through the swamp and through the forest in the darkness in a heavy rain, going a little too fast. The floating road was slightly underwater in places, so that often I was bluffing, aiming the company vehicle from point A to point C, trusting my route would get me there, and that I would stay on the floating road. As if my will or desire alone was enough to make it so.

I drifted off, however, and the car nosed down into the swamp.

I can barely recall the strength and nonchalance of the young man I was—the hunger I had for the world. It didn’t bother me at all that water was now gushing into the car. It wasn’t my car, it was the company’s. I was on a mission. I picked up the well logs, put them in my briefcase, climbed out through the window, and continued down the slick board road, ankle-deep in swamp.

I walked for a long time. Finally I saw a faint lone light in the woods, an old shack with one lantern. If the light had not been burning I would never have believed anyone inhabited the leaning shanty.

I hated to do it, but I needed to see if they had a phone. I paused, then rapped on the door.

I had assumed the inhabitants were sleeping soundly—my approach had been soundless—but so instantaneous came the reply to my knock that the two events, my knock and the dweller’s subsequent inquiry, seemed simultaneous.

The voice of an old black woman rang like a shot—“State yo’ name!”—and was shouted with such authority that I didn’t hesitate in the least, but answered her right back, “Rick Bass!”—as if the name of a twenty-five year-old white boy from Hinds County meant anything.

Miraculously—as if I had uttered the one correct phrase that would gain entrance—she opened the door, and like a witch, she welcomed me in. For whatever reason.

She didn’t have a phone. I couldn’t tell if it was a question of access, or if she simply scorned them. I visited a while, then went on up the muddy road, toward the tiny backwoods village several miles distant, and the cinder block hotel where I could rent an old beater car from the night clerk, a sled that would get me back to Jackson before daylight, so that the glowing lit world, the world of myth—the world we did not yet know enough not to believe in—could continue.

Looking back, everything about my answer amazes me: the unapologetic cheeriness of it, neither arrogant nor insouciant. I knew it explained nothing, but that no explanation was needed. I was on a mission: not quite a hero, but a messenger from the gods. If she wanted to have my name—if that was what was most important—she could have it. The night was young and I would get out of this just fine. I had made it out to the rig all right—the glow of the tower, isolated in that dark forest, looked like the glow that might come from the landing of an extraterrestrial spacecraft, and steam rose from the pipe that was being pulled from the hole, the drillstring steaming and smoking like something being born, the roar of diesel engines like that from an army, if not a civilization, a town. I had been there, gathered the treasure, and was headed back.

I had the treasure in hand, and was driving the logs back to Jackson, several hours north. It seems impossible that not so long ago there were no cell phones or scanners, no computers or even faxes. We had a crude portable instrument called a telecopier that we carried in a briefcase, like a portable nuclear bomb, but its transmission of the logs was blurry and stuttery; the preferred method was for me to just ferry them to the bosses, as if by Pony Express, pulling up in front of their mansions at three, four in the morning, knocking on the door.

They answered in their bathrobes. We would spread the paper logs out on the table like Biblical documents. The light seemed different, back then, and at that hour, in the kitchen—a gold light—while we studied the logs, and saw for the first time, the fruit of our labors, the degree of our wealth, with exhaustion limning the edges of our vision. Who would not want to live such a life? We kept the world going. We carried the world on our backs while the world slept, and we kept it going; for as long as we kept going forward, the world kept going forward.

I remember those days so well: the power and heady feeling of being needed, of possessing a valuable and honored—and honorable—skill. Finding oil is an honorable skill. The independents—who are fast going out of business, like the independents in any industry—still know this. The giant corporations we have entrusted blindly with world-power care nothing for words like honor.

*    *    *

This is the dangerous truth. The hungers in the men and women who are working the crane lift-gear levers of those blind husks and blind souls of corporations are every bit as hungry as you or I. They are good at what they do and are on fire with their hunger and they will track the oil down to the ends of the earth. But they—unlike the independents—have no limits on their powers.

They will find it, and will drill into it, no matter what the depth, no matter what the pressure. If we continue drilling at such absurd depths, this will not be the first such blow-out. It will instead only be the first one, the one that disturbed our blithe innocence.

President Obama says that as a nation we have to grow up now, have to put away childish things, and that our moment is now.

We’ll see.

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Published: July 10, 2010