Oil Work Like “Wrestlin’ with a Tornado”
A glimpse of life in the extraction industry
Amid the vast sea of ink spilled in the course of covering the blowout of BP’s Macondo well, the media has given very little attention to the men (and they’re all men) who do the hard, dirty, and often dangerous work in the oil and gas industry. Partially this is a matter of the inherent biases of storytelling: Any reporter seeking to understand the impact of the BP gusher is naturally going to be more attracted to struggling fishermen and on-the-verge-of-bankruptcy hotel owners than to the saltwater roughnecks who maintain the 3,000 oil and gas drilling and production facilities in the Gulf. But there’s another challenge to getting the oil workers’ story: Those guys don’t talk. As I’ve noted before, the oil industry is incredibly tight-knit, a business where personal relationships and loyalty are make-or-break for a career. There seems to be something of a code of ethics about talking out of turn, and during my eight-day trip to Louisiana I had a hard time getting any oil workers to speak on the record. Most of them would make a rock seem talkative.
So it was something of a lucky break that when, flying out of New Orleans’ Louis Armstrong airport last month, I happened to find myself in line behind two oil services workers. When I introduced myself as a reporter for an environmental magazine (which is something of a double strike against me), the pair were hesitant to talk. But once I assured them that I wouldn’t use their last names or mention their company, and that I just wanted to hear what “it’s really like in the oil and gas industry,” they warmed up. People everywhere and in every business, I have learned during a decade of reporting, like to talk about their work.
And in the opinion of those two oil industry workers, at least, the work in the oil fields isn’t as rough as many people make it sound.
“Sure, you’re living on a platform producing oil, but it’s pretty safe,” said Michael, the more veteran of the two, who has spent 29 years in the oil industry, first offshore and now working for an oil field services company that helps to snub (or close) wells. “You work six months out of the year and you make $100,000. It’s not as bad as people make it seem. The food is great. They have rec rooms where you can play pool and watch TV. You work half the year and you make more than you do on land.”
The issue of work site safety came up, and Michael said that, since there are no trade schools to prepare you for a job in the oil industry, keeping everyone from getting hurt is all about knowing what you’re doing and relying on your on-the-job training. “There’s plenty of physical stuff,” he said, “But you have to know what you’re doin’ and why you’re doin’ it.”
Michael also said that he thinks the federal safety regulations are pretty tight, and that in the years he has been in the industry the focus on worker and environmental safety have only improved. “The industry standards are the best they’ve ever been,” he told me.
Then he admitted that even with the best experience and the tightest rules, the job involves risk. “We’re human,” he said. “We’re gonna have mechanical failures.”
And when you are trying to snub a well — a task that involves creating enough hydrostatic pressure to counteract all of the Earth’s force that is trying to push oil and gas up out of the ground — if things go wrong, they’re going to go wrong in a real bad way. “It’s like being in the basket in the bar-b-que — if you fuck up, you light up.” He then added: “It’s an interesting life.”
What I appreciated most about talking with Michael and his buddy was their complete lack of bullshit when it came the true nature of oil and gas extraction. Without succumbing to either cynicism or sentimentality, these guys recognize that punching a hole in the Earth’s surface to suck out hydrocarbons is inherently a violent act — and that it needs to done with a certain humility … or else you risk getting burned. Michael and his co-worker didn’t have any of the hubris we’ve seen from the BP executives, the sense of entitlement that expresses surprise when something goes wrong. Having actually worked in the oil fields, these two know that nature often frustrates the best laid plans of men.
“We’re humans,” Michael said. “You don’t piss off Mother Nature. You gotta stroke her just right. With oil and gas, you’re messin’ with Mother Nature. It’s like wrestlin’ a tornado.”