Predicting disaster in the rough, ready oil-field ethos

Filed under: Opinion | Tags:,

All summer, I’ve wondered about the wrong guy.

The BP-owned Macondo well blew out in April, and we’ve all watched and sorrowed over the environmental destruction of the waters of the Gulf of Mexico, as crude oil relentlessly spewed out of the broken pipe on the sea floor.

I’ve listened to the stories of livelihoods ruined and beaches despoiled. I’ve also thought about the one person who’s been talked about the least — the BP “company man” who made the decision to replace drilling mud in the well with much lighter seawater. In hindsight, that decision seems reprehensibly thoughtless. The man — and I assume it was a man — who made it was so wrong, and caused so much damage, he doesn’t seem worth considering. We just hope he’s sorry for what he’s done.

But I made my own costly mistakes in the oil field.

In the spring of 1980, my fresh geology bachelor’s degree got me a job with an oil well service company, Western, at that time Halliburton’s chief competitor. So that summer, I found myself in the desert of West Texas and southeastern New Mexico. We’d get up at 2 a.m., load trucks with sand, acid, salt water, 50-pound bags of guar gum powder, drums of surfactant chemicals, and iron pipe.

We’d drive for hours to some patch of dirt, and under the stars, hammer the pipe together tightly enough to withstand multiple thousands of pounds per square inch of pressure. In the midst of the glorious sunrise, we’d start the job. The noise of our 700-horsepower pumps would outdo the speakers at most rock concerts; even the toughest “hands” knew to wear earmuffs under their hardhats.

Most jobs took several hours, and when they were over, we used our six-pound hammers to disassemble the pipe, cleaned up the trucks back at the yard, and fell into our beds 20 hours or so after we’d left them. With overtime, the money was amazing.

I was awful at it.

The high score I earned in the mechanical aptitude test didn’t translate to understanding how a truck-mounted pump worked. I stripped the gears on one truck, cut a corner too close and brought down a ranch fence, closed the valves on a water truck too soon, opened acid valves too early.

“You’ve got degrees from one end of the room to the other, why don’t you get this?” a trainer screamed one afternoon.

It didn’t help that I was female, in a place where women were secretaries, store clerks, and housewives. When I made a mistake, it was proof that I had no business there, and the men who took extra time to explain the ins and outs to the male trainees, often turned away in disgust from me.

Eventually, I sold cement jobs, and one afternoon I drove several hours to a drilling rig close to the Guadalupe Mountains. I slapped on my hardhat and knocked on the door of the Amoco trailer.

“So who’s cementing this well?” I asked the company man.  “I guess Western is,” he answered, smiling and eyeing my cleavage and denim-clad hips.

And that was how I sold my deepest job. The well drained the Atoka sandstone, 8,000 feet down, and the job was worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Only I didn’t realize that the wellhead required specific parts hardly ever used in West Texas, and, at 4 a.m., I miscalculated the volume of cement required.

In my four years in the oil field, I learned that it’s easy to make expensive, environmentally disastrous mistakes there. Things happen quickly, and often at night; you must be on top of many facets at the same time, and you don’t get time to consider alternatives.

Once I flew from Fort Worth to Midland next to a tired and dispirited OSHA field worker. I told her I’d seen safety rules flaunted constantly. We worked too many hours, hefted too much weight, got exposed to serious heat in summer and cold in winter, and breathed in and touched dangerous, corrosive chemicals all the time. Complaining about work conditions wasn’t tolerated by either supervisors or coworkers. It was the oil field, not a cushy elementary school.

We didn’t treat the natural environment any better than we treated ourselves. Most wellheads had huge basins next to them, where the chemical-fouled water and drilling mud that came out of the well would drain. I don’t want to consider how long it took the land to come back to anything resembling its natural state, in the West Texas steppe, because I, too, made money off the land’s despoiling, and maybe that was my biggest mistake.

What’s my point, you ask. My oil field was 30 years ago, and who knows how things have changed since?

Conditions might indeed have changed. But I can too easily imagine that night scene, on the Macondo well. The BP company man screaming, throwing his hardhat down perhaps, or maybe just stating his position and walking away, knowing he’ll be obeyed. The Deepwater Horizon driller shrugging, and finally following direction. Neither of them could have predicted what would happen next. It was late, they were tired of delays and problems, and they just wanted to get things done.

And then, the rough-and-ready ethos of the oil field led to disaster.

Syrovy is a teacher in Colorado Springs’ District 11. Reach her at