An insider's view of the oil spill

If BP overreached, writer Rick Bass thinks he understands why. He once hunted oil too

An oil-soaked pelican
(Image credit: Getty)

I’M NOT WRITING to offer an apologia, but I have to say, life in the oil field 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, 20 feet of pay, 30 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.

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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 10 percent and 30 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 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, 10,000 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 payoff 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.

IT’S NOT ENOUGH, if we now wish to make the world right, to distrust BP or any large corporation. You have to know the ins and outs of each industry, the secret ethos that governs the spiritless movement of each through history. In this case, it’s that hunger.

The idea that the relief wells BP is now drilling will end once and for all the leaking and spewing of its ruptured oil reservoir seems an unlikely proposition. Technology has improved since I worked in the industry, but imagine the odds of intercepting a 10-inch-wide bore hole from 1,000 feet or more away and maybe 24,000 feet above—trying to aim five miles of flexible pipe toward such a minuscule target while drilling through ancient stone. And what makes us so sure, with all the geological pressure pressing the oil upward, that the relief wells and the temporary cap put in place in mid-July won’t blow out?

A temporary dome is not a final plugging, not under any rule of law or practice of industry. My fear—my belief—is that we’ve gone way too far in our hunt for oil, to a place where the old-school inland physics of the oil-field profession is irrelevant and the behavior of the reservoirs we’re tapping is an unknown. What’s going on in these deep-water prospects is reminiscent of gold mining in the 1880s, when 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 technology ever catch up. Call it the inverse of Moore’s Law; human appetites have always been expanding at a rate greater than the rate of technological advance. Today, the disparity between what we don’t know and the depth of our hunger is a gulf of terrifying size.

WHEN I REMEMBER my days in the oil field, there’s one image that comes to me most often.

I was in my late 20s, working 80-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 extend our reach another mile or two into the swamp. 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 put the well logs 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 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 25-year-old white boy from Hinds County, Mississippi, 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, Miss., 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. I had been there, gathered the treasure, and was headed back.

I had the treasure—the well logs—in hand, and was driving them 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 3, 4 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. 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 dangerous truth is that the hungers in the men and women who are working the crane lift-gear levers of the world’s major energy corporations are every bit as hungry as I was. 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 few limits on their powers.

They will find oil, and will drill into it, no matter what the depth, no matter what the pressure. If we continue drilling at such absurd depths, BP’s will not be the last such blowout. It will instead only be the first one, the one that disturbed our blithe innocence.

From a longer story originally published by the Virginia Quarterly Review and available at Used with permission. All rights reserved.

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