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14 Years

The following essay is an excerpt from for our report "The Future of Energy & Work in the United States: The American Oil & Gas Worker Survey." Leo Lindner recounts his own experiences in the Gulf of Mexico oilfields and that fateful night of April 20, 2010.


The names in the oilfield are telling. The people I’ve worked with are actually more important to me, but the names of drilling rigs always seemed to frame the work.


Nabors names its rigs with a simple number. I broke out on a little land rig in Choctaw, LA. The drive led through a swamp on a plank road thick with mud and ended at Nabors 7.


Never met a group of guys so wild, but so good natured. After washing off the ruin of the day, younger hands would tear out of the gravel lot for a bar. The older hands settled for yelling at any football game on. The company man wore a hardhat on the site, like everyone, but his was shaped into a cowboy hat, and he said his name was “Stick.” Stick was curt, direct. So much so that when he was too curt and direct with the oil office that hired him, Stick got “run off.” There were a few people run off that job, a directional driller, a mud logger - for reasons as abstract and arbitrary as the numbering of the rig.


Once, I walked on the mud pits to jaw with the hulking derrick man. I asked, “What’s going on?” He shot back in a high Mississippi treble, “Man, hell if I know. They pay me from the neck down.” I thought ‘this guy must be some kind of philosopher.’ It was the first time I heard that phrase—they paid for a body, not a brain. But I heard it often enough when I started working offshore. There are rigs with names painted on them with a little flair of local color: The Cajun Express, the Rowan Midland, the Pride Florida. The Cajun Express was my only experience in doing completions. We did things like “pickle the pipe.” “Pickle” is usually some form of organic acid pumped through the pipe to remove the scale and rust so the pipe doesn’t oxidize. The pickle was a royal, deep purple and purpled everything it touched. When they fracked the reservoir, the rig must have pumped a whole Mardi Gras worth of beads into that well. Years later on another rig, during a safety meeting, we learned a roustabout was killed moving pipe on the Express. To hear our safety man tell it, his death was entirely his own fault for getting himself in a “pinch point.” But the MMS (now BOEM and BSEE) report was a bit more clear:


The regular Tool Pusher, Deck Foreman and Assistant Crane Operator were all on personal leave, and a Roustabout had passed away on his time off. This created a need to change positions and bring personnel from another crew. A Roustabout with a Class B Operator’s certificate was designated the Acting Crane Operator and task supervisor to manage multiple rig tasks with a newly created and relatively inexperienced crew without additional Transocean management oversight. A Roustabout was acting as the pipe handler Operator and supervisor of the operation, with a Roustabout that normally served as a Floorhand acting in the role of the pipe handler Spotter (Deceased).

I understand the safety man’s need to push the blame down on the spotter. He wouldn’t keep his job long if he pointed to the company as the problem, but the politics of the safety systems in the oilfield functions in this way. They function as a firewall, protecting the company from liability. Transocean pushed the job even though they were undermanned and the men they had were inexperienced.


The Midland was named after the town in the middle of the Permian Basin in Texas. The Rowan aesthetic seemed a throwback to the oilfield of the 60’s. The hands still wore metal hardhats and smoked in the galley, and I seem to recall there was a picture of John Wayne in the toolpusher’s office. One of the crane operators wore his hardhat at a slant and swaggered like he meant it. He had to relieve himself while he was in the cab of the crane, unloading a ship. Not wanting to stop, he made use of a nearly empty bottle of Windex. When the next shift started, the fresh crane operator thought the cab windows needed cleaning and started spritzing. That story circulated around the rig quickly.


The production company was a small operator, and their company man was a bit of a cowboy himself—an angular man with nicotine-stained fingertips and a magnificent head of feathered hair that a ten-gallon hat would have ruined. We had cemented at a casing point and drilled out of the new cement to perform a leak-off test on the shoe. The shoe is where the casing ends and is usually the weakest point in the wellbore). The test was weak—leaking off shy of the weight they needed to get to the next casing point. With no talk about re-cementing, the company man fudged the numbers of the test, and told us to drill ahead. Not long after, the rig drilled into a saltwater flow—the well was forcing saltwater into the well-bore. The oil company knew it didn’t have the mud weight to kill the saltwater kick without creating a bad leak at the shoe. They decided to plug and abandon the well.


On the Pride Florida, there was a driller who, when he was drilling ahead, would always get on the PA system and smartly announce, “Mining for oil, gas and other valuable minerals in the Gulf of Mexico.” Every rig should have such a driller. I never asked him what those other minerals were, but it did a service, reminding us we were miners.


We were still shallow in the well when we drilled into an unexpected gas pocket. The drilling fluid was too light to hold it back. The mud burst up on the rig floor in such a gush that it blew the master bushing up the Kelly pipe like a large carnival strongman game. When the bushing flew up and struck the steel swivel, it rang out but louder than a carnival bell, more like a cathedral bell.


There are rigs that carry names that read like vanity plates. The Noble Corporation has a few of them: the Noble Jim Thompson, the Noble Paul Romano, and the Noble Lorris Bouzigard—I guess the vanity is doubled by the adjective. I worked on the Bouzigard where the lead company man was a grizzled, but funny piece of work who spoke with the aid of a voice box. He came down to the shakers during a displacement and sidled up to me saying “When I see a mud engineer, he’s usually standing in a puddle of piss.” I remember the robotic way the word “piss” hit my ear, with no fluctuation of emotion. He smiled, wanting to see how I would react, and I returned, “I’ll work up a puddle for you when we’re done” and smiled back.


While the day company man was wise, who’d seen it all, the night company man had never drilled a well in the Gulf, and the next night, while we were drilling ahead, we took a kick and didn’t shut in the well until some of that kick got in the riser. When we circulated out the gas bubble, it blew drilling fluid all over the rig.


We had to displace and temporarily abandon the rig soon after that, not because of the gas bubble. The need was pressing, and the rig didn’t have a lot of time. In order to do it, we had to set a mechanical plug in the well to seal it off. When they tripped into the hole and got the plug to the blowout preventer, it hung and wouldn’t go through. Hands started wringing. Because if we couldn’t set the plug and complete the abandonment in time, the crew would have to ride out Hurricane Katrina on the rig. After some sweating and a day’s worth of attempts, the rig floor found the sweet spot and the plug slipped through the BOP.


As we left on some of the last flights in the Gulf before the storm, the Noble crew turned off the diesel engines and the rig went quiet. Odd, and a bit eerie to hear a rig go silent because a rig is meant to be a constant, billowing machine, driving toward a well’s total depth and then the next total depth right after. Only nature’s threat made that little sleep possible.


When we landed, the wise old cuss went around shaking hands. His words were kind, if robbed of their emotion, but that emotion shone on his face and pressed into his warm handshake—not entirely grateful for himself, more grateful that the crew made it ashore. As rough as the start of that well was, I would have liked to have finished that well and to have drilled more wells with him, but I was pulled from that job to go to work on the Horizon.


I noticed that the bigger the rigs got, the grander the names, drillships and giant floaters with names straining with power like Ocean Monarch and Deepwater Invictus, some heaped with aspiration and authority, like the Ocean Valiant and the Deepwater Conqueror, names pointing to the heavens, Deep Ocean Ascension, Deepwater Asgard, and the Deepwater Athena. Some names point to the depths and the heavens at the same time. And there are names that now seem touched with fate, like the Deepwater Horizon.


The Horizon would often get a visitation from corporate royalty after some accomplishment, and the rig had drilled the world’s deepest oil well with a total vertical depth of 35,055’. So they were on their way: vice presidents, operations managers, drilling engineers in fresh hardhats, working up sugary words for the occasion. David Rainey was BP’s Vice President for Exploration in the Gulf who spoke in a musical Northern Irish brogue, and on this occasion during a safety meeting for the crew he congratulated the rig for the accomplishment, how well the job had gone, and put forward that “we were all family,” all in it together, and how this close bond is what cemented our success. Some hands looked pleased; others looked deadpan. Roy Kemp offered me a wry look. We both understood if there were any kinsfolk in the room, their hardhats were scraped and muddied and held heads worrying about providing for their loved ones, and the ploy to wipe away the distinction between rig workers and our princely visitors by plying us with appeals to “family” smelled like ripe arrogance. The truth is, while probably falling short of a familial bond, the rig crew, with a few exceptions, did have a marked affection for each other.


Roy was a derrickman, but was soon to be promoted to assistant driller. It was easy to see why. The Air Force Veteran had a lighting mind and a muscular work ethic.


But what comes to mind the most was his uncanny grasp of religion. When the rig was logging (which meant he and I had little to do), he would walk over to the mud shack (my little office) and we would talk. His views on religion were nuanced, thoughtful. We spoke once about the apparent capriciousness of God, when he allows bad things to happen to good people. For instance, there is always the tired scene in some murder mystery when the valiant detective asks his devoted underling while standing over a bloody crime scene, “How can a good God allow this to happen?” Roy cut the question: “He let us kill him, didn’t He? Why would He allow that? We should be grateful if He saves any of us.”


About half a year later, the night of the blowout, I had been on for 15 hours and my partner, Gordon Jones, told me to knock off with a friendly vulgarity and a slap on the back, for which I’ll always be grateful. The last thing I did before going to the living quarters was walk down to the mud pits to say goodbye to Roy. His shift was over in a matter of hours, and the next day was his crew change day. Your heart grows heavy flying to the rig, and is just about intolerably light flying from it. We shook hands—he was thinking of his wife and two beautiful little girls. They had plans. By his face and his words, I could tell that his heart was growing light. Maybe it’s cruel to be given a light heart in such a dire hour, but when the end came, I hope, in some mysterious way, that the love from his two little girls and his wife helped strengthen and lift his heart.




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