I go drilling for natural gas on a rig in the Gulf of Mexico.
My hosts, who don't get a lot of visitors, were confused about the purpose of my trip. Amy later explained they were also confused about me. The rig is equipped with wireless Internet, and before my arrival some of the men Googled my previous Guinea Pig exploits. Their favorite was about my stint as a nude model. Amy told me that in a game of telephone ("Just because they're men, don't think they don't gossip") the word had gone out that I was a former Playboy Playmate. I realized that when my helicopter landed, they were expecting someone more like Jessica Simpson on a USO tour.
Amy's room was a cozy capsule: built-in bunk beds (I took the upper), sink, closet, television, and a compartment for a toilet and shower. It was off the four-bed sick bay—Amy is also the rig paramedic. Recent patients included a first-timer who took his first wad of chewing tobacco and got sick to his stomach, and another young man who spent his off-hours suntanning on the heliport. Many people on the crew are given nicknames—his is now "Lobster." As we walked down the hallways, most rooms had a sign on the door, either "5 a.m. wake-up" or "5 p.m. wake-up." The rig operates 24 hours a day, with workers assigned to either daytime or nighttime 12-hour shifts. Besides a personal knock on the door (at an ungodly hour), the rig offers other amenities: unlimited meals, and daily laundry and maid service. After a two-week shift, the crew is flown by helicopter back to land—they live everywhere from Louisiana to Washington state—and they get to spend two weeks at home.
Most of the interior of the rig is taken up with rooms filled with gauges and dials and monitors. But there is a galley where food is available virtually 24 hours a day. It has four long Formica tables, and the food—heavy on the meat and canned vegetables—is presented cafeteria-style in big steam trays. Amy said you can tell the day of the week on any rig in the Gulf because they all go by the same food schedule: steak on Tuesday and Saturday, seafood on Friday, fried chicken on Sunday. (On my second day on the rig, a Tuesday, I sat down with crew members for a 10 a.m. steak lunch with sides of baked potatoes, ears of corn, broccoli, cauliflower, and biscuits. I normally don't make myself a five-pound plate of food at that hour, but I'd discovered by then there is nothing like watching other people work really hard to stimulate the appetite.)
There is also a small gym, a sauna, and a lounge. In the lounge are worn couches, two pingpong tables, a magazine rack containing the March issue of Successful Farming, and a large-screen TV—the rig has satellite reception. When I walked in, The Dukes of Hazzard was on the screen and two furious pingpong games were talking place. This was disillusioning, because I had hoped that in their spare time the crew would be carving scrimshaw and singing sea chanteys. Amy had me watch the mandatory safety film, and I came away with one indelible lesson: "Never stand under a suspended load."
Rusty Critselous, 53, the rig's cheerful drilling supervisor, then interrupted his duties to give me a thorough tour of the rig. He did a heroic job trying to explain to me what was going on. Mariner Energy was deeply concerned that in reporting on my vacation, I would expose corporate secrets. But a typical passage in my notes from Rusty reads, "We can get all the tubing picked up, then run our tubing hanger—it sets down in the tree. The next step is to open some valves, blow the well a little, shut them and release the tubing hanger running tool, then run and set the internal tree and our BOP stack." I had the feeling that if I ended up on the rig of James Bond's nemesis, the evil Blofeld, I would conclude he was a nice man who loved cats and was doing interesting work in petrochemical research.
Rusty had been onboard nonstop for a month to oversee the completion of the four-month drilling process, which was just weeks away. He is an independent contractor working for Mariner, which is an oil and gas exploration and production company. The Ocean America is owned by Diamond Offshore Drilling, which provides drilling equipment and services. We stopped and watched a crew of five men fashioning together lengths of 100-foot pipe like a series of drinking straws, then sending them down a hole in the deck to the sea. There was a choreographic beauty to their work. When the drilling is done, the Ocean America and its crew will travel to the next potential site, and the gas deposit from this one will flow through a pipe on the seabed.
As with any enclosed institution—jail, the military, a college fraternity—a rig has a clear hierarchy. The most junior people on the rig—some of them look like 19-year-olds—are called "roustabouts." They do everything from maintenance to unloading supplies to basic drilling, and they can earn about $52,000 a year. If they do well, they get promoted to "roughneck," with more responsibility and an increase in salary. And there is something wrong with this country if every red-blooded American young man doesn't want to spend some time in his life being a roustabout or a roughneck.
Onboard, it's impossible not to get caught up in Brobdingnagian and Lilliputian comparisons. To reach the deposit means getting pipe to the sea floor, 6,700 feet below, then drilling another 7,000 feet into the seabed—in other words, going the depth of the Grand Teton. And from 14,000 feet away, they have to hit their target with a pipe that is 9 inches in diameter—the size of a dinner plate. From there, the gas will flow 60 miles through a seabed pipe to an offshore processing platform. Then it will travel through another pipe 100 more miles to land, where it will be further processed and readied for distribution. That is, if the "rock docs" (the geologists) are right and there is a natural-gas deposit. "You think you know what you're drilling for, but it's all a guess," explained Billy Ledsinger, a subsea engineer. (The docs were right, and Mariner expects the gas will start flowing in 2008.)