Gulf Oil Spill Likely to Kill Oil Rig Jobs, Too

oil rig jobsIt has been one month since BP's Deepwater Horizon offshore oil rig erupted into a cloud of explosive smoke and fire, killing 11 crew members, and sending a thick deluge of oil into the Gulf off the coast of Louisiana.

America has been watching as this disaster slowly unfolds and claims the lives of fish and wildlife -- and threatens to ultimately change the livelihoods for many Southerners who make a living working these oil rigs. "A lot of these offshore workers come from Mississippi; they are just kids, but they are learning to become men. There is no drinking or carousing. Everyone's counting on you and all you want to do is drill a good well," said Mickey Murphy*, a seasoned rig worker. "It's a good job for people, you can earn a solid, decent living."

This spill, which is rapidly becoming the worst environmental disaster ever in the United States, has left everyone scrambling to clean up the leaked oil, and save everything from the marshes and wetlands to the oil and fishing industries that so many people here are count on. "I have no choice but to take it one day at a time," Murphy said.

Life on a rig

"It's like a city out in the middle of the ocean. There is no Christmas, no Easter, no rain. It does not stop. It can't stop," said Murphy, who is no stranger to the trying two-weeks-on, two-weeks-off, 12-hour tour (pronounced "tower"), or shift, that is the life of an oil rigger.

Allison Phelan* graduated from Union College in 2008 with a degree in geology and immediately took an unconventional job as one of few women on an oil rig in California. Her schedule was grueling. Phelan worked 12-hour days on the rig for four weeks, then she would fly home to New Jersey where she would stay for her two weeks off. Her job was lonely, tiring and intense, but absolutely vital to the smooth functioning of the oil rig. Phelan knew she was a part of something big; something important, even if it came with little glory or recognition.

"I usually worked the 7PM-7AM shift alone, or maybe with a trainee, and during my shift I would collect the cuttings from the holes that the drillers made and look at the samples under a microscope. Then I would be able to determine how much gas was coming up, and I could create a mud log which told the rig workers how much oil there was, the quality of oil, and the location of the oil," she said.

Murphy and Phelan's descriptions of life as rig workers are eerily similar. These jobs are characterized by long shifts, hard manual labor, being alone a lot, and pushing yourself to the outer limits -- both physically and mentally. But, both also highlight that there is a real satisfaction that comes with this type of work. Each rig is like a home base for its workers, and you quickly develop a familiar rhythm with your peers. Somehow during all the working, eating, and sleeping, riggers find time to develop a real sense of camaraderie.

"On the larger rigs, the crew can be as many as 140 people. Everyone's job is to be safe out there. It takes team work to run a rig; and if you don't use team work, you can't make it in this business," Murphy said.

What went wrong?

What went wrong that fateful day in April, and why did all the safety measures that are in place on these rigs fail to prevent such a monumental disaster? Phelan assures that oil rigs are really safe when they are running well, pointing out that efficient, experienced crews appear almost "automated" as they drill and pull pipes out of the ground.

So was it a convergence of a few small things that happened to go wrong all at the same time? Was it human error, or was it something that could have been prevented? We may never learn these answers.

One explanation is that crews can drill so deep nowadays that things can change in an instant. The deeper you drill looking for oil, the more you increase your chances of having gas levels rise, and "when gas is high, even the most experienced guys with 20 years or more on rigs are tense," Phelan noted. You may get a bigger payoff, but the stakes are clearly higher.

You try to control the gas levels by controlling the weight of the mud, but that is not a precise science either. There are automatic shutoff valves and blowout prevention equipment (BOPE) that help maintain safety levels, but "the more gas and oil you are finding, and the deeper you are drilling, the greater your chances are for having problems because there are so many things that happen at once in an instant; you really have to be lucky to stop it."

Murphy agrees with Phelan. While safety is a huge concern for all oil rigs these days, there is always room for human and mechanical error. Murphy says that there are documents called stop work orders and that anyone on a rig, for any reason, can call work to a stop in order to maintain the safety of the rig, but that unfortunately, people do not always use them because they don't want to be singled as the responsible party that cost the rig money or led to delays.

An anonymous oil rig worker with 15 years in the business says that, for something of this magnitude to happen, he believes that there were signs that something was wrong, but that not everybody was on top of things and that maybe no one wanted to speak up.

The aftermath

Murphy went down to the Fourchon beaches a few days after the spill, and he could smell the oil. In addition, there were new signs up stating that the beaches had to be closed and a new set of rules were being enforced by the local police.

Worst than the smell of oil in the warm Southern air was the fact that no one knows what happened that day on that rig and that no one knows what to expect in the future as this disaster unfolds. "We don't know what this spill is going to do. So far it's got everyone scared, livelihoods are on the line, we cannot fish in certain areas, and if it gets into the marshes we are in deep crap because it will completely kill the fishing industry," Murphy said. Even the U.S Secretary of the Interior, Ken Salazar. admitted, "We don't know whether it's going to be minimal or not. It could be catastrophic."

Phelan got out in time. After a year and a half on an offshore rig, the traveling began to get to her. "The hardest part was being away and so isolated for months. It definitely wore on you. That is why there is so much turnover in my job. The traveling and staying in hotels gets old." Now Phelan has taken her geology degree and is working as an environmental consultant in Westchester County, N.Y., admitting that, "it's kind of ironic that I used to work on oil rigs, and now I help to clean up oil spills."

What's on the horizon?

With thick, viscous oil as far east as Alabama, and more than 6 million gallons already spilled into the Gulf, Florida fears the worst for its coastline as oil begins to be swept into the loop current, carrying this problem along with it and making it less localized.

For those left behind to clean up this mess, people like Murphy, who know no other life than to work on a rig, are hoping for the best, but are not completely confident that this spill will end quickly. "It's like Katrina all over again. It will take a while to get past this," he said.

Next:Oil Spill Cleanup Will Mean New Jobs for Many

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