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Robert L. Cavnar Headshot

My Industry -- the Oil Industry -- Should Be Ashamed of Itself

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Phoom!  It was that impossible to describe sound that happens when you're too close to the blast to hear the full roar.
 
I could see nothing but orange, black, and red as I was instantly engulfed in an intense, all consuming heat.  It was immediately sickening, and my subconscious tried to process the fact that I was in serious trouble. At that same instant, I was knocked off my feet, slid head first down a muddy slope, plunging into chemical saturated water.  The fire was overhead now, and I was completely disoriented.  Crawling on my belly, under water, unable to breathe, I was trying to get away from the heat that had permeated my skin.  I crawled for what seemed like hours, though it was only seconds, everything in slow motion.
 
Suddenly, I felt strong hands grab me, pulling me from the ditch I had been blown into.  I was doused with ice-cold water from a drinking water can, causing me to draw a sharp breath.   I was alive.  Ken Gillespie, an oil field truck driver I knew well, was in my face shouting if I was OK, but he was a blur and I couldn't hear a thing.   As my breathing improved, I came around, and became aware that I was almost completely undressed.   The blast had blown off almost all of my clothes, including my boots, hardhat, watch, and the sunglasses that had protected my eyes.  My jeans were around my ankles.  I was in one piece, but definitely a "crispy critter".   My mustache and hair on the front and left side of my head were fried. I was covered in frac gel and the skin on my face and left side felt like it was on fire. I was lucky that the breath had been knocked out of me, saving my lungs from ingesting flame.  I breathed deeply as Ken doused me with ice water again and smeared Silvadene, a commonly used burn cream, on me.  He had himself been burned in a refinery fire a few years previously, and, lucky for me, carried a burn kit in his truck.  I was lucky.  Today, I carry little physical evidence from that flash fire, landing in the ditch that saved me from critical injury, but I think about the incident every day; this brush with death changed me forever.

It was July 1981.  I was 28 years old, superintendent for operations of a small, Dallas-based independent operator, and had just survived an up-close-and-personal encounter with a pit fire on a location where I had been completing a Cotton Valley gas well in East Texas.  This well, over 11,000 feet deep, had been nothing but trouble from the start.  We had beaten our brains out during the drilling phase, stuck pipe multiple times, dealt with drill pipe leaks, and struggled to get production casing to bottom.  On top of hole trouble and mechanical failures, we had to deal with a grouchy landowner who was more than happy to show off the hole he had blown in his dining room wall with a shotgun shooting at his son in law.  The son in law had physically abused the landowner's daughter and Dad didn't like it.  Welcome to East Texas.

Once we got production pipe set, we finally got a break and the completion had gone relatively well, at least up until the point that I set myself on fire.  This day had started early as I opened the well right after sunup to flow back the frac job that we had pumped the previous day.  In those days, air and water pollution were given little thought.  It was common practice to use unlined open pits to drain frac tanks, mud tanks, and to catch wellbore fluids as the well was drilled and completed.   These pits were simply pumped out and then covered up with dirt when well operations were concluded, leaving behind tons of contaminants to leach into the soil.  Most drilling fluids were spread on pastures in the region as most ranchers believed that drilling mud actually improved the local soil.  On this particular day, the well had strong pressure as I opened the frac tree valves and began flowing fluid directly into the flare pit.  The well began slugging fluid mixed with natural gas as the well unloaded.  I watched as the well cleaned up and pressure increased, a good sign.
 
Early in the afternoon, I decided to see if the gas buster, which separates gas from water and installed at the end of the flow line, would light off.  To light the pit flare, I used the technique common to the day...soak a cotton rag in diesel, light it with a cigarette lighter, stand on the pit edge and toss it onto the flow line.  What I had failed to realize was that the well had produced much more gas and condensate than was obvious due to the high volume of water.  For several hours, the gas had settled in the pit, being heavier than air, with the condensate coating the water, something I couldn't see, since condensate is clear.  The burning rag hit the gas buster...

Phoom!

I started my career in oil and gas in the mid-1970s, towards the end of the old unregulated days of the wildcatters.  The industry, at least domestically, had become more and more decentralized over the previous seventy years, made up of thousands of producers that ranged in size all the way from Mom & Pops to the Majors.  Science and technology were developing rapidly, but other important elements of the business lagged.  Safety programs in many companies were viewed as mere inconvenience, and given passing attention, especially by the smaller firms.  Since I had begun my own career about 6 years previous to the fire, I had experienced my own collection of injuries; smashed digits, a broken tooth from being hit in the mouth by a chain on a drilling rig floor, and almost being killed by a falling joint of drill pipe in a near miss accident on my first job on my first day on an East Texas drilling rig.  That first incident was a little too close for comfort.  Missing digits, scars from burns, lacerations, and broken bones were common on every drilling rig floor I had ever stood upon.  Drugs and alcohol were the painkillers of choice.

Very early on in my career I learned that the industry I had chosen, though I loved it, was dominated by the macho myth of big iron, big rigs, wild wells, and wild men.   I was swept up in it myself, pushing my own personal limits; my efforts propelled me quickly up the ranks, but my aggressiveness was one of the causes that lead up to my losing battle with the pit fire.  Rules were made to be broken, and money was A-1.  Profit was everything, and efforts to make those profits not only pushed the edge of the envelope of responsibility and honesty, they often tore the envelope all to pieces.  It was common practice for service companies to overcharge customers and to use inferior products to increase margins.  Salesmen regularly offered up everything from cowboy boots to televisions fo company men who could be influenced by this graft to send work the salesman's way.  Pipe and wellheads were regularly stolen.  Oil was siphoned off into water tanks, only to be picked up and sold by unscrupulous water haulers.  A common saying was that if the representative for oil purchasers didn't steal his own salary from the producer by under-reporting oil on location, he wasn't doing his job.  Producers underpaid royalties to landowners by applying adjustments and excessive charges.  It was everywhere.

Just out of college, in 1977, I went to work as a trainee for the Western Company that provided well stimulation and cementing services.   I was excited to move from the pipeline business where I had worked for several years on corrosion control systems and coatings while I went to night school, to the big time: drilling rigs in East Texas, one of the largest oil producing regions in the country.   I learned quickly, though, about the rules.   One of the first things I was taught, besides how to handle an 18 wheeler, was how to falsify my DOT driver's log so I could work more hours than were legal.  I later watched, and indeed participated myself, driving huge well servicing trucks on public highways with little to no sleep for days on end.  But that log was filled out right to mask it.   During these days, I witnessed other dangerous practices and carelessness that were commonplace and saw several men severely injured and even killed as a result.
 
As my career progressed, I witnessed these, and other practices that endanger lives, pollute our air, water, and the very ground where we live, work, and raise our children.   We have helped develop a worldwide economy based on the burning of carbon-based fuels that releases greenhouse gases and other noxious particulates into the air.  I also watched my industry deny that its activities have any effect on our environment, fight every effort to reduce those dangerous activities, yet take credit when improvements forced upon it actually worked. 
In the last four decades, the US has become dangerously dependent on foreign sources of oil, which are mostly hostile, even as the oil and gas industry encouraged burning more and more oil by supporting economic policies that squander, not conserve supply.  Billions of dollars have been invested all over the world to develop reserves, and a good argument could be made that most of the violence and instability in the Middle East today is directly caused by multinational oil companies and the governments with which they colluded.   To protect their monopolies, majors and independents have poured hundreds of millions of dollars into political candidates who carry their water, only to scramble, generally too late, to respond when political winds shift.  I have watched many energy executives rail about money being taken from their wallets ignoring the legacy they are leaving their own grandchildren.  I've even listened to several talking about members of their
own families dying prematurely of cancer even while denying that the very
air they breath and water they drink may be causing that cancer.

I have spent my career in this industry, immersed in its culture and practices.  I've worked in the field, on the finance and deal making side, and managed companies large and small.  I've witnessed the denial of the impact on others' lives by those who are contributing to that impact simply to protect profit.  I've also witnessed huge strides in technology that have allowed us to drill deeper to smaller targets in ever more hostile environments.  The hard slap in the face though, was my own realization that our reliance on these technologies has led to a "We are the Masters of the Universe" myopia that has led to an blythe dismissal of the true risks of drilling where we drill.

Last night, I watched the videos of the oil on the shore, the dead and dying birds, and then started thinking about the 11 guys who were killed on the Deepwater Horizon.  I then watched the live feed of oil
roaring into the water from the severed riser as they tried to set the top hat, and again hearing the BP mantra: "We won't know for another 48 hours."  After 45 days of waiting.  Jesus.

I have to say that, after 30 over years of being in this business, I am so ashamed of my industry, it's arrogance and complacency that led to this catastrophe.  I've tried to be analytical, looking at the technical causes and possible solutions, but I'm now finding myself just getting more and more angry.  I've worn a flat spot on my forehead banging my head on the desk watching Tony Hayward and others stumble and bumble through the last 6 weeks, only making matters worse.  Clearly, despite all of the assertions to the contrary, BP, and indeed my entire industry, were totally and utterly unprepared to manage a blowout of this complexity and magnitude.  

BP, and every other company who drills in the deepwater, assert in every permit filing that they are able to deal with potential blowouts and the ensuing spills that may occur, claiming that minimal environmental damage would result.  In reality, nothing could be farther from the truth.  My industry doesn't have the slightest clue how to deal with a catastrophe of this magnitude, and many simply dismiss it, calling it "a black swan," or "one in a million," or, "that accidents happen."  Well, that's not good enough.  We should all be ashamed of ourselves as we remember those 11 good men who were killed that night for no good reason.  We should be ashamed of ourselves as we watch hundreds of miles of pristine wetlands turn into oily pits as untold hundreds of birds, fish, dolphins, and whales die their slow deaths from ingesting the toxic soup of crude oil and chemical dispersants.

As I watch BP struggle with this monster, saying every day that "this has never been done before," I get more and more furious at BP, my industry, and myself.  It's time to stop.  Putting aside the crippling political issues of having no comprehensive energy policy and our country's dangerous dependence on foreign oil, we need to stop thinking about our wallets and start cleaning up our own house.  It's time for the industry to get on the right side of reform and improvements, not taking our usual negative positions, wielding our army of lobbyists, having to be dragged by the hair to do the right thing.

Or, perhaps we really have reached the level of our incompetence; I, for one, am fed up.

More on The Daily Hurricane Energy page.

 


 


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