I have now or never had any intention of having anything to do with mineral exploitation, so I chose other avenues of earning a living, but in 1983 my boss sent me to the Texas Panhandle to learn about the oil business. He owned some shares in several gas and oil drilling partnerships that were formed as tax avoidance schemes for people who made a lot of money. He wanted me to find out if the wells really existed and if I thought the operators were legitimate.
I ended up in Borger, Texas, with a jelly-muscled, slick-talking Panhandle lawyer and a couple of partnership operators who appeared to be kids (they looked younger than me) who offered me evenings with their two secretaries and veiled promises about wild nights of drinking, drugs and after-hour sexual activities. Those secretaries played along by acting sexually attracted to me but I suspected they had no interest in me other than as a diversion to keep me from bothering my oilfield hosts.
When we went to see the wells in my boss’ partnership, we rode around in a big black, fully tricked out Chevy Suburban. Since I was deemed important, I got to sit shot gun next to the operator’s mouthpiece. The way he spilled out gas and oil well data made me nervous about all my boss’s money. All that oil field info arrived rat-a-tat-tat, way too fast.
As he went on about the “Booger Town” oil field and rock formations, output per barrel and thousand cubic feet, well maintenance, the best bars in town, which of the secretaries he thought I’d like, I couldn’t keep from wondering how he could afford that Suburban and those $700.00 Lucchese ostrich skin riding boots and those heavy gold chains dangling around his neck and his right wrist.
We drove around the northern Panhandle and looked at geological maps and inspected pump jacks and drank Coors pulled from a big green Coleman ice chest. I think they thought if they kept me tightened up on beer and the promise of wild sex with one of those secretaries I’d tell my boss it was all okay.
To tell you the truth, I couldn’t have told you it was okay or not okay. I had no interest in pump jacks and drill strings and moon pools and ginzels and no interest in being where I was. I told my boss I didn’t trust the jelly-muscled lawyer or the partnership operators and that his investments in the partnerships were bad deals. I wanted no part of the oil and gas business.
I still feel the same way about oil. So it was with some surprise to be traveling on California Highway 33 up toward the Salinas Valley from Southern California when Betty and I happened upon the oil patch town of Taft.
What a shock to see all those drill rigs and pump jacks and pipe lines and old derricks etching a fetching skyline in the drab landscape. Something about that drew me. It’s ugly and it’s polluting and it’s poisonous, and I liked the way the detritus of exploitation created a scene that was…dare I say, beautiful?
You need to understand that for the last twenty years or so I have been fascinated by the junction of the ugly and the beautiful. In my mind, so much of what we have on earth exists in the space where the hideous, the repulsive, the horrid meet the gorgeous. I am not interested in oil or the petroleum business, but the visual scene and the irony of the fetching images grabbed me.
So we stopped and took photos of derricks and pump jacks and the gray hills behind. We were so damned fascinated by the place that we went back two weeks later and took more photos.
When we took photos of the remnants of the world’s largest oil spill that occurred back around 1910, we were warned by an oil field worker about inhaling the oil field’s rotten egg gas—the H2S—like we used to create in high school chemistry class. He also told us that if we came in contact with some miniscule number of H2S particles we’d be “done for.” I didn’t believe him when he told us it would kill us. I looked it up and yes, it can kill you and we breathed some of it. While there we found out that the oilfield workers wear H2S warning devices on their caps and hard hats. Obviously, we weren’t exposed to enough gas to damage us. Nevertheless, both days we were in Taft, there was bad stuff floating around that oil patch, not just H2S, but other junk emitted from the wells and the entire oil patch industrial hubbub that gets trapped in the Central Valley’s endemic, low hanging fog.
All my life I’ve lived in a world that is petroleum fueled and not just in the transportation area. Look at plastic. We get plastic, and a lot of other things, from gas and oil. For centuries the world ran on foot power and animal power and water power and wind power. But now we are in love with petroleum.
And I suspect it is not doing the world we live in any good. I’m in favor of hydropower and wind power and solar power and anything else we can use to reduce petroleum use. But then I think, yeah, I am against a petroleum-powered world, but hey, I drive a car. I drive our car thirty thousand miles a year. It gets pretty good mileage, but still, I’m guilty as hell.
I might go for an all-electric car, but every time I plugged it in, I’d be consuming energy that came from where? Petroleum? We humans are now consumers, not savers. Every bit of petroleum not consumed will be replaced by some other kind of energy. When we conserve, we don’t cut back on demand, we just find more things to do with what was saved. Whatever replaces petroleum will not be as clean as we think. There will be unexpected, negative ramifications. Like I said, we are consumers and as time marches on we will consume more and more to fuel our technology and our demand.
Anyway, as Betty and I were taking all those photos, I was thinking about drilling rigs and moon pools and the slick-voiced peddlers from the Panhandle. I was also thinking about how much we drive our Honda CRV and how we keep our house warm and the gas we use to cook our tacos. My environmentalist side was chiding me for being a petroleum hypocrite. Yep, I’m a petroleum hypocrite, that’s what I am.
But, like I say, those black pump jacks against those drab gray hills, and the sand in the ravines, and the white clouds in the blue sky make mighty fine photos in my estimation.
Besides, we need to get somewhere.