Letter to the Editor: A Man in the Street

Thank you, everyone, for your e-mail about my article called “A Man in the Street.” In that article, I described my being interviewed by a reporter that works for a national press outlet who wanted to discuss the price of gasoline from his own perspective. After the article was published, we received quite a bit of mail. I appreciate your notes, and this one letter in particular resurrects some old memories and brings up some other topical thoughts.

From Melissa, “somewhere in the tundra of Alaska”:

“I just wanted to express how much I enjoy reading Mr. King’s articles about Peak Oil. I’m formerly a resident of Pittsburgh’s North Hills and love how I can relate to his experiences in the city.

“I also wanted to comment on a particular part of yesterday’s piece. Byron commented, ‘The oil industry cannot get any credit in the public mind for anything, no matter how far it goes or how deep it drills.’

“I recently graduated with a bachelor’s in engineering, and before I took my current job, I held the same opinion as most of the public — that oil companies were a necessary evil. Perhaps it was growing up with people or the media constantly reminding you of all the disasters caused by them. I now work in Prudhoe Bay as a field engineer for [a major oil field service company] and can honestly say I do receive some light hostility from other younger people, mostly friends jokingly asking how many animals I’ve murdered or how successful I was at raping the Earth today.

“For the most part, the people of Alaska work well with the oil industry; it brings in most of their tax revenue, after all, and a large portion of the population works for BP, Conoco, or the service companies like Schlumberger, Halliburton, Baker-Hughes, Veco, Nabors, or Doyon. But they don’t forget past transgressions. Almost everyone likes the state as it is, one of the last wildernesses in the world. Because of that, I’ve noticed, on the North Slope at least, that everyone takes more precautions to make sure things are done right the first time and are completed safely. In fact, a few of the older hands complain about how many new safety and environmental regulations have been enforced by BP and Conoco in the past few years.

“Not that we don’t have our fair share of problems, for example, last year’s pipeline spill comes to mind. But things are constantly improving. [Still], no matter how many new standard operating procedures (SOPs) are written and performance improved, it seems you can never shake the image of oil-covered animals. Sometimes I wish more people from the lower 48 would come here to see that not everything is like you see on television.”

Byron Replies to Melissa:

So you have moved from Pittsburgh to Prudhoe Bay? That is quite a journey. Congratulations on your new job with a company that is truly a world-class outfit. From Steelers black and gold to your current employer’s well-known blue and white, it is always a pleasure to learn that a hometown Pittsburgh girl has made good. Yours is a rare opportunity, so keep your eyes and ears and mind wide open, Melissa, and you will learn a lot up in Prudhoe Bay. You will learn a lot about oil and gas, and the oil industry, and on those long shifts at dark-thirty in the morning, you will learn a lot about yourself.

Your letter caused me to recall a similar moment in my own life. I do not usually get too touchy-feely personal in these Whiskey articles, except for the one about my cardiac event back in February. But then again, even that article was also intended to motivate our readers to get their physical exam, including a cholesterol check. (And many of you wrote to say that you were going to schedule a medical checkup. Have you done so? Back to business.)

Melissa, you have dredged up an incident from my own life long ago. It is an incident that still resonates, and now is as good a time as any to tell the tale. There I was, way back “before you were born,” as the saying goes, graduating from Harvard with a degree in geology and a job offer in my hand from the former Gulf Oil Co. I enjoyed studying geology in school. I was interested in petroleum geology and engineering, to the point of being immersed in the oil and gas side of things. And I was feeling pretty good about being offered a job with a major international oil company like Gulf.

A few days before graduation, I was running some errands on the Harvard campus. I had occasion to drop off some papers at the office of some Dean of Something-or-Another. I walked into the dean’s office, and handed an envelope to the assistant. There were several other people in the office as well, mostly graduate students at Harvard, filling out forms and completing the typical kind of paperwork that requires the great mind of a university dean to review and approve. The dean’s assistant took my envelope and asked something like, “So Byron, what are you going to do after you graduate?”

I replied, “I have a job, working with Gulf Oil Co. I’m going down to Texas.”

“How Can You Live With Yourself?”

The other people in the office all turned quickly and stared at me, with something like shock and horror in their eyes. I was going to Texas, to work for an oil company? I may as well have said that I was going to Texas to perform chainsaw massacres on college coeds.

One of the people in the room puffed up her chest, looked right at me and asked, “How can you live with yourself, working for an oil company?” She practically spit the words out of her mouth. Her tone of voice was dripping with self-righteous, smarmy condescension. My inquisitor was an individual with a well-honed sense of moral rectitude pumped up with a thick, gooey level of snotty arrogance. You probably know the type.

I think that I can say about myself that I have never been one to go around just looking for a fight. “A kind word turns away wrath,” says the Bible. “The dog barks and the caravan moves on,” say the Arabs. So there I was, standing in the office of the Harvard Dean of Something-or-Another, being insulted by some stuck-up graduate student about my choice to accept a job offer from a particular employer, and calling into question my decision to take a job working in the oil industry.

“I Live With Myself Just Fine”

I decided to reply to the snotty question, even if it may not have deserved any answer whatsoever.

“I live with myself just fine,” I said. “I studied geology here at Harvard, and did real well, in case you are wondering. I like the physical and intellectual challenges offered in the oil and gas industry. The oil and gas business is a critical part of the economy. And if you don’t like oil companies, then maybe you ought not to drive a car, fly an airplane, or heat your house in the wintertime. Maybe you ought to study some geology, too, and learn something about the oil industry before you make any more ignorant comments and bad-mouth people you don’t know, and say stupid things about subjects that you obviously don’t understand.”

Whoa! People are not used to getting talked to like that up at Harvard. After I said my piece, the room was quite silent. Everybody was just staring at me. Finally, the assistant to the Harvard Dean of Something-or-Another spoke up and said, “Byron, I am sure that she did not mean to insult you,” referring to the woman who had asked the first question, which was, in fact, quite insulting.

“No,” I said, “people never mean to insult you when they ask questions like, ‘How can you live with yourself,’ as if you are some sort of war criminal or something just because you are going to work in the productive part of the economy. But I have other things to do, so let’s all just get back to whatever we were doing.”

I said goodbye, and left. Yes indeed, the dog barks and the caravan moves on.

So Here We Are, 30 Years Later

So here we are, Melissa, 30-some years later, and people are still saying pretty much the same things to you that they said to me. “Raping the Earth,” huh? Nothing much changes, does it? Except that now we are 30 years closer to Peak Oil.

Let’s think back over the past 30 years or so. The world has pumped and burned a heck of a lot more oil in the past 30 years than it has found. Numbers vary, depending on the source, but I kind of like the statistic that indicates that the world has “discovered” only one-fourth of the oil that it has extracted in the past 30 years or so. And for much of the past 30 years, oil was rather cheap, down below $10 per barrel in the mid-1980s, and close to that low, low price during the 1990s. In consequence of cheap prices for oil, entire segments of the oil industry went out of business, to include hundreds of thousands of old stripper wells in the U.S. that were plugged and abandoned. Much of the industrial infrastructure languished, leaving a legacy of decades of underinvestment in things ranging from drilling rigs to pipelines to pumps and, of course, the labor force.

Work Force Issues

In the past 30 years, well over a million people, cumulatively, were laid off from the U.S. oil industry (and even more from the world industry total, as well).According to figures published by the U.S. Department of Labor, more people were laid off from jobs in the oil industry than lost their jobs in the U.S. automobile and steel industries combined. This has left us, in the U.S. but also in the world, with a remarkably precarious work force demographic, in which something like 50% of the industry’s skilled professionals will be retiring within the next 15 years or so. The age cadre just behind the group that will be retiring is distressingly small, in that an entire generation of oil industry workers were either laid off or never hired in the first place between about 1985-2005. And then, Melissa, we have the “under-30” folks like you, fairly new out of school, but with years of learning ahead of them before they really get their arms around what goes on in the oil patch. Whatever you think you have seen, you ain’t seen nothing yet.

I am glad that you are part of the oil industry, Melissa, but here is the problem. The industry needs you, and in fact, for every person like you, it could use several more just like you, but with what the human resource people refer to as “more experience.” Looming, right now and into the foreseeable future, is the requirement for the world’s oil industry to rebuild much of the existing extraction and transmission infrastructure that is old and rusty due to the underinvestment of the past. Also looming is the requirement to build out new infrastructure in exotic, distant, and dangerous places.

As you know from working up at the North Slope, Melissa, the oil industry has to find and lift immense quantities of oil and gas from somewhere. For example, you are helping to lift product from the Prudhoe Bay oil field, which was discovered in 1968. And according to the CEO of Chevron, Dave O’Reilly, you are pumping what he calls “the easy oil.” Tell me, Melissa, how “easy” is it to work the North Slope in February, when it is dark as pitch, the temperature is minus 80 degrees, and the wind is blowing 60 miles per hour? I’m just curious.

And so much for the storied past of the oil industry. From where will the future hydrocarbon product come? Much of the hydrocarbon that the oil industry will lift in the near term and intermediate years will come from “reserve growth,” as people like you, working for your current employer, find more oil and gas in extensions of known fields. And much of the rest of the hydrocarbon product will come from finding conventional oil in unconventional places, like deep under water and in the frozen Arctic, where, as I am sure you have noticed, it gets really, really cold outside. And beyond that, there are immense, mega-industrial projects afoot to recover hydrocarbon resources from heavy oil, tar sands, and oil shales. This does not even touch at the problems of energy return on energy investment (EROEI) in all of this, or the whole “greenhouse gas” issue. We are not even going to start down those rocky roads just now.

“Even if We Could…”

The issue to highlight in this article, Melissa, is that even if public policy would allow the oil industry to drill where it wants to drill, or build whatever other projects need to be built, are there enough skilled people in the work force to accomplish the tasks? And the next question is whether or not there is enough basic industrial capacity and work force out there to supply the steel, the cement, the valves, the pipe, the pumps, the electronics, and other essential equipment? Some of the largest, most expansive and expensive energy projects in human history are about to be built, and the question is whether or not there are enough skilled people out there to put them all together. If not, then some projects just won’t get built. And some energy resources will remain unavailable, while demand just keeps growing and growing. And if things get bad enough, we might all live to see whether or not the dire predictions of my good friend James Kunstler, author of The Long Emergency, will come true.

The Critics

These questions get us back to some peoples’ basic attitudes, not to mention the folk tales and false myth that inform their worldview. It goes back to the snotty comment that I heard at Harvard, long ago, from some graduate student who, I hope, has learned something in the course of her life and knows better by now. If people want to live this nice, comfortable, cozy existence that we have created for our society and our civilization, then they had better understand that somebody has to go out into the field and do the hard work of bringing home the energy supply. Somebody, like you, Melissa, has to take the job that puts her on the North Slope of Alaska, far from her original home in the very pleasant North Hills of Pittsburgh.

There is nothing wrong with being part of the oil industry, Melissa, nothing at all. Do your job, do it safely, and do it right. Don’t let people talk smack to you about “raping the Earth” or any of that crap. To paraphrase the great Mr. T. on this, “I pity the fool” who thinks that there is something wrong with working in the oil industry.

The critics, then and now, are suffering from a cognitive dissonance. They have a certain lifestyle to which they have become accustomed, but at root, they do not know what they want out of life. Melissa, if the critics did not really want you, and people like you, to drill holes in the North Slope, they would not be driving cars or flying in airplanes. They would not be eating lettuce that was trucked in from across a continent, let alone eating salmon from Chile or Norway. The critics would be riding the electric streetcar to work every day and growing their own root vegetables in their backyard victory gardens. But the critics are not doing that, are they?

The critics just take whatever they can take and carp about it, and take some more. Cheap energy is their birthright, they believe, and the critics expect it all to be there when they want it. Unless, of course, they get their wish. Then there will come a time when all that nice energy supply will not be there. Then the critics will find some way to blame you for that as well.

So when you encounter insufferable ignorance from people who disparage, let alone take for granted, what you do for a living, just stay on track and do what you have to do, and do your best. The critics? Hey, screw ’em. “The dog barks and the caravan moves on.” Be with the caravan. Leave the dogs behind, barking and howling at the moon.

Until we meet again…
Byron W. King

May 31, 2007