Oil spill update from the field: Welcome to the Crude Age

The sun sets over the Development Driller II, which is working on the secondary relief well. The rig is one of dozens of vessels stationed at the Deepwater Horizon spill site. (Photo by Justin Nobel/Audubon Magazine)

Deepwater Horizon spill site, 50 miles off the coast of Louisiana, August 6
An orange helicopter flies me to a Coast Guard cutter where I board a speedboat meant for chasing down drug runners and plow through warm salty waves, heading for ground zero of the biggest environmental disaster in U.S. history. There are ships with superstructures on their bows meant to land helicopters, ships with spools the size of suburban homes on their decks and floating fortress-like platforms called mobile offshore drilling units; two are drilling relief wells and one has just capped the Deepwater well with mud and cement. Dozens of smaller vessels mill about the behemoths, ferrying food, parts and fuel. The odd assembly resembles an outpost for an outcast race of machines, some Coast Guard officers call it The City. An orange sun sinks into the sea, leaving the sky red. Lights on the spill site vessels begin to go on and soon the entire horizon is twinkling.

At times, there have been more than 50 vessels milling about the Deepwater Horizon spill site. They study, supply, skim, monitor, disperse and collect. (Photo by Justin Nobel/Audubon Magazine)
In Louisiana, just as there are third and fourth generation fishing families, there are third and fourth generation oil families. In the late 1800s, the first steel derricks were planted in the pine forests near the Texas border. Ninety nine years ago, a well was sunk in Caddo Lake, near Oil City, the first over-water isolated platform drilling rig in the United States. In 1947, the world’s first offshore oil well out of sight of land was drilled eighteen miles off the coast of Vermilion Parish. As Louisiana industries like sugar and timber have withered, oil has remained. Today, the Gulf of Mexico produces roughly one-third of the nation's domestic oil and 10 percent of its natural gas. It is like the New York Yankees of oil producing regions, other hotspots come and go but the gulf is always good, the proving ground for new technologies and the front lines of the trend toward deeper and deeper drilling. On a tour last month in Mississippi to observe a new skimming device, I asked a young BP engineer who had been called from Azerbaijan to cover the spill where he thought was the most exciting place in the world to work in oil. “You’re looking at it,” he said, “the gulf.”

The Coast Guard Cutter Decisive looks after the safety of all the other vessels at the spill site. The ship has a crew of 75 and is typically stationed in the southern Gulf and Caribbean, tracking illegal fishermen and drug runners. (Photo by Justin Nobel/Audubon Magazine)

I remember one high school social studies teacher asked the good question: What will the people of the future call the era in which we live now? There were many suggestions, the Age of War, the American Age, the Digital Age, but after some discussion we stuck with the Oil Age. Looking back a decade and some later, I think we had the theme right but the wording wrong. Oil is incredible, an energy-packed liquid that can be passed through pipes or put in tanks and shipped across the globe. Harnessing it has allowed the modern world to happen, and it is still the best way to run that world. I believe that we will continue to use oil, and when we run out we will synthesize it in a way that is cleaner and does not involve messy extraction. The days of wasting energy and lives to draw oil from the crevasses of the earth will seem archaic. This can’t be the Oil Age because oil will remain, this is merely a time when we use a form of oil that in the future will seem filthy and cumbersome. This is the Crude Age.

Night is falling fast and from the deck of the cutter the lights of The City shimmer on the waves, a squiggly reflection of the shapes they represent. A thin seam of orange still hovers on the horizon, and the sky above is a spectrum; yellow, green like a frog’s skin, azure, aubergine, black. One by one—at least it seems to me to happen this way—the stars come out.

Justin Nobel/Audubon Magazine

Night falls at the Deepwater Horizon spill site and the lights of vessels begin to go on. Some Coast Guard officers refer to the site as The City. (Photo by Justin Nobel/Audubon Magazine)