This Labor Day weekend, Morgan City will celebrate the 75th annual Louisiana Shrimp and Petroleum Festival. Just the juxtaposition of those two words is not appealing. But it reveals the two primary ways people make a living on the Cajan coast and this festival celebrates them both. We traveled to Morgan City to see Mr. Charlie, the first submersible drilling rig used in offshore production. In 1954 Mr. Charlie went to work for Shell Oil Company, drilling a new field in East Bay, near the mouth of the Mississippi River. Despite skepticism from offshore industry professionals, Mr. Charlie and many others like it performed up to expectations and went on to drill hundreds of wells for every other major oil company operating in the Gulf. At over 220 feet long, this vessel is a self-contained, transportable, industrial island with living accommodations for up to 58 workers. When in use, the rig would be floated to a drilling location where tanks in the barge were then flooded, causing the rig to sit on the floor of the Gulf of Mexico. After drilling was completed, water was pumped out of the tanks allowing Mr. Charlie to be floated to its next drilling location. Until 1986 Mr. Charlie drilled hundreds of offshore wells off the coast of Morgan City in the Gulf of Mexico. He was the first transportable, submersible drilling rig and an industry springboard to the current offshore rig technology.
Mr. Charlie is obsolete today and his brethren have all been turned into salvage, but when this rig isn't educating tourists, it is used to train oil drilling workers. Since only one drilling permit has been issued since the rig explosion last spring, our tour guide, who is also an instructor here, had plenty of time on his hands and he worked hard to get us environmental, blue state type, Yankees to see the merits of pumping oil out of the gulf. He talked about all the job the oil industry provides here, the taxes the oil companies pay, our desire to depend less on other countries, the overall safety record of the industry. He wondered why all the mines weren't closed when a mine collapsed and killed 29 workers and why the airlines don't get shut down when a plane crashes and yet all the oil drilling companies were punished because of the Deepwater Horizon. These other industries are unionized; the oil industry is not. Kind of made us think about things going on in Wisconsin these days. And of course no one was talking about climate change or global warming.
Work on a drilling rig must be well compensated. Typically workers stay on for 28 days and off for 28, working twelve hour days. With this schedule the workers don't necessarily live around here. Our guide knew one who commuted from Vermont. The oil companies don't care where you live as long as you show up on time. During the drilling moratorium a number of the rigs have already left the gulf, perhaps never to return. This equipment is very expensive and if money can't be made here, they will go where it can.
All of our adult lives we have heard warnings that our supply of petroleum is diminishing. We were taught in school that petroleum was formed when dead animal and plant material was put under pressure over time. Thus far the warnings have not come to pass, because we have continued to find new ways to recover oil, never imagined at the time Mr. Charlie was built. Sometimes when old wells were reopened, they were much fuller than they were when they were closed. The tour guide talked about an abiotic theory of oil production that we had never heard of before. It suggests that oil production is a natural process from the core of the earth that forms oil near the core and pushes it out over time, thus implying that we will never run out. From my web research, it appears that this idea came out of the Soviet Union over twenty years ago and while it has some adherents, most scientists today see little evidence to support it. Every drop of oil pumped out of the earth thus far has contained some biotic matter on the cellular level. This all leaves us wondering how the oil they are finding so deep within the earth got there. We still have a lot to learn.