Beyond the End of the World

My time on an offshore oil platform.

Zachary Ugolnik

In 2005, seeking adventure and the solitude of pilgrimage, I bicycled from my hometown of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, to an Eastern Orthodox monastery in West Virginia, where I stayed for three months. From there I continued on to my uncle's apartment just outside New Orleans. Low on cash, I filled out job applications until, three weeks later, I heard back from one. My uncle drove me to Venice, Louisiana, the southernmost point of the state, affectionately called by Louisianans "the end of the world." He dropped me off at 4 AM, and I waited for a helicopter to take me still further, past marshes and grassy wetlands, to an oil platform in the Gulf of Mexico.

On these small colonies at the edge of civilization, from structures that reach down and touch the nether regions of the earth, oil workers collect one of our most valuable commodities, bringing the world not only oil but also many and various substances formed from its components, from tires to soft contact lenses. These men (and a few women) are the forgotten faces behind the 1.7 billion barrels of oil produced in the Gulf of Mexico every day, providing the United States with 30 percent of its domestic oil.1 Their days are long and their schedules are regimented. On the fringe of society, they have built a community as peculiar as a monastery.

"You'll meet people out here you never knew existed," the foreman said to me the morning I arrived on the platform, greeting me at the bottom of the stairs of the helicopter pad that blanketed the roof of the main building. His smile glistened with a few golden teeth. Grey chest hair peeked through his one-piece work suit, which was worn without an undershirt, zippered just high enough to hold in his belly, his pants tucked into cowboy boots.

"Is that right?" I replied as I followed him along the yellow-grated walkway that clung to each level of the building like an elaborate fire escape. We went down a flight of stairs to the main level. The waves, eighty or so feet below, blurred through the diamond-patterned grates in the walkway. Pillars lifted the platform above the ocean. The thick beams, coated with green algae where the waves crashed, plunged into the dark water. The height visible to the eye was only a portion of their true depth—only deep-sea divers could see where their metal met mortar on the ocean floor. Looking down from our perch, I felt queasy.

We walked into the main building, and I took a breath of cool synthetic air. It was like the office trailer on a construction site, except bigger. There were three offices, a full kitchen, a dining area, a TV lounge with theater seating on the first floor, and seven rooms with a total of twenty-eight beds off the hallway up the stairs. Wood paneling lined the walls and faded brown linoleum covered the floor. Large boxes of toilet paper, coffee filters, and candy bars had been propped against the wall, covering posters that—ironically—provided advice on how to pick up large, heavy boxes.

The foreman sat me down in the lounge to watch a safety video I had already seen during my three-day training session on land. A man lights a cigarette while leaning on a tank pasted with a flammable sign. Two men blithely toss a barrel over the railing into the ocean. In the next scene, the barrel washes ashore on the trash-adorned beaches of San Padre Barrier Island in Texas, where the gulf currents dump 150 tons of waste every year.2

Fittingly enough, my first task was to take out the trash. I hauled the full bags from the kitchen to the open space on the main level and threw them into a large burlap sack. Within its reach, the arm of a red crane jutted out over the ocean, its base on the edge of the platform. Every week the crane would lower these sacks onto a supply boat, the same boat that brought food packaged in Styrofoam coolers on dry ice.

A white tank that I assumed held water stood vertically against the wall of the main building next to air-conditioning units and a row of generators. On the opposite side, two trailers filled with bunk beds walled in the space. A derrick rose behind them in the distance. Two emergency boats resembling flying saucers floated beyond the railing, suspended by pulleys, equipped with an exterior sprinkler system in case the boats are ever dropped into water that is on fire.

As I stood in the middle of the main level, the sun reflected off the metal grated floor. I could see three more levels beneath me before the rig dropped to the sea. The entire platform was veined with red piping that pumped water to water cannons and hose stations, intertwined with arteries of various sizes and colors. Tanks and valves with red and yellow laminated tags mingled throughout. There were floodlights every twenty feet.

Two more trailers on a lower level brought the rig's total capacity to forty-two workers, but I was told we were only carrying twenty-five. I had learned in training there were approximately 3,500 production platforms in the water between Florida and Mexico, 1,000 of them manned, including rigs that house a few hundred residents. If ninety were actively drilling at the time, with others pumping oil and gas, an overall population of around 35,000 workers was being maintained for oil and gas exploration and production in the gulf.3 I had entered the fifty-first state.

Federal waters begin three miles from the coast and extend two hundred miles into the Outer Continental Shelf (OCS) of the United States, establishing what is internationally recognized as the "Exclusive Economic Zone." Crimes committed offshore are booked as felonies and enforced by the Coast Guard, an added deterrent to punching an annoying roommate in the face. Our platform was not in a county or parish, but in a leased block of water called South Pass 70. In 2010, 6,643 blocks were leased in the Gulf of Mexico for a total area of 35.6 million acres.4 Six blocks down from South Pass 70 and thirteen blocks across you find Mississippi Canyon 252, the leased block of Deepwater Horizon (the site of the 2010 British Petroleum oil spill).

The blocks are grouped together and those that are coterminous with the coasts are often named after the parishes and counties of the states they abut, such as Corpus Christi, Grand Isle, and Pensacola. Similar to the naming of suburban subdivisions after geographical features they do not seemingly possess, the distant blocks of the continental shelf are often named after qualities of their seafloor. The Deepwater blocks boast such names as Amery Terrace, Destin Dome, Garden Banks, Green Canyon, and Walker Ridge. But from the railing of the platforms, they all look the same.

After taking out the trash, I stopped and leaned on the handrails, gazing into the blue. It was uncomfortable being in the ocean and standing still. I felt like the rig should move with the water, but it did not bob or sail. Affixed like a skyscraper, it only shook when the helicopter took off from its roof, leaving me behind. The wettest I could hope to get was standing at this railing feeling the spray of the waves brought up by wind. Swimming was impossible. I could only gaze into the water, an opaque blue window into a different dimension. We lived above the ocean, not in it or of it. We were hermits in our own way.

While living on the platform, I boarded with the kitchen and housekeeping staff, which consisted of two: my supervisor, Bill, who was the cook, and me. Bill was in his early forties, with buzzed red hair and a chin on its way to being doubled. We worked for Delta Catering, a subsidiary of the largest offshore catering company in the world, and we were contracted to clean and cook. The room the two of us shared was slightly bigger than a sleeper on a train, but without any windows. As I lay down to sleep that first day, in the lower bunk across from me Bill was hidden behind a hanging sheet tucked underneath the top mattress. I fell asleep to his snores. Bill woke me up the next morning at 4 AM and I passed on the favor to the rest of the men. I made the rounds, knocking on doors and flipping on light switches—a great way to get on everyone's good side for the day. Conversations remained short. Alarm clocks, like alcohol, seemed to be forbidden.

In my stint at the Orthodox monastery, I had often been given the task of waking up the other monks. On the oil platform, I felt the same camaraderie in beginning our days together under the darkness before dawn. After breakfast, I would often watch the sun rise from the railing just outside the kitchen. I'd stand next to crew members as they smoked cigarettes, sharing our grogginess and a few words.

Four meals a day (breakfast at six, snack at nine-thirty, lunch at noon, dinner at five) kept the men's bellies from growling despite their long work hours. Most of the workers, contracted for specific tasks, didn't spend more than a few weeks on the same site. But no matter on which rig they found themselves, they could count on a basic menu: Tuesdays were always steak, Fridays were seafood, and Saturdays fried chicken. It was like this "everywhere in the gulf," Bill told me. The workers filtered into the kitchen according to rank: the operators first, then the electricians and wire-line, then construction, and last the sandblasters and painters. At the monastery, I had sat in the farthest seat from the abbot, but on the rig I rarely ate at the same time as the foreman. When I did, he usually reminded me to refill the toothpick dispenser.

A number of the men would devour a whole lunch without realizing their hard hats were still on. "No Fear," "NASCAR," and other random assortments of faded stickers adorned many of these scuffed plastic shells. Two of the workers my age reversed the fittings so the visors rested upon their necks and they could wear their hats backwards, like broken-in baseball caps. Their equipment was an extension of themselves; they wore their coveralls and overalls like a second skin. When I saw their heads bare, they looked suddenly odd, like my high school Latin teacher with her glasses off.

After each meal, I'd break down the buffet and fill a metal bucket with all the leftovers. We rarely saved more than a side dish. If the painters from St. Lucia had time after the meal, they'd search the bucket for ideal bits of bait, sparing me the chore of walking it to the railing. Setting up on the lowest level with a simple fish line and a tug, they were usually guaranteed a bite. As they got their catches, they'd wrap their "take-home" dinners in newspaper and stuff them in vacant freezer space. The oil platforms in the Gulf of Mexico make up the world's largest artificial reef, supporting creolefish, blue runner, Bermuda chub, almaco jack, amberjack, barracuda, red snapper, spadefish (among other species) and, in the deeper waters, yellow- and blackfin tuna.5 On the weekends we'd often see recreational fishing boats lingering in the platform's shadow, trying to reap some of the benefits of life on what I'd come to think of as our aquatic hermitage, hoping for the same catch rate as our crew.

I never minded dumping the food bucket, because most days the splashes of the drumsticks and fried okra were met by jumping fish. Though glimpses of dolphin fins were even more exciting, the sight of anything that reminded me that the seawater was used for things other than drilling was reassuring. One Tuesday evening, as I discarded a couple pounds of uneaten steak over the rail, I fixed my gaze on the distant rigs around us, squinting for gobbets of falling flesh, wondering how many cows would be dumped into the gulf that day.

On the days they were scheduled to leave, men alternated between watching the clouds and the Weather Channel, intensely hoping they would not have to wait another twenty-four hours for a helicopter to land. The majority of the operators or the "company" guys—who all wore faded work suits embroidered with their names on the chest and a Devon Energy patch on their shoulders—lived half their lives offshore and the other half with their families. One week on, one week off. This meant that the men on South Pass 70-C didn't go home every evening and grumble about their workday; they went home and grumbled about their week at work, and had several days to do it. As one man admitted after he had come back to the rig with its ordered days, returning from idle hours with his wife was as much a relief to him as leaving the rig had been.

Roustabouts, which refers to any entry-level position on deck, often stay out two weeks before they are sent home for the same amount of time, not sure which platform they will end up on next. In the late nineteenth century, the term "roustabout" referred to itinerant workers at circuses, and today these workers wander from platform to platform. Painters and sandblasters often stay out as long as they can bear it; the crew on South Pass 70-C had been offshore for five weeks. On my first "hitch" as a galley hand I stayed out two weeks before a helicopter brought me back to Venice, one of the many crew-change locations that dot the gulf coast from Texas to Florida. I caught a ride with an engineer, who dropped me off at my uncle's apartment an hour and a half later.

After sleeping on my uncle's couch for a week in August 2005, I returned to South Pass 70-C, happy to find my bottom bunk still vacant. My relief had taken the top bunk, and would be staying on. After dropping my bag in the room, I walked into the kitchen where my new co-worker, a young African American man with a freshly shaved head, was cleaning the counters. Now that he was wearing the same outfit, the black Dickies pants and tan T-shirt I had on felt more like a uniform. His pants stylishly bunched at the ankles and looked much better on him. He was my height but had a larger frame and better teeth, with wide shoulders and hearty cheeks. Living in such close quarters, you tended to compare yourself to those around you.

"I'm Otis Leon, you can call me Leon," he said.

I've heard some say we know more about outer space than we do the ocean. It's easy to believe when looking at the ocean from an oil platform.

I shook his hand and told him I was from outside Philly. He was from New Orleans, not far from my uncle's place. At twenty-nine (a few years my senior), Leon was putting himself through community college and had been working offshore intermittently for the past few years. Prior to that, he had spent seven years in the Louisiana State Penitentiary. Within seven minutes of meeting him, he said to me in a hushed voice, gesturing to our surroundings: "It's the same, man, it's the same. They wake you up, you eat, you have a job, spend the whole day in the kitchen." His brow rose up and down with his words, fluorescent light reflecting off his sweaty, crinkled forehead like the streaks drying on the chrome counter behind him. "It's the same, man," he said to me again as he walked out of the kitchen.

Three days later, after doing our rounds making the necessary beds and cleaning the bathrooms (the dread of each day), Leon said to me: "Today’s almost over."

"But it’s only nine in the morning, Leon," I replied.

Leon’s internal clock seemed to run particularly fast. Six weeks earlier, I had been surrounded by monks who lived their lives working to slow time down. Leon, perhaps because of his years spent in prison, seemed to be trying to hurry it along.

"Today’s done, only six days left," Leon said to me a couple days later.

"But it's three in the afternoon, and don't you have seven days left?"

"Nah ya see, all we have left is dinner, so today's over, and tomorrow is tomorrow, so tomorrow will get done, so really there's only six days left," he replied with a big smile, mocking my bewilderment.

"Is that right?" I could only reply. It was true that time offshore didn't operate according to the same rules on land. Productivity was based more on weather than on the days of the week. There were no such things as weekends. Every day was like every other day, except when nature distinguished it with winds and rain that stopped operations. There was no punching in, so men could log twelve to eighteen hours of work a day but might only end up working a few hours.

Leon often walked over to the calendar to check how many days he had left before his departure. He'd figure out which week he'd be home, and then rework the entire schedule assuming he stayed offshore a week or two longer, calculating the overtime. One morning, when we were speculating a few paychecks in advance, Bill turned to us and said: "There's a storm way out in the gulf. . . . I think we'll all be coming in in the next few weeks."

Before that storm came I lived day by day, restricted to the platform. When I was strung out from claustrophobia, I'd sneak up to the "helipad." A stairway led to the landing by way of a rectangular hole in its left side, like the hatch door of an attic. I’d climb the last steps and as my arms reached for a railing that was no longer there, a second of uneasiness always accompanied the awe the view inspired. Most of the premises on the platform were off limits and remained a mystery, but from this pad, only the dormant tower that burned off excess fuel obstructed my 360-degree panorama. Encircled by blue, eight rigs were easily visible from where 70-C sat, and on a clear day, I could see specks of a hazy marsh that lay beyond our closest neighbor.

The ocean provided an appropriate setting for contemplation, but after ten minutes on the pad, my eyes would grow weary. My mind couldn't swallow all that depth. I've heard some say we know more about outer space than we do the ocean. It's easy to believe when looking at the ocean from an oil platform. Standing on the helipad, I swore I could see the earth curve at either end of the horizon. The volume of water would weigh on my skull like gravity, pressing on my head even from behind, reminding me that my brain—my consciousness—is stored in a sphere only inches in diameter. If time can be understood as the spreading out of the universe, I felt in those moments as if I was seeing eternity. Finding myself sufficiently humbled by sea and sky, I'd walk down the stairs, yearning for shared words with someone else my size.

When I first arrived, I thought every oil platform accounted for one well, one straight, narrow hole in the earth. But I discovered that once an exploratory rig proves a site productive and platforms are set up, through "directional drilling" each platform can drill up to five miles away in varying directions and depths. A series of tunnels are burrowed into the ocean floor for pumping the oil and gas to refineries via pipelines. Many platforms sit above thirty different wells extending around their perimeter. The fringes of 70-C's drilled tentacles must have abutted those that protruded from the platform next door. Everywhere I looked, I saw the oil industry.

I lived on a fixed platform on the shelf, maybe a hundred to three hundred feet deep. Unlike jack-up rigs, which can be lowered and raised on stilts, or semi-submersible rigs that are equipped with hulls for buoyancy (like Deepwater Horizon), South Pass 70-C was permanently affixed to the seabed, despite the finite amount of oil underground.

At night, leaning on any precipice over water offered abysmal vertigo; the sky expanded and swallowed the sea. Flickers of more distant platforms lined the horizon, forming a string of lights intersecting the black of ocean and sky. These conglomerates of light had a blue hue, with spots of red, and those burning off excess oil and gas signaled with glints of yellow flames. I counted fifty-one pyres. I didn't bother with the stars.

With the sun forgotten, I was overwhelmed by the infinite blackness, as if I was seeing beyond the end of the world. Just as light leaves imprints on our eyes when we turn to look into darkness, I experienced the opposite effect: When my eyes resumed their normal survey of the lit hallways of the platform, I still seemed to be looking through traces of this black void, a darkness so deep it shone like light, and even shapes and figures were seen as formless.

During my time on the platform I never actually saw oil, but there were reminders of its constant presence. In my second week back, the water that fed out of the sinks, that we showered with and cleaned dishes with, began to emit a faint gasoline aroma. I heard a rumor the company guys had filled a tank that once held gasoline with water, and they never fully rinsed it out before hooking it up to the plumbing. Others said it was the piping or how the water was stored. No one bothered to explain it to me, since I was on the "custodial" side and not an "engineer." But after showering, we were all left with headaches. "I swear, I'm suing their asses," was our murmured anthem. This was a shared misery, fodder for mutual complaint and the laughs that would follow.

Nine days in, more heads were expected, so I had to venture into a vacant "living container" on the main level. Two containers were stacked one on top of the other like shipping containers in a port—each the size of a Mack truck trailer. A metal staircase led to the top compartment and the front door opened to a bathroom. I searched the rooms for unmade bedding, dirty sheets, and anything untidy. After changing the sheets, placing fresh towels upon the beds, and wiping the bathroom counter, I found a fully used, aged, unflushed toilet. I quickly pressed down on the lever, but to my horror, the brown expanded and the dark sewage rolled over the plastic rim. I watched the dry floor disappear beneath the fetid liquid, which passed to the left and right of my shoes and curled up in the middle of my foot the way the waves hit the pillars beneath me. Soiled paper surfed across the linoleum. The power of its scent struck a moment later. "Fuck! fuck! fuuuucgh. . . ." I yelled, interrupted by gags. I grabbed my rubber weapon and unleashed half a can of Lysol. I plunged, scrubbed and mopped. I heaved. I cringed.

After the floor was clean, I tried to eat a vanilla ice-cream sandwich as a well-deserved reward (alcohol being prohibited), but with each bite I saw shit and I threw the sandwich away half-eaten. I felt like I was losing it, that I couldn't take it anymore. I knew it would cost my company a few hundred dollars to get a helicopter out here to take me back to land if I said I absolutely had to leave. In my time on South Pass 70-C, I saw a lot more feces than I ever saw of oil. I was in the business of excrement.

As a pseudo-monk in West Virginia, I was able to find joy in my Saturday obedience of cleaning the bathrooms. Work was a form of training; work was a form of prayer. Humility was the unconscious gift that was earned through such tasks, a lightness that accompanied a childlike self-view. Even on the rig, when lost in the task of cleaning a quiet bathroom and that last piece of scum clinging to the white ceramic was expurgated, the gleaming purity that remained served as its own reward. But when the construction inspector walked in and told me, "It's not the worst thing a man can do," after relieving himself while I stood in the bathroom with latex on my hands, I was reminded that as monks, we experienced humility as a community. In the presence of others on the rig, I more often experienced humiliation.

Still, I often thought that my routine on the platform, my remedial jobs, would be a great life for an enlightened being. Routine establishes a flow of purpose, in which every activity can be executed with mindfulness, and the end of one duty is the beginning of another. Engrossed in each act, each job, doing what is asked without complaint, the pious utility hand could find joy "through the love of their brother," as my abbot would say, in the service he provides: a clean kitchen, clean linens and towels, a clean bathroom. Time's texture could thicken if each spare five minutes was seen as an opportunity for spiritual profit: dedicated to meditation, to prayer, to others, each moment dedicated to itself. If Buddha was a utility hand, he would fast from scattered thought, fastening his consciousness instead to what was before it, to his offered tasks and prayers, to be ominously still amidst the chaos. But I was not enlightened. Therein lay the problem. Perhaps during my monastic stay, I strove to live this way—in the pursuit of spiritual profit, or of no gain at all. The monks, cloaked in black, lived as if they had already died. Through their humility, they welcomed the kingdom of heaven to enter each present moment on earth, always remembering the words of Matthew: "But about that day and hour no one knows" (Matthew 24:36). However, despite their lofty goals and exceptional lifestyles, the monks were still human, as are the men and women that bring us our oil.

Stranded on an oil platform, away from the graces I found on land—trees, incense, and churches, to name a few—it was my rate of twenty cents above minimum wage that motivated me. And, considering my folding skills, I was worth every cent. When my focus was lost to daydreaming, and I was no longer working mindfully, or not working at all, my mind always returned to my forthcoming paycheck, wondering how I could fast-forward my life to payday. As much as I tried, it was difficult for me, an unenlightened being, to quicken the present, especially when things didn’t work out as I imagined they would.

On a Friday in late August, we lost power. the winds picked up and heavy rain blew in. The seas were high. As I often did, I went out to gaze into the constant movement of the waves, but when I came in I felt slightly nauseous. For the last few days, every guy in the gulf had been glued to the Weather Channel following a tropical depression. Now, a storm named Katrina, a beautiful cartoon of force on the radar, was only a few hundred miles away. We had just caught a glimpse on the Weather Channel of a long arm passing over us that jutted out from the storm’s center when the lights went out, proving that the storm was going to be more than just a threatening graphic. A few minutes later, as we were beginning to realize how quiet it could be without the constant hum of generators, the white noise returned, and electricity with it. Most of the workers had been through this a thousand times. When a platform is located in the projected path of a hurricane, after items on deck are tied down and labeled, all nonessential crew are evacuated to land and are placed on standby. There, they collect eight hours of pay a day until they are called back. I was looking forward to the break and the days to refuel so that I could stay out even longer. "Pack up, we’re leaving in a half hour," the foreman announced.

We evacuated by night. "They waited too long," became the new hymn of complaint. Other than the two foremen who were staying for a later pickup, the boat anchored below us would be taking the entire crew to land. The only way down was a "personnel basket." Resembling a birdcage, a disk some five feet in diameter was attached by webbed robe to a smaller disk above it, the ropes meeting at the crane hook. In twos or fours, after placing our luggage (and frozen fish) in the center within the rope labyrinth, every evacuee stood on the padded edge of the bottom ring and grasped the ropes tightly.

With the straps of my life jacket buckled, I watched the crane hoist my co-workers up over the handrails, then laterally at a safe distance from the rig and down the eighty or so feet to the boat deck teetering on the seas. The cook and I were the last two to board the basket. We loitered on the deck, not because of bravery, but so we could spend less time on the boat rocking back and forth on the waves. As the crane lifted us from the platform, suspended ninety feet above the ocean, I watched the main level shrink to become a small piece of the entire structure, which was now framed by sea and sky. The boat was the size of a child's toy being tossed in infinite black water, and white crests of waves were visible for miles under moonlit clouds.

Katrina, and Rita which followed three weeks later, destroyed 116 platforms in the gulf and damaged 183 pipelines.6 Despite the zero casualties offshore and the lack of any "major" environmental problems (though an estimated eleven million gallons of oil were spilled7), it was the worst disaster in the history of oil production in the Gulf of Mexico until the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster.

In July 2010, I visited my uncle in New Orleans. it had been almost five years since I stepped off South Pass 70-C and, hungry for a dose of offshore life, I drove west to Morgan City and visited "the only place in the world where the general public can walk aboard an authentic oil rig."8 At the edge of an industrial park, I parked in a lot full of dead grass in front of two office trailers with a ramp between them leading to the metal stairs of a drilling rig, its pillars sunk into the Atchafalaya River. Virgil, my aptly named guide, led me through the matrix of metal cliffs and dark hallways.

Virgil converted the platform into a museum in 1995 and, soon after, into a training facility. According to Virgil, several thousand people are given tours of "Mr. Charley" every year, usually at 10 AM and 2 PM every day, though there has been a slight increase since the BP Deepwater Horizon spill. No one else had shown up for the 2 PM tour, so Virgil proceeded to spend two hours with me, talking and walking through the rig, tucked away in this port city. He was so hospitable, I was tempted to stay and ask for a bunk. Whenever I thanked him, he replied, "That's what we're here for," as if speaking for the entire industry.

As I followed Virgil up the grated steps, through the air-conditioned rec room and past the fully stocked kitchen, I was reminded of my first day on South Pass 70-C. There is a sense of purpose and belonging in these self-contained steel islands, where work and home are temporarily one, and acronyms—like F.R.C. (fire retardant clothing) and J.S.A. (job safety analysis)—are as common a vernacular as the specialized terms "mud" and "toolpusher." We walked outside and the sun was strong in a cloudless sky. Sweat dripped over my lips. I tasted salt and smelled it in the coastal air.

"Whatever you are doing on land, there's somewhere you can fit in offshore," Virgil said to me with passion, looking over the sixty-foot railing of his rig, in a navy work suit, his brown bushy hair ruffled by the wind. "Any occupation, you can take it out there," he said.

When I arrived at Mr. Charley, a class of thirty-six was in the middle of a nine-day roustabout-training program. "They come from all over, there's a sixty-year-old from Texas here, says he wants to start over," Virgil said. Graduates of the class will walk away with over twenty certifications, including a "HAZWOPER," a certification in hazardous waste operations. In the midst of a six-month moratorium on exploratory drilling in the gulf, few drilling companies were sending new employees for training. The majority of students were the recipients of job-training tuition grants from the U.S. Department of Labor. Virgil explained that most of the guys weren't getting jobs on offshore platforms, but were being hired by BP to clean up the released oil from the well of Deepwater Horizon. That catastrophe released the most oil ever accidentally spilled into the ocean,9 and though a large portion of it seems to have disappeared through evaporation and dilution, an uncertain future remains for the offshore industry. In response to the disaster and its tragic effects, some of which may not be known for years, many environmentalists, perhaps rightfully, would agree with OPEC's cofounder, Juan Pérez Alfonzo, when he called oil "the excrement of the devil."10

Virgil would disagree. Before I left Mr. Charley and drove to the airport, Virgil handed me a museum pamphlet. The footer of the first page read:

"In the beginning, God created . . . " OIL.

Coming from a man whose livelihood is based on the oil industry, it was an interesting addendum to the book of Genesis, but a reasonable one. Oil, formed from the fossils of prehistoric life, is—in a sense—as old as creation. It also powers the world. The word oil derives from the Greek elaion, meaning "olive oil, or olive tree." When Noah is stranded on his ark during the flood, a dove returns to him with a branch from an olive tree, a sign to rebuild and a token of mercy (in Greek, mercy, eleison, shares its root with oil, elaion). After meeting Virgil, I was reminded that offshore rigs and platforms—like arks above the waters—are communities at sea, and for them, a sign of oil can be a sign of grace.



  1. "The Gulf of Mexico, by the Numbers," The New York Times, May 2, 2010.
  2. "Padre Island National Seashore: Shoreline Trash," National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior;
  3. I cannot recall the exact statistics quoted to me in my training session, so I have included those printed in "The Gulf of Mexico, by the Numbers."
  4. "MMS Gulf of Mexico OCS Region Blocks and Active Leases by Planning Area, May 18, 2010," Minerals Management Service, U.S. Department of the Interior;
  5. "Seasonal and Spatial Variation in the Biomass and Size Frequency Distribution of Fish Associated with Oil and Gas Platforms in the Northern Gulf of Mexico," February 2000, Minerals Management Service, U.S. Department of the Interior;
  6. "Impact Assessment of Offshore Facilities from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita," Minerals Management Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, January 19, 2006, news release;
  7. Mark Schleifstein, "Extent of Oil Spills from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita Is Still Being Assessed," The Times-Picayune, August 19, 2010.
  8. Virgil uses this sentence as the advertising slogan for "Mr. Charley," the International Petroleum and Museum Exposition, on his website ( and in the pamphlet he gave me.
  9. Campbell Robertson and Clifford Krauss, "Gulf Spill Is the Largest of Its Kind, Scientists Say," The New York Times, August 2, 2010.
  10. Jerry Useem, "The Devil's Excrement: Pérez Alfonzo's Different Name for Oil," Fortune, January 21, 2003; quoted in Sonia Shah, Crude: The Story of Oil (Seven Stories Press, 2004), ix.

Zachary Ugolnik, MTS '09, is a research associate at the Pluralism Project at Harvard University and will be beginning a PhD in religion at Columbia University in fall 2011. This essay is part of a larger work on pilgrimage and modern monasticism.

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