I was offshore when I realized the industry was beyond any foreseeable recovery. We were part of a workover project in Angola, requiring 12 hour shifts on different offshore production platforms. One slickline crew would replace gas lift valves, while me and my coworkers would log for hydrocarbon saturation.
The main offshore platform had production facilities to remove solids, separate liquid and gas, flare excess, and prepare the different fluids for their respective pipelines back to shore. It took a village to run this platform, and the village lived and slept, five weeks at a time, on their platform. The main processing platform didn’t have any extra accommodations for workover projects. The company sent all temporary workers to the “alternative living quarters” on a satellite platform. The ALQ consisted of shipping containers with 4 bunk beds, dirty linens, and rudimentary plumbing. I hated those accommodations, and preferred exercise to the shipping container.
Christmas was in a couple of weeks, and instead of waiting for New Year’s resolutions, my coworkers and I constructed a makeshift gym in the storage area. We freed up exercise space by consolidating scaffolding to one side of the storage area, and placing non-perishable foods in the fridge. Part of me thought it was wasteful, refrigerating non-perishable food. Electricity generated, spent on unneeded cooling. Then again, I’d rather waste energy than be cooped up in our rooms. Besides, with the crash in commodity prices, energy was cheaper every day.
There is little light pollution off the coast of Angola. The platforms flaring on the horizon dissipates, leaving a clear view of the stars. I stared at them for a moment. Not because astrology or constellations interested me, but because the glittering blackness reminded me of the High Plains. My legs were sore from squats and deadlifts as I took the stairs back down to the ALQ. My phone picked up the wireless signal after passing through the door, and proceeded to download emails.
Top executives in the corporation I worked for exercised their stock options. The email regarded this as good news. I took the contrarian position. Now was not a good time to buy, after the stock plummeted 30% in the past weeks. Instead of benevolence or prudence, the corporation must have viewed this as a necessary sacrifice to shore up the stock price. Such sacrifices to drive up prices, replacing fundamentals. This industry was fucked.
During the days of slickline work, me and the other wireline guys would go fishing off the edge of the platform. The regular, foreign workers on the platform would share their smuggled in fishing lines and lures, only expecting us to share good catches in return. The ocean contained copious amounts of small blue and yellow fish, a handful of red snappers, and one barracuda which swam only near the supply boat’s landing. The crane operator obsessed over this barracuda below, and referred to the fish (in his broken English) as “the monster”.
Our first attempt at fishing baited lunch scraps on our hook. Only the blue and yellow fish would bite at our meal, the red snappers swam uninterested. I caught a smaller fish first. As I reeled it in, I considered the best way to kill it. To preserve any meat, I let it gasp for oxygen. The fish’s blue and yellow scales reflected in the sun as the animal asphyxiated on the deck. The cooks on board refused to cook this blue and yellow fish, instead telling us to use the carcass as bait for the red snapper.
An asphyxiated fish does not bleed, which is necessary to attract a red snapper. I pierced a stronger hook, made out of spare slickline, through the smaller fish, and the fish blood ran down my wrist. I can still remember the other guy frowning in disgust as I threw the line back to the ocean, where a red snapper immediately seized upon it. At first, I imagined myself the hero of the day, hauling in red snapper for the cooks and other workers to eat. But the line snapped microseconds after the red snapper took our bait. I repeated this process of catching smaller fish to use as bait without the other guy.
He had no stomach to see fish cannibalize each other. The crane operator tried the same technique for the barracuda, whispering foreign words to himself while fishing. If the line couldn’t bear a snapper, what hope was there in catching a monster?
The company laid me off after the reservoir evaluation campaign. No long-term job would hire an engineer with petroleum experience on their resume. I was a flight risk back to a better paying industry as soon as the market recovered. I suppose they were right, in the end. For the next year, my pursuit would be higher education.
I emailed two different professors at two different schools, explaining my undergrad, my recent standardized test scores, my work experience as an oilfield engineer. Two schools: one I thought was safe, probable admission, the other one more prestigious, unlikely acceptance. The lesser school’s professor replied immediately, saying:
“Our ideal candidates are students with double majors or with a history of research funding. We received four times the normal amount of applications this year and only have positions for ten percent. You should focus on other schools, for which your research interests and your background might fit better.”
This shocked me, because this was a lower tier school. Without doubt, others had the same idea- to train up during the downturn. Grad school would be more competitive than I assumed. The professor from the more prestigious engineering program emailed me back, catching me by surprise. Maybe because I already lived in the metro area. The professor said she wanted to meet me for coffee close to campus.
I drove to the particular coffee shop she mentioned, down the hill from her department. Walking up to the cafe’s door, I noticed their window decorated with diversity slogans, rainbow flags, and promises of safety and inclusion. After stepping inside the cafe I stood by the door for fifteen minutes until I saw the professor walk up. Short, and dressed more like a high school art teacher than an engineering professor.
“J?” After exchanging pleasantries, we walked to the counter to order our drinks. I insisted on paying, and at that moment she also picked out a carb-laden snack. We collected our items and sat down to discuss grad school.
“Soo…” She began, “What were your research interests?”
I regurgitated what I already provided via email “Adsorbed state physics. I studied chemical engineering, and worked as a field engineer in formation evaluation. I believe unconventional resources aren’t adequately described by current volumetric models.”
“Yes, I agree. Current industry practices seem to be… inadequate. We have a few students researching that subject, one particularly bright woman from China, would you like to meet her?“
She couldn’t recall any free days off the top of her head, yet promised she would email me once she got back in front of her calendar. After discussing research interests, the conversation turned to my international experience.
“What was your favorite part about working overseas?”
“On slow days, we would go fishing.” I thought back to the barracuda, the monster we could never catch. It wouldn’t bite at the blue and yellow fish. Would this professor understand what I was talking about, or would she turn away from the idea of fish blood on my hands?
Dr. Singh didn’t put any effort in returning emails. I wrote her five different times, and only one of them she acknowledged, saying there would be a more substantive email from her to follow soon.
There was one last attempt at reaching her. I would visit Dr. Singh’s office uninvited, catching her by surprise. As I walked along the campus, I noticed the older buildings, tiled roof and solid stone, capable of providing adequate positions for snipers. The modern buildings sponsored by oil and gas companies were flimsier, providing less coverage, should hostilities occur. I walked up to her office and noticed Dr. Singh had almost every left-wing political statement on her door. Minority rights, women’s rights, even an environmental slogan. I should have been more suspicious of these institutions of research, historically serving capital. Even petroleum engineering departments were realigning. She wasn’t in. I took the hint and spent the downturn as a ski bum instead.