Tuesday, November 13, 2012


photo courtesy of the American Petroleum Institute
My class had their bronze pour this past Saturday, which means I sweated off a good ten pounds in between 9am and 3pm. I don't think my heart rate got below 100 the entire time. It's not exactly back-breaking work,  but I felt it the next day. It's not the effort. It's the recovery.

There was one incident of note. I insist upon everyone wear safety glasses, and we wear these mesh screen helmet visors as well. But it is more of a "Do what I say, not what I do" type of safety regulation. Oftentimes, the glare of the furnace will obscure my vision through sweat-smeared glasses, and so I sometimes take them off.

Well, while I was knocking off the dipper after skimming slag off the molten metal, a marble-sized piece of molten slag decides to jump up, ricochet off the inside of my visor, and go into my right eye.

Fortunately, it bounced back out, but it burned my eye. In this case, steam was my friend (as in the water on the surface of my eye turned to steam and did a little Leidenfrost effect on the slag bolt). Later investigation found two pea- and pinhead-sized first-degree burns to the upper and lower eyelids, and a little portion of eyelash burned down to the root. But the sclera of my eye was only superficially burned. I mean, I knew it was burned as it started to hurt whenever I re-exposed it to heat, loading up the furnace. So, I just shut that eye when I got near heat.

Only one student saw it happen, and wouldn't you know it, she's a nurse. She insisted I go to the emergency room, and I told her I was fine. I wasn't but, I wasn't about to spend five hundred dollars for them to tell me they'd want to keep me under observation. And as it turned out, it only hurt for a few days, and no weird crusty exudate or pus come out of my eye, so I guess I'm okay.

But for some reason, it reminded me of a time back in the early 70s driving with the old man through Gary and East Chicago where my eyes felt the same way - stinging. And I had to put my t-shirt over my mouth and nose to try and cut the outside stink down. I overheard my dad later talking to a friend about how he "had to break wind in the car to improve upon the smell". That was all before the Clean Air Act, back when the refineries and steel mills generously put your daily mineral requirements out into the atmosphere for consumption.

Some drive through that area now, and consider it the armpit of Indiana. Not hardly. Not nearly like what it was.

I'm sure other people and places feel the same way. I've never been to Port Arthur, TX, but my understanding is the refinery complex there makes NW Indiana's look like a small time hillbilly still.

Port Arthur, I've heard, is a shithole, and like all shitholes, it is what it is because it is strategically placed to be a shithole. Why, just up the road, in Beaumont, is Spindletop.

Some 150 million years ago, a shallow portion of Jurassic sea alternately flooded and dried out, building up a seriously thick microbial scuzz, and creating a salt pan of considerable depth. Fast forward through geologic time, with sediment lithifying on top, the scuzz compresses and cooks into oil, the salt starts to float upward through the rock, forming a dome. The salt dome, lighter than the surrounding rock, squeezes up like soft turd, paradoxically breaking the harder rock above it, and all that scuzz-oil leaks upward through the cracks. In the meantime, minerals leaching down from the surface have formed a limestone and gypsum cap above the dome, riddled with caves and caverns that the oil pools up in. Drill down some thousand feet, in just the right spot (plus or minus less than some fifty feet) and you get yourself the famous Lucas Gusher No. 1.
Spindletop Now

My understanding is, for a hundred bucks, you can get a replica of that gusher turned on. They use water now to simulate the gusher, but still, that should give you a good idea that that's a lot of oil under a lot of pressure (150 feet in the air, at 100,000 barrels per day), and it is pretty much all floating around in the atmosphere now, combined with oxygen.

What's the point of this? Well, look up at that first picture. That's Boiler Avenue, circa 1903. Within a year of the Lucas Gusher, 100 different oil companies fought for space on Spindletop to put down some 200 oil wells. Land speculation was insane.

Production was 17,500,000 barrels of oil in 1902. By early 1904, production was down 10,000 barrels a day Not that there wasn't more oil there. By 1985, some 185,000,000 barrels had been sucked out of the whole area. But the point was, with oil cheaper than water, far cheaper than coal, and ready to burn in ships and locomotives, there was no incentive to rationally plan for the future, and modify the speculations and extractions.

Sound familiar? The fracked-up Marcellus range of natural gas was originally estimated to be able to supply US natural gas consumption for the next one hundred years. Current estimates are now at a little more than a decade.

Current estimates say US oil production will exceed Saudi Arabia by 2020. The United States will be the Number One producer of oil, just like back in 1901. Supposedly this means the United States will be energy independent by 2035.

Given our past behaviors, would anyone care to put some serious money on that?


  1. Dude, I sometimes run a construction company and my hands are as soft as a baby's bottom. Why? Because I always wear my PPE (Personal Protection Equipment).
    Like ones mother always said,'Don't slag without your goggles - you can put your eye out.', or something like that.
    But yeah.. Port Arthur, Beauont and Orange Texas (well, most of the oil producing areas along the Gulf) often smell like someone just farted. The Cancer rates are high and the education levels are low.

    1. That's right, you're in Beaumont, aren't you? Huh. I've never been further south than Amarillo, and that Permian Death Land was pretty much all the Texas that I wanted to see. Well, that, and having to shoo off the Satanists, vampires, and cannibals all the time. But if I make it down your way, I'll bring a spare Benjamin and we'll go watch them get that gusher going.