On Fire with Hunger

Excerpt from “An Insider’s View of the Oil Spill,” by Rick Bass, from a longer story originally published by the Virginia Quarterly Review:

Oil spill cleanup, containment efforts, hearings in wake of gulf disaster. (Washington Post) It wasn’t like baseball at all. It wasn’t like anything. The closest thing was maybe hunting—pursuing, with blind instinct and whetted desire and only a handful of clues, the hint of one’s quarry far into the wonderful wilderness of the unknown. Lands no man or woman ever saw, or ever will see, 10,000 feet below the ground. Beaches that received sunlight and warm winds hundreds of millions of years before the strange, momentary experiment of mankind arrived, cold and shivering and with neither fire nor fur. Beaches that were then buried over, still hundreds of millions of years before we first stirred, so anomalous and far from the spine of the main and older tree of life.

You were haunted by dry holes. The nature of the work—the rarity of the treasure—dictates that you’re wrong more often than you’re right. This rarity is what makes the payoff so spectacular. But despite knowing this, after each dry hole, you couldn’t sleep. You couldn’t believe your maps were wrong. The earth was wrong, you told yourself. You must have just missed the pay by a few inches. Not by miles, but by inches.

I believe the word for such behavior is denial, a noun commonly associated with its closest cousin, addiction. We were addicted to the intensity of our hunger—the almost limitless depths of it—and to the certitude that we were needed, that we were vital. Such a feeling is not quite as wonderful as the condition of being loved, but it is similar, with its dependencies, and far more reliable…

I remember those days so well: the power and heady feeling of being needed, of possessing a valuable and honored—and honorable—skill. Finding oil is an honorable skill. The independents—who are fast going out of business, like the independents in any industry—still know this.

The dangerous truth is that the hungers in the men and women who are working the crane lift-gear levers of the world’s major energy corporations are every bit as hungry as I was. They are good at what they do and are on fire with their hunger, and they will track the oil down to the ends of the earth. But they—unlike the independents—have few limits on their powers.

They will find oil, and will drill into it, no matter what the depth, no matter what the pressure. If we continue drilling at such absurd depths, BP’s will not be the last such blowout. It will instead only be the first one, the one that disturbed our blithe innocence.

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