A Disaster Reaches Beyond the Gulf Coast
As BP continues to struggle to plug the leak at the bottom of the sea, the president tries to convince the country that he is on top of the crisis, and the first oil laps the coasts of previously untouched states, Americans far from the gulf are feeling touched by the disaster.
An ‘Oil City’ Fears for Its Future
CASPER, Wyo. — The lobby of the elegant old Casper Petroleum Club is filled with suggestions of its pro-oil ethos: a sign listing current crude and natural gas prices; a wall of plaques recognizing local companies in the business; and dozens of photographs of beaming engineers and executives who have served on the board of the private club over the years.
But in recent weeks, some club members’ smiles have been replaced by more fraught expressions as worries have grown not only about the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, but also about the potential blowback to Casper’s No. 1 industry.
“Honestly, the first concern is the problem it is causing the Gulf Coast, because a lot of us have spent time down there,” said Jimmy E. Goolsby, a geologist who lived in Texas before decamping to Casper some 35 years ago.
“But secondary to us, and very important to all of us, is what impact it’s going to have on the oil and gas industry in the U.S.,” Mr. Goolsby said. “Is it going to be what Three Mile Island was to nuclear?”
In Casper, a city of 52,000, oil and natural gas production and refining are as central to the lives of many residents as pick-up trucks and big sky. That concern spreads all the way from the white-tablecloth confines of the petroleum club to the white-bibbed customers at the Rialto Barber Shop.
Ed Heatherington, who wields the razor beneath the watchful gaze of a stuffed pronghorn antelope at the Rialto, was measured in his response. “It’s a shame it happened,” he said. “But we’re not living in an accident-free world.”
But some of Mr. Heatherington’s patrons were less forgiving Thursday morning as they chided President Obama for what they saw as a slow, haphazard response, as well as for his remarks Wednesday that he intended to roll back tax credits for the oil industry.
“He’s just on another campaign trip,” said Dee Beardsley, a 81-year-old retiree who worked for years as an operations manager in the energy industry. “They’re brain dead.”
That Mr. Obama would be unpopular in this red state stronghold — this is Dick Cheney’s hometown, after all — is not surprising. But BP, the London-based oil giant, also drew an angry response from some local residents.
“We kicked the British out of here 200 years ago,” said Ken Melder, a drilling consultant from Glenrock, Wyo., in a neighboring county. “And we ought to do it again.”
Oil and gas have long been a part of life in Wyoming, where the first oil well was drilled in 1884, six years before the territory joined the union. Casper is no exception; sometimes known as “the Oil City,” it has a refinery on one edge of town, with gigantic oil reserve tanks on the other. Rail tracks, where piping and tanker cars are a constant presence, run through the center of town, not far from one of its tallest structures — the six-story Petroleum Building.
Most of those in the oil and gas business here are not big, multinational companies, Mr. Goolsby said. “Most people here are like farmers: they just produce product,” he said, meaning oil and natural gas. “They don’t have pipelines. They don’t have refineries. They don’t have outlets. They just produce.”
Residents here are used to boom and bust cycles. In 2008, the oil and gas industry employed about 30,000 people and poured nearly $3 billion in Wyoming’s coffers in taxes, royalties and other fees, according to the Petroleum Association of Wyoming. But local residents say the current oil scene is in a slump, and some said they feared more scrutiny from the government could prolong the slump.
“Back in the ’80s, when the bubble burst, you’d go to lunch and come back and the doors would be locked,” Mr. Beardsley said. “I just hope that doesn’t happen again.”
Others — particularly the young and able — were not concerned that all that much would change because of the current slump, caused in part by the recession, or the gulf spill.
Lucas Strawn, 21, had come to Casper to train for oil work after four years of working methane gas rigs north of here. He had more fear of dying on the job — “everything on a rig has a potential to kill you” — than his job dying on the vine.
“People still want to drive their cars,” said Mr. Strawn, a Wyoming native, as he played pool in a local hall Thursday night. “And if we don’t drill, they don’t drive.” —JESSE McKINLEY
"A TERRIBLE, TERRIBLE WAY TO DIE"
Grief After Another Kind of Oil Disaster
ANACORTES, Wash. — Hershel and Bonita Janz say they have been struck by how little media attention has been given to the 11 people who died in the explosion on the Deepwater Horizon rig in the Gulf of Mexico on April 20.
They understand that the nation is consumed with the environmental consequences of the spill, and they understand the worries Gulf Coast residents have over losing a way of life. But what about the loss of life?
“Today is the day, you know,” Mrs. Janz said, the evening news on the television as the couple sat down for dinner. “Two months today.”
It was June 2, two months to the day after an explosion at the Tesoro oil refinery killed seven people. The Janzes’ son, Lew, died after clinging to life for 11 days in a hospital burn unit, all but his eyes swaddled in blood-soaked bandages.
“It was a terrible, terrible way to die,” Mr. Janz said.
Will Lamphiear, an operator at the refinery 80 miles north of Seattle, said that having the gulf spill constantly in the news at the same time Anacortes has been holding memorial services for the Tesoro victims had made him realize that news coverage, however omnipresent, is not necessarily intimate. “That’s noise, that’s a news story,” he said. “We feel this.”
“These were people you saw every day,” he said. “It’s a balancing act, doing your job and dealing with the grief.”
Homes here rattled with the explosion that night. The plant is still shut down and investigators are still at work. Yet even though the accident had much in common with what would happen in the gulf three weeks later — the oil industry, a fiery explosion, tragic deaths, a pristine setting on the water, hard questions over what happened — there was no oil spill here, no seemingly unsolvable environmental disaster. Grief is what people are trying to contain.
But they remain committed to the industry.
“These things happen,” Mr. Janz said, invoking the spill in the gulf as well as the 29 people who died in the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia in April. “But we’re not going to stop using coal and we’re not going to stop using oil. Bad things happen to good people, and Lew was one of the best.”
Officials say the refinery will reopen. Mr. Lamphiear and as many as 500 other employees and contractors are working to repair the facility. While the Tesoro plant had been fined for serious safety violations in the past, there has been no prominent effort to shut it down.
“I think things are really going to be up to snuff when they reopen,” Mr. Janz said.
NANTUCKET HOLDS ITS BREATH
Far Away, Fishermen Watch: ‘If It Was Us, That Would Be It’
CHATHAM, Mass. — The fishermen unloading thousands of pounds of cod from weathered boats Thursday in Chatham, Mass., appeared untouched by the crisis in the Gulf of Mexico; it was business as usual, and some predicted it would stay that way.
“We won’t feel it,” Peter Taylor, a native of Cape Cod who has spent his life fishing its waters, said as seals hungrily circled his boat at the Chatham Fish Pier. “The only long-term outcome is there’ll never be any drilling up here on Georges Bank.”
But others suspect the spill might affect their livelihood, for worse or even for better. It depends partly on whether the spill kills the hatchlings of bluefin tuna, a prized New England catch that spawns in the gulf before migrating to Cape Cod.
“That’s first and foremost on everyone’s minds,” said Rick Thompson, who was packing the day’s catch in ice for shipment to markets and restaurants, “but that’s not going to be felt right away — probably down the road.”