On the morning of 21 April 2010, Sara Lattis Stone began frantically calling the burn units of various hospitals in Alabama and Louisiana. She was searching for news about her husband, Stephen, who worked on an offshore oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico where a massive explosion had occurred. The blast took place the day before Stephen was scheduled to return home from his latest three-week hitch on the rig, a semisubmersible floating unit called the Deepwater Horizon.
In the hours after a spokesperson from Transocean, the company that owned the Deepwater Horizon, called to tell her that an “incident” had required the rig to be evacuated, Sara veered between panic and denial. One minute, she was telling herself that Stephen was fine. The next, she was convinced that she would never see him again. On Facebook, she came across frightening messages – “the water’s on fire!”, “the rig is burning” – posted by the spouses of other workers. At one point, Sara got on the phone with one of them, a woman who had her TV tuned to the same channel that she was watching, which was airing live coverage of the blowout. As they peered at the screen, they heard the same update, describing the blast as a catastrophic accident and raising the possibility that no one on the rig had survived. The news made them drop their phones and scream.
Sara lived in Katy, Texas, a town just west of Houston where she’d grown up and where she and Stephen had settled after getting married. The day after he got home from his hitch, they were planning to meet a real estate agent, having just received preapproval for a loan to buy a house. Now Sara wondered if Stephen would ever come home. None of the hospital burns units that she tried reaching had any information about him.
Eventually, Sara received another call from Transocean, informing her that although the blowout had caused multiple fatalities, Stephen was among those who had managed to escape from the burning rig. The survivors were now being transported by ferry to a hotel in New Orleans, she was told. After consulting her mother, Sara tossed some belongings into a suitcase, drove to Houston airport and boarded the next available flight to the Gulf. The following morning, at about 3.30am, she got a call from Stephen, who told her he was on his way to the hotel where she and other family members had gathered to wait. “Are you OK?” she asked him. “Yeah, I’m fine,” he said.
Later, when she saw him shuffle through the hall that had been cordoned off for surviving crew members, she knew immediately that he wasn’t fine. His expression was blank and, like the other survivors, he looked shell-shocked and traumatised. “When he walked in, from the look in his eyes, it was obvious that something horrible had happened,” she recalled.
In 1937, a year after he visited the coalfields of Yorkshire and Lancashire, George Orwell reflected on society’s dependence on the people who extracted these resources from beneath the earth. What Orwell found after descending into the pits – “heat, noise, confusion, darkness, foul air, and, above all, unbearably cramped space” – struck him as a “picture of hell”, teeming with miners whose exertions were as invisible as they were essential to society. “In the metabolism of the western world the coalminer is second in importance only to the man who ploughs the soil,” Orwell wrote in The Road to Wigan Pier. “He is a sort of grimy caryatid upon whose shoulders nearly everything that is not grimy is supported.”
He went on: “Practically everything we do, from eating an ice to crossing the Atlantic, and from baking a loaf to writing a novel, involves the use of coal, directly or indirectly. It is only because miners sweat their guts out that superior persons can remain superior. You and I and the editor of the Times Lit Supp, and the Nancy poets and the Archbishop of Canterbury and Comrade X, author of Marxism for Infants – all of us really owe the comparative decency of our lives to poor drudges underground, blackened to the eyes, with their throats full of coal dust, driving their shovels forward with arms and belly muscles of steel.”
In Orwell’s day, the griminess of coal mining – the ash and dust, the foul air – was physical, staining the clothing, as well as the faces and bodies, of the workers who ventured underground. By the time Stephen Stone found himself on the Deepwater Horizon, the taint of working in the fossil fuel extraction industry was less physical than moral. People who cared about the environment associated the oil industry with disasters like the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill and with carbon emissions that imperilled the planet. It was an industry whose pipelines and projects threatened delicate ecosystems like the Arctic national wildlife refuge in Alaska; an industry from which more and more reputable institutions – universities, philanthropic organisations – had begun divesting; an industry that anyone concerned about the fate of the earth would sooner protest against than turn to for employment.
But while condemning the greed of oil companies was easy enough, avoiding relying on the product they produced was more difficult. For all the talk of shifting to wind and solar power, fossil fuels still supplied 84% of the world’s energy in 2019, and in many places their use was increasing. Part of the reason for this was surging consumption in countries like China and India. Another factor was the massive carbon footprint of the US, which made up less than 5% of the world’s population but consumed roughly a quarter of the world’s energy. More than 80 years after The Road to Wigan Pier was published, “dirty oil” was no less important in the metabolism of global capitalism than coal had been in Orwell’s time. Although he spoke frequently about the importance of addressing the climate crisis, President Obama presided over a massive increase in crude oil production, which grew by 3.6m barrels a day during his tenure. When Obama left office, the US was the world’s leading petroleum producer. His successor, Donald Trump, was an even more unabashed promoter of the fossil fuel industry, rolling back environmental regulations and proposing to open 90% of the US’s coastal waters to offshore drilling.
Stephen Stone did not grow up dreaming of working in the energy industry. He was far more interested in enjoying his natural surroundings. Throughout his childhood, his favourite place to spend time was outdoors, swimming in the Tennessee River or trekking through the wilderness near his home in Grant, Alabama, a small town nestled in the foothills of the Appalachians. The bucolic setting suited him, at least until he got a bit older, when life in a backwoods town with limited opportunities began to feel stifling. During what would have been his senior year in high school, he started working the night shift at a rug factory in nearby Scottsboro, the same factory where his mother worked after his parents got divorced. After graduating, he quit the rug factory and enlisted in the navy. Two and a half years later, after being discharged, he returned to Grant and started calling various oil companies to see if he could land a job on a rig. He’d heard that oil companies liked to hire former navy guys and the work paid well, far more than any other job a high school graduate from rural Alabama was likely to stumble across. Some time later, he flew to Houston to interview for a position as a roustabout with GlobalSantaFe, an offshore drilling company that would later be bought by Transocean.
It was on this visit to Houston that Stephen decided to strike up a conversation with the redhead sitting next to him on the airport shuttle. The redhead was Sara. They chatted for three hours; within a year, they were married. In some ways, Stephen and Sara made for an odd couple: she was a college graduate with an introspective manner; he was a good old boy who was quick with a joke and liked to laugh and party. From the moment they started talking, though, Sara was struck by Stephen’s intelligence, the books he mentioned reading and the thoughtful gaze in his eyes. Whenever he would go offshore on a hitch in the years to come, Sara would notice, Stephen made sure to pack some reading – novels, poetry, philosophy. He also brought along a couple of pocket-size notebooks that he would fill with poems and drawings. To some college graduates, marrying a rig worker, even one who wrote poetry in his spare time, might have seemed odd. To Sara, it felt natural. Virtually everyone she knew in Katy came from a family with ties to the oil industry. Her own father had worked in the industry for decades. The rhythm of the lifestyle, marked by two- and three-week hitches during which rig workers were separated from their spouses, was familiar to Sara, who often went months without seeing her father during her childhood. When Stephen would leave on hitches, she would miss him, but she also liked having time to focus on her own interests, in particular her art. In college, she’d majored in painting and photography, visual mediums through which she’d always found it easier to express herself than words.
In the aftermath of the explosion on the Deepwater Horizon, Sara started a series of portraits of the blast’s survivors. The paintings were drafted, fittingly, in oil and were inspired by a visit that she and Stephen paid to Washington DC, where they and other survivors were invited to testify at a House judiciary committee hearing on the Deepwater disaster – a disaster that was still unfolding and that, upon closer inspection, was hardly a surprise.
The immediate cause of the blast on the Deepwater Horizon was a bubble of methane gas that floated up through the drill column, most likely because of a breach in the cement casing that enclosed it, and spread across the deck before igniting into a deadly fireball. In the view of many analysts, the deeper cause was the recklessness and greed that pervaded the oil industry. This seemed particularly pronounced at BP, the company that leased the rig from Transocean and owned the exclusive rights to the Macondo Prospect well, an oil and gas reservoir located 49 miles off the coast of Louisiana. “Make every dollar count” was BP’s motto, an ethos that pleased shareholders and drew praise from business analysts. Safety experts were more alarmed. In 2005, an explosion at a BP refinery in Texas City killed 15 workers. An investigation by the US Chemical Safety Board faulted BP for pushing for 25% budget cuts “even though much of the refinery’s infrastructure and process equipment were in disrepair”. Between 2007 and 2010, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, a regulatory body, cited BP for 760 safety violations, by far the most of any major oil company.
Leasing the Deepwater Horizon cost BP $1m a day, and the Macondo well had fallen behind schedule, increasing the pressure to brush aside concerns that might have slowed the pace of drilling. Some workers feared that raising such concerns would get them fired, which helps explain why an array of ominous signs – problems with the cementing, flaws in the blowout preventer – were ignored. Hours before the rig went up in flames, a BP executive on the rig congratulated the crew for seven years without a “lost-time incident”. After the blowout, BP scrambled to contain the oil gushing out of the well, which leaked 210m gallons of crude into the Gulf, devastating fisheries and befouling the coasts of multiple states.
There were also human costs, which Sara sought to capture in her art. She painted a portrait of Chris Jones, whose brother, Gordon, was one of 11 workers killed in the disaster. In Sara’s portrait, Jones’s lips are pursed and his face, painted ash blue, is creased with anguish. Titled Survivors, Sara’s paintings were stark and vivid, capturing the raw grief that filled the room at the congressional hearing on the Deepwater spill in Washington. But the portrait she drew of Stephen captured something different. Based on a photo that was taken during his testimony at the congressional hearing, it shows a bearded figure with a vacant, faraway expression in his eyes. He does not look grief-stricken so much as bewildered and unmoored.
The bewilderment was still apparent when I met Stephen several years later, at a bar not far from where he and Sara were living at the time. Stephen was in his late 20s, with a shaggy mop of chestnut-coloured hair and languid, downcast eyes. At the bar, he was taciturn, nodding occasionally at something Sara said while straining to keep his gaze from drifting off. Unlike some of the workers on the Deepwater Horizon, he had managed to escape from the rig without sustaining any burns or physical injuries. But as I would come to learn, the absence of visible wounds was a mixed blessing, prompting friends to wonder what was wrong with him and exacerbating the shame he felt for struggling to move on.
Since the explosion, he’d been unable to hold down a job. He avoided social gatherings. He also had trouble sleeping. The explosion on the rig had happened at night, collapsing the stairwell above the room in which Stephen had fallen asleep after completing a work shift. The blast startled him awake and sent him racing into the change room, where he slipped on a pair of fire-retardant coveralls and fumbled his way toward the deck, at which point he saw that the entire rig was smouldering and heard the panicked screams of his co-workers. It was an experience he now feared reliving every time he shut his eyes, Sara had come to realise. “The way I understand it is, he’s constantly preparing for that wake-up,” she said.
In the days that followed, I visited Stephen and Sara several times in their apartment, a two-storey dwelling in a complex of look-alike grey bungalows. Much of the time, Stephen sat on a couch in the living room, sipping black coffee from a green mug and, every few minutes, taking another toke of medical marijuana, which a psychiatrist had prescribed to quell his anxiety. The same psychiatrist had diagnosed him with PTSD.
Given what he’d been through – a near-death experience that shattered his sense of security – this diagnosis made sense. Like military veterans who’d survived explosions in Iraq, Stephen was sensitive to loud noises and given to paranoid fears and panic attacks. The rattle of ice in the freezer was enough to set him off sometimes, Sara said. But as with many military veterans, there was something else that seemed to afflict Stephen no less: not fear but anger and disillusionment. These feelings percolated immediately after the blowout, he told me, when the rig’s survivors arrived at the hotel in New Orleans. They were exhausted and still reeling from the shock, yet before getting to see their families, Stephen said, they were taken to a meeting room where a Transocean manager delivered a speech that sounded to him like an exercise in spin. The experience left a bad taste in Stephen’s mouth. A few weeks later, a Transocean representative reached out to him and, over a cup of coffee at Denny’s, offered him $5,000 for the personal belongings he’d lost on the rig, which he accepted. Then the representative asked him to sign a document affirming that he had not been injured. Stephen was dumbfounded. “I’m not signing this,” he told the representative. “I don’t know if I’m injured yet – this just happened.”
When he had applied for the job at Transocean, Stephen assumed the industry followed strict safety protocols. After the blowout, as he read about how many warning signs on the Deepwater Horizon had been ignored, a wave of disillusionment washed over him. To some extent, accidents on offshore rigs were unavoidable. But the toll in lives was not the same in all countries, noted a report on the Deepwater spill that a bipartisan national commission submitted to President Obama. Between 2004 and 2009, fatalities in the offshore industry were “more than four times higher per person-hours worked in US waters than in European waters”. The report traced this disparity back to the 1980s, when a series of deadly accidents took place, including a blowout on the Piper Alpha, a platform in the North Sea, that killed 167 people. In Norway and the UK, the response was to enact stronger regulations that put the burden of preventing future disasters on industry. The US adopted a laxer approach, leaving safety to companies like BP and Transocean, which, a few months after the Deepwater blowout, announced that it was awarding bonuses to several senior executives for overseeing the “best year in safety performance” in the company’s history. When Stephen learned about the bonuses, he was still a Transocean employee. Afterward, he submitted an angry resignation letter. “I quit,” he said. “I was like, fuck you guys. I don’t want to be a part of your company.”
Military psychologists sometimes use the term “moral injury” to describe the suffering that some soldiers endure after they carry out orders that transgress the values at the core of their identity. Such wounds can also occur when soldiers feel betrayed by their commanders, violating their sense of “what’s right”. Something similar appeared to grip Stephen, who felt deeply betrayed by an industry that upended not only his sense of security but also his moral bearings and his trust. “I think there’s the personal betrayal of the company-employee relationship,” he said. “But there’s an even larger sense of betrayal. I didn’t think the industry was this bad.” He paused. “It just kind of takes some hope from humanity, shatters your illusions a little bit.”
There was one other betrayal that appeared to weigh on Stephen: the betrayal of himself, the part of him that loved nature and, after the blowout, as the scale of the disaster became clear, felt dirtied and implicated. He felt this in particular on a road trip that Sara persuaded him to take through some of the places in the Gulf where the pollution from the spill had begun to wash up. Among their destinations was Dauphin Island, on Alabama’s Gulf Coast. During his childhood, Stephen had holidayed there with his family. It was one of his favourite places, famous for the ribbon of pristine white sand that graced its shores. After the Deepwater spill, the sand was stained with oil sludge, a sight that filled Stephen with shame and sadness. “This great place from my childhood was getting shit on,” he said, “and I was part of the group that shit on it.”
For Sara, too, seeing the impact of the spill dredged up difficult feelings about the world she’d grown up in. When she watched BP air ads on television burnishing its commitment to the environment, she was furious. But she was equally upset at environmental groups that, after the spill, seemed to focus far more attention on the pelicans and dolphins who’d been harmed than on the rig workers who’d died. Every day on the news, it seemed, she would see images of dead seabirds and marine mammals. The faces of the rig workers never appeared. Sara could not understand why they were so invisible. “It’s just weird,” she said.
But Stephen did not seem to find it so weird. Most of the people he worked with were “blue-collar guys” and “country bumpkins” from backwoods towns like the one he’d grown up in, he noted. The kinds of people “superior persons” looked down on, in other words. Then he mentioned another reason why the public might find it easier to sympathise with dead dolphins than with workers like him.
“People see the environment as completely innocent,” he said, “whereas we, just being in that industry, you know, you kind of brought it on yourself.”
Stephen did not seem to begrudge people for feeling this way. He had, after all, collected a paycheck from Transocean, making upwards of $60,000 a year as a roustabout, a salary that was bound to increase as he gained more experience. Were it not for the blowout, he probably would have continued working in the industry, he told me, for the same reason most of the blue-collar guys on the Deepwater Horizon did: the money was good. The same incentive explained why thousands of working-class men flocked to places like the Williston Basin, home to the Bakken rock formation, during the fracking boom, where drillers and swampers could sometimes pocket more than $10,000 a month. Some of Stephen’s co-workers on the Deepwater Horizon earned six-figure salaries despite having nothing more than a high school diploma. As with fracking, the job was hard – 12-hour shifts during which Stephen raced around stacking equipment and mixing drilling mud – but it beat living paycheck to paycheck with few benefits or holidays like everyone Stephen knew back in Grant, Alabama.
“A path to a life otherwise out of reach” was the phrase that a team of reporters from the New York Times used to describe how the crew members on the Deepwater Horizon viewed their jobs. If environmentalists had little sympathy for the workers who took these jobs while ignoring the “dirty facts” about the fossil fuel industry – water pollution, land degradation, the discharge of the majority of the US’s carbon emissions – who, really, could blame them? These dirty facts were real, Stephen acknowledged. On the other hand, it was not lost on either him or Sara that a lot of people who saw rig workers as complicit in these dirty facts were happy enough to pump gasoline into their SUVs and minivans without feeling the least bit sullied themselves. “We like to forget that our everyday lives are what’s making that the reality,” Stephen said.
Who ends up doing this kind of work is shaped by class but also by geography. In a 1994 book, the sociologists William Freudenburg and Robert Gramling compared the status and prevalence of offshore drilling in two states with large shorelines, Louisiana and California. It was in California that, in 1969, a blowout on an oil platform in the Santa Barbara Channel first drew attention to the environmental risks of offshore drilling. The spill prompted then-secretary of the interior Walter Hickel to issue a moratorium on offshore drilling in California’s waters. Decades later, few residents of the Golden State were clamouring to change this, Freudenburg and Gramling found. Virtually every Californian they interviewed opposed offshore drilling.
In southern Louisiana, a series of blowouts also took place in the 70s, polluting the Gulf and, in some cases, causing fatalities. But unlike in California, no moratorium on offshore drilling ensued. By the time Freudenburg and Gramling conducted their study, more than 13,000 production wells had been drilled in the Gulf of Mexico’s outer continental shelf. Once again, the subjects of their study all seemed to hold the same view of this activity, only this time it was the opposite view: in Louisiana, opposition to offshore drilling was nonexistent.
One explanation for these starkly divergent attitudes was ideological: California was a liberal state whose residents tended to care about the environment, whereas Louisiana was a conservative one where people held favourable views of business. But the divergence also reflected radically different economic prospects. As Freudenburg and Gramling noted, the Californians they interviewed did not seem to care that closing the coast to drilling might hamper economic development. In fact, many of them were transplants from other states who had chosen to live in California “to get away from that kind of shit”, as one respondent put it, describing rigs and derricks as eyesores that would defile the state’s natural beauty, which needed to be protected from development. Louisianians did not have the luxury of thinking this way. The oil industry meant jobs in a poor state where, for many people, there were few better options.
By the end of the 90s, nearly one-third of the US’s domestic energy supply came from offshore production in the Gulf of Mexico. To Louisianians who found jobs in the petroleum industry, this was a source of livelihood and a point of pride. But there were significant downsides, including the highest level of air pollution in the country and the degradation of Louisiana’s coastal wetlands. Much of the oil and gas that flowed through the state’s pipelines ended up servicing other parts of the country, absorbed into the metabolism of prosperous regions like New England. Meanwhile, Louisiana’s coastal communities were sinking, leaving the residents of cities like New Orleans more vulnerable to storms and hurricanes, a problem likely to grow worse in the future, thanks to rising sea levels precipitated by the climate crisis.
At the beginning of the pandemic, some analysts speculated that the era of dirty energy was coming to an end. Lockdowns and travel bans caused the global demand for oil to plunge, and at one point, the price of oil futures fell below zero, prompting some to suggest that fossil fuels would soon give way to a new era of clean, renewable energy. But without support from the world’s leading economies, the shift to renewable energy stands little chance of being realised. During Trump’s presidency, such support was sorely lacking from Washington. The agenda appeared to shift under Joe Biden, who announced that he was elevating the climate crisis to a national security priority. Not long after assuming office, however, Biden urged Opec to increase production in order to alleviate the strain on consumers saddled with high gas prices.
Such cognitive dissonance did not escape the notice of the workers I met. “I realise oil and gas is not the best thing for the environment,” one former roustabout in Louisiana told me. “How’d you get here?” he asked, pointing to the car I’d driven to our appointment. “I laugh at the states that say we need to get off this – fine, then don’t use it,” he went on. “They just want it to be somebody else’s problem.”
Although they rarely made the news, oil spills have continued to take place with distressing regularity in the decade since the Deepwater blowout – in 2018 alone, there were 137, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Fatalities are also still common. “From 2008 to 2017, roughly the same number of oilfield workers were killed on the job as US troops in Afghanistan,” notes Michael Patrick F Smith, who worked on an oilfield in North Dakota during the fracking boom. These deaths, too, rarely made headlines, much to the dismay of Lillian Espinoza-Gala, an industry safety consultant who worked for years on an offshore rig, until an accident killed one of her co-workers and nearly claimed her own life.
When I visited Espinoza-Gala at her office in Lafayette, a city in southern Louisiana, I noticed an award displayed on one wall, recognising her as “one of the first Gulf of Mexico female production roustabouts”. On another was a picture of 11 wooden crosses planted on a strip of sand, one for each of the workers killed on the Deepwater Horizon. When the blowout happened, it felt like 9/11 to her, Espinoza-Gala told me. She turned on a computer and showed me a PowerPoint presentation she’d made about the blowout. After coming to a slide that showed the faces of some of the victims, she paused. There was Donald Clark, 49, an assistant driller from Louisiana. There was Aaron Dale Burkeen, 37, a crane operator from Mississippi.
Before shutting down her computer, Espinoza-Gala clicked on one other slide featuring a worker, a bearded man in a navy suit and silk tie who was sitting at a congressional hearing, delivering testimony. It was Stephen Stone. Behind him was a woman with long red hair and freckled cheeks dabbing a tear from her eye. It was Sara. On the next slide, a congressman was shown holding up a photo of one of the blowout’s better-known victims: a crude-encrusted pelican, Louisiana’s state bird.
A proud Louisianian and committed conservationist, Espinoza-Gala was not unmoved by the image of the pelican. But, like Sara Lattis Stone, she found it difficult to understand why the pelicans aroused more sympathy from politicians than the workers. “The widows were in these hearings, where they’re holding up pictures of birds instead of their husbands!” she said. For a long time, she told me, this enraged her. Eventually, she came to terms with it, reluctantly concluding that if not for the pelicans, the Deepwater Horizon disaster would probably have been ignored in Washington, the way most rig accidents were, owing to the low value placed on the lives of the people who did the dirty work.
“If 11 workers would have died, nobody would have cared,” she said.
Adapted from Dirty Work: Essential Jobs and the Hidden Toll of Inequality by Eyal Press, which will be published by Head of Zeus on 20 January