On Writing

"Every fine story must leave in the mind of the sensitive reader an intangible residuum of pleasure, a cadence, a quality of voice that is exclusively the writer's own, individual, unique."
Willa Cather

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Reaching the Moho: An excerpt from THE MOHO PROVISO

     A warning light had begun to flash intermittently on Fowler’s and Mackenzie’s faces as they stood together in the glassed-in control room of the Neptune Challenger. The light seemed to keep time to the blare of a horn as insistent as a bleat of pain. They turned in unison to the heat and pressure gauges that were blinking and oscillating. To twenty-nine-year-old Mac Haber, this was the geologist’s nightmare come alive.
      It was 1967, the culmination of a government project funded by the National Science Foundation. For months the always present threat of a well gone out of control hung over the state-of-the-art drill ship with each bite of earth. They were at a great depth, over 24,000 feet beneath the bottom of the ocean off the California coast. Only beyond the land mass and well into the ocean depths was the crust of the earth thin enough to attempt such a drilling project. It was deeper than any sea drilling had gone before to that magically mysterious and hitherto unexplored region between the crust and mantel of the earth, the Mohorovichic discontinuity.
      Not since 1909 when Croatian seismologist Andrija Mohorovichic, while tracking seismic waves, discovered an anomaly in the area between crust and mantel had anyone ever breeched what he eventually termed the discontinuity. In this space all around the earth, both the Primary and Secondary waves changed velocity, suggesting a material other than rock, and then resumed the usual speed when entering the mantel. Now, the Neptune Challenger had finally penetrated this area. It was a risky drilling project, to be sure, and no one had expected it to be completely uneventful, though Mackenzie had been aware of some scientists’ speculations that hydrocarbons indeed comprised the Moho. Certainly, only a very few had predicted they might hit the grand daddy of oil wells, and now, that was what seemed to be happening.
      This was Mackenzie’s first try at handling the threat of a blowout, a dreaded prospect for all petroleum geologists and engineers. He switched off the horn and got onto the intercom to the toolpusher on the drilling floor, who he could see was frantically sweating it out with the crew as they combated the rising deep earth pressure.
      "What’s your mud weight, Joe?"
      "Sixteen pounds per gallon."
      "Get it up to nineteen, quick!"
      Joe Scudder’s sunburned face creased into furrows of doubt. But as an experienced drilling floor supervisor, he didn’t have to be told twice. He gave a wave of assent and led several men to the mud tanks to prepare the heavier density mud. Time. That’s what they needed to determine the extent of the problem and how to correct it.
      "Where’s Danzig?" Fox growled.
      Mackenzie looked out over the drilling floor and saw the engineer appear at a flight of stairs leading from the bottom of the vessel. He spent most of his time there, tinkering with the engines. He bounded to the console and entered breathless.
      "Is it trying to blow?" he asked needlessly, scanning the gauges. "What have you done for it, Mac?"
      "Mud weight to nineteen. It should take Joe about fifteen minutes."
      "We’ll never make it. Look at that pressure!"
      "Can you recommend anything else?" Fox asked sarcastically.
      "The temperature’s been rising too," Mackenzie noted. "Up to nearly 300 Fahrenheit. That complicates things." His mind was racing. Too heavy mud could crack the formation rock and instigate a blowout. But it just might work.
      Danzig turned to him. "It’s going to blow!"
      "How high could it go?" Fox asked him. "Should we use the Blowout Preventer now?"
      Danzig didn’t answer but gave a brief, uncertain look at Mackenzie. The geologist was watching the gauge as it rode even higher with its rocketing cargo of energy. It was now registering 18,000 pounds per square inch and still climbing.
      Oil and gas flooding the well bore," Fox muttered. "I still can’t believe it."
      "We won’t be able to hold it, Fowler," Mac said tensely. Everything he’d learned about extracting from deep reserves seemed worthless at the moment. They were making history.
      "The Blowout Preventer?"
      Fowler had no sooner spoken than a fountain of viscous mud and oil spewed from the well with the force of a bomb. It was starting to go. Clouds of steam shot above the ship like the spume of a whale. Crewmen tried to back away from the torrent but were instantly covered with mud and oil. Joe Scudder ran to turn on the valve that would carry the flow to the recovery tank.
      Leo Danzig seemed frozen in place with clenched fists at his sides.
      "Close the goddamned BOP rams," Fowler shouted at Leo.
      At the command, the engineer leaped out of the console to a nearby control panel containing the hydraulic system for the Blowout Preventer. He switched on the motor, which gave out a deep throated roar that vibrated within the control room, and maneuvered the gears that would activate the experimental equipment. Although developed for this very purpose, the BOP had never been field tested to control this much force, not an unusual circumstance.
      The console door stood open, and they caught the unmistakable odor of the gases associated with crude oil. Then the BOP gears meshed and the grating sound of steel on steel signaled the movement of the mechanism.
      Thirty agonizing seconds passed before the men in the console felt the impact of the giant set of jaws, the equivalent size of several stories, closing the space between drilling steel and casing on the ocean floor. The mud pump gauge began to fall until it finally registered zero. "Thank God it worked," Fox rasped. He took out a handkerchief and wiped his sweating face.
      "It’s leveling off at 15,000," said Mackenzie.
      Leo smiled wanly at Fox. "We made it."
      Mackenzie, too, looked at his superior. Fox’s face was blotchy as he seemed to struggle with conflicting emotions. No one spoke until Joe Scudder entered the room with pieces of the exuded rock. Mackenzie thanked Scudder as he went back to the floor and then took the samples to his small lab along one wall of the console.
      "No doubt about it," he said finally. "This looks as good as any samples I’ve seen in the oil fields. The rock chips are saturated."
      Thirteen years ago that terrifying experience took place, followed by a memorable conversation in Fowler’s little guest cabin. They had been arguing, or rather Fowler had taken the time to override Mackenzie’s objections that the news of the discovery couldn’t be told.
      "Keep it under wraps?" Mackenzie sputtered, incredulous. As Project Geologist, only one year on the job and fresh from a four-year stint in the Navy, Mackenzie was keenly aware of his low status with the Vice President of Gravely and Fox. Still, he had to try, so he calmed himself and began to marshal his best arguments to his boss.
      "But, Fowler, this upsets the textbook theories. Believe me when I say that with this information, the academics will have to recant their theory of fossil degeneration as the source of oil. It’s an incredible find. And weren’t we and our sponsors hoping for this result?"
      "Not quite. We were hoping to prove the negative." Fox stood up in the tiny cabin, reserved for his occasional visits from Houston. "Nobody needs to know we’ve disproved the accepted geological theory."
He walked to the porthole and looked at the sea, which seemed to have grown muscles as heavy weather threatened. "I gotta get out of here pronto. You, too, and Leo. I want both you boys to come to Washington with me. We’ll pick up Mr. Gravely and our things in Houston and take the first flight out. We’ve got a meeting with the President, a private meeting."