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American Dream

Friday, August 4, 2017

In America, political liberty and our free-enterprise economy mean that nearly anyone can succeed if they find the right combination of sacrifice, hard work, and willingness to take risks. We even have a name for this unique opportunity: the American dream.

While for some the phrase may conjure up images of a happy family gathered around the dinner table of a tidy house, surrounded by a white picket fence, the American dream plays out on a much larger scale as well. It encompasses some of the core values that we as Americans hold dear – freedom, equality, security, prosperity, progress, achievement – and it is part of what defines us as a nation that we continue to strive for these ideals.

For American Dream Week, we at BSEE are recognizing the many ways that the offshore energy industry supports and reflects the American dream. Now a mature and robust business that provides thousands of jobs in addition to fueling the transportation, manufacturing, and technology sectors, offshore oil and gas production as we know it was a pipe dream only a century ago. It required vision, determination, and hard work to bring to fruition the incredible potential that lies beneath the outer continental shelf.

The oil and gas industry took its first tentative steps offshore in the 1890s. Enterprising businessmen had followed a prolific oilfield in California all the way to the beach and soon realized that the reservoir likely continued beneath the water. Using a little bit of American ingenuity, they constructed a 300-foot wooden pier that could support a standard cable-tool drilling rig, and the first offshore well was born. The well was a success – so much so in fact that within five years 22 other companies had built similar structures nearby.


A decade later in Louisiana, another company got even bolder and moved away from relying on piers - they began successfully drilling on a lake using only boats and floating pile drivers. And finally, in 1937, two American companies teamed up to construct the first fixed platform that was completely unattached to shore. Eventually called the Creole platform, the facility was located about one and a half miles offshore in 14 feet of water, in the vicinity of Cameron, Louisiana.


From that point on, the industry hardly looked back. In less than ten years, oil companies had so developed and improved the technology that they were able to complete the first offshore wells drilled out of sight of land, and were exploring farther afield for new opportunities. The Gulf of Mexico was quickly becoming a technological and economic center for energy production.


The success of offshore drilling coincided with another important development: the end of World War II and the beginning of America’s love affair with the automobile. The federal government lifted the rations on gasoline and fuel oil following the Japanese surrender in 1945, and the public responded with resounding enthusiasm – building entire new suburban communities and road systems to support them, purchasing millions of new cars, traveling along the new and expanding interstate highway system, and of course, buying millions of tanks of gasoline.


Meanwhile, the oil and gas industry played an important role in reintegrating American soldiers and sailors returning from fighting overseas. Veterans served as managers and laborers in the growing offshore industry, and some were even able to apply their military training to the work – Navy divers specializing in underwater salvage were a perfect fit to perform inspections, maintenance and repair of offshore equipment, for example. Wartime technologies like radio positioning and sonar found their uses in exploration, and the method of placing subsea pipelines via enormous spools, which had been used to supply fuel to our forces in Europe from across the English Channel, worked well for transporting oil and gas to processing facilities.

By the mid-1950s the increased demand for gas, combined with rising use of heating oil in furnaces and boilers, pushed petroleum ahead of coal as the United States’ pre-eminent source of energy. It remains so to this day - for over 60 years now, oil and gas have continued fueling the American dream.  

As Americans’ appetite for petroleum products expanded, so did the range of technological innovations employed by oil and gas companies to facilitate exploration and extraction. The 1940s and 50s saw the development of the conventional steel jacket, the submersible drilling barge, and the jack-up drilling rig. Companies continued to plunge into ever deeper water in search of commercially viable reservoirs, leading to the invention of the semi-submersible drilling vessel in 1962.


All of these new developments, of course, required a large skilled workforce to support them, becoming a huge economic force in the Gulf region. By 1963, there were 90 active drilling operations offshore, which attracted thousands of workers to fill the relatively high-paying jobs they created both on the rigs and at onshore support centers. Exponential growth continued throughout the 1960s and 70s as operators, needing more sophisticated vessels and equipment, began commissioning purpose-built ships and platforms. Shipyards in the region found themselves busier than ever before. New pipeline terminals sprang up across the coast to handle the rising production. As the decades rolled on, companies continued to push into ever deeper water and engineer new solutions for developing the resources they found there.  

One of the most dramatic of these has been hydraulic fracturing, commonly known as fracking. The practice has roots that date all the way back to 1862, when a colonel in the Union army noted that the effect caused by firing artillery into a narrow canal in the battlefield also had potential application in oil wells. He patented his idea, calling it the “Exploding Torpedo,” and in tests was able to increase production from some wells by 1,200 percent by fracturing the rock formations in which oil was trapped.

In the 1940s, drillers began to improve their fracturing technique by studying the relationship between pressurized treatment of wells and well output, and eventually switching from explosions to the application of high pressure fluid as the means of fracturing subsurface rock strata. The first experiments with the new method took place in Kansas around 1947, and additional testing in Oklahoma and Texas in 1949 helped make the procedure effective enough for commercial use. Offshore, “frac packing” has been used since the 1980s to control sand in wells, but effective hydraulic fracturing processes to increase flow rates have been refined and used much more safely, and widely, in just the past ten years.

Though the path of the offshore energy industry has had its ups and downs, it has remained a vital part of the American economy for generations, particularly in the Gulf Coast area. Today there are 2,129 oil and gas platforms in the Gulf of Mexico producing an average of 1.68 million barrels of oil and 3.3 BCF of gas per day. In Louisiana, 16.2 percent of all workers and 19.4 percent of all earnings come from the oil and gas industry, making up 35.5 percent of the state’s GDP.


BSEE works daily to ensure the safety of both these workers and the environment while securing reliable energy production for America’s future. Given the vast energy resources our country possesses, it is well within our means to significantly reduce our reliance on other countries to meet our energy needs, while continuing to be good stewards of those resources and conserve coastal environments for generations to come. Moving toward energy independence, or even dominance, will keep more of the money we spend on energy here at home, creating even more domestic jobs and giving a much-needed boost to our economy.

Enacting smart regulations and encouraging innovation in processes, equipment and technology helps BSEE’s diverse team of highly skilled engineers, scientists, geologists, environmental specialists, inspectors, and preparedness analysts fulfill the mission of ensuring safe, environmentally responsible energy exploration, development, and production. Their hard work and dedication serve as a safeguard to the continued existence of the industry’s role in the American Dream.