Do you see that big piece of equipment sort of in the middle of what looks like an unpleasant scene? I have been inside it.
I’m not speaking figuratively here. I don’t even mean I have been inside a similar piece of equipment somewhere else. I have literally been inside that exact piece of equipment.
It was during a turnaround in 2007. For those of you not fluent in oil refinery speak, a turnaround is more or less a tune-up. The unit shuts down for maintenance, and some of us get to work twelve hour night shifts for three months. Don’t worry. I got a few nights off and was still able to see Christina Aguilera during her Back to Basics tour.
During the turnaround I went inside that column on multiple occasions to survey its condition. “Wait a second!” you might say. “You just threw out another refinery term – column.” Good point. Let’s go over just a couple basics before I go on.
That piece of equipment I keep referring to is called a distillation column. Its purpose is to separate stuff. In this case crude oil goes in and streams that will later (after further processing) turn into gasoline, jet and diesel fuel come out. Inside the column there are a series of trays that liquid and vapor pass through. No need to concern yourself with how the actual separation is accomplished. We’ll just blame it on science.
During a turnaround man ways are opened in each tray so that engineers like me can climb from tray to tray. At the end of the 2007 turnaround, myself and a co-worker were responsible for making sure the man ways were closed back up.
Now I can’t remember exactly how many trays are in that column, but I would guess something on the order of fifty. Every tray has something like four man ways, and more than a few bolts need tightening to close each of those man ways. Needless to say, witnessing the man way closure took awhile.
At one point I laid down on one of the trays. My co-worker was sitting behind me, and my hard hat blocked her view of my face. After a few minutes I heard her quietly chuckling to herself. Then I watched as a digital camera slowly crept into my line of vision, held by her outstretched hands. She thought I had fallen asleep and wanted documentation. So I quietly made a ridiculous face while she took a picture. Her next bout of laughter wasn’t as quiet.
This story has nothing to do with the fire that broke out last Monday. I bring it up only as a reminder of what’s behind all the evilness of Big Oil. People. People like me and my co-worker. Just a couple friends dressed in Tyvek and looking for laughter inside a hunk of metal at 2:00 am. We’re not so different than you are.
I could go on about how warm of a mother she is to her two beautiful daughters, about my own work to help reduce emissions, or about walking out of yoga Monday night to the anti-oil commentary I’ve grown accustomed to living in the Bay Area. But I won’t. Because I honestly understand how easy it is to look at the plume of smoke and judge only the Big part of oil.
I will, however, encourage anyone who read the article linked above to read this one as well. Read it once with an open mind. Consider, even if only temporarily, the possibility that Nigel Hearne’s words are genuine. And if you don’t trust Nigel, trust me.
I am equally saddened by this accident. Maybe even a little bit more.
*Please note that I am not writing, in any way, on behalf of Chevron. Seriously.