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  Field Notes From
End of Cheap Oil

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End of Cheap Oil On AssignmentArrows

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From Photographer

Sarah Leen

End of Cheap Oil On Assignment

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From Author

Tim Appenzeller

In most cases these accounts are edited versions of a spoken interview. They have not been researched and may differ from the printed article.

Photographs by Jésus Lopez (top) and Mark Thiessen


End of Cheap Oil On Assignment End of Cheap Oil On Assignment
End of Cheap Oil

Field Notes From Photographer
Sarah Leen

Best Worst Quirkiest
    One of the best things about working on any article for the magazine is the opportunity to learn about the subject. This assignment on oil was probably the most complicated and important piece I have worked on for National Geographic, and it required many, many hours of reading and research to be able to make photographs that told the story.
    I knew very little about the oil business before I began this article, so I had a huge learning curve. It was fascinating to learn how our lifestyle and economy are so dependent on a cheap and plentiful oil supply and how very precious this sticky black stuff is to the high standard of living we enjoy. I am grateful for the opportunity I had to educate myself about this very important subject.

    I was shooting aerials of a drilling ship in the Gulf of Mexico when the helicopter I was flying in almost had a very serious accident. We had latched open the rear door of the helicopter so that I could shoot freely. When we were just a few miles from the ship, I noticed a fluttering at the edge of the open door. Then I heard a whooshing sound. I thought perhaps something had blown out the door, but then I noticed that the entire door was gone.  Everything seemed fine, and I didn't feel the least bit nervous, but the pilot said we better put down on the drill ship and check out the helicopter.
    The mechanical crew told us that we had been very lucky because we had opened the door on the opposite side to the rotor blade. If the door had come off and hit the rotor blade, the helicopter would most likely have crashed. British Petroleum sent one of their top executives out, and they grounded all helicopters for photo flights until they completed a full inquiry.
    Later that day I felt a bit weak in the knees realizing how close we had come to a serious accident.

    How can you run out of gas in the middle of Texas oil country? Well, I nearly did. I had to drive nine hours from Yates to Corpus Christi, and a good portion was on Interstate 10, a long highway that stretches across the state. What I didn't know was that along that section, the exits are few and far between. Plus there is virtually no radio and cell phone reception.
    I passed an interchange with a bit less than a quarter of a tank thinking, Oh, I'll stop at the next one. But there wasn't a next one. I began to drive more slowly to stretch my fuel. When I saw a sign that said the next exit was still 30 miles (50 kilometers) away, I knew I wasn't going to make it.
    I kept going slower and slower, cursing myself for not stopping earlier. Then I saw a small hand-painted sign that said "Gas 2 Miles." I crossed my fingers, exited, and wound down a small road—virtually on fumes by then—into a tiny little town. I was praying the station would be open. And voilà, it was. The gas price was easily 20 cents higher than anywhere else, but I was happy to pay it.


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