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BP Spill: Ripples

Top kill, junk shot, storm packer

Marketplace Staff Jul 22, 2010
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TEXT OF INTERVIEW

Kai Ryssdal: We try real hard on this program not to do the jargon thing. We figure the less we talk about stuff like inverted yield curves and synthetic CDOs, the better off we and you are. The oil industry obviously doesn’t feel the same way. Since the leak in the Gulf of Mexico started, we’ve all become familiar with terms like “top kill” and “junk shot” and oh so many more.

Krissy Clark is here to give us a brief history of all the new industry language we’ve been learning. Hi Krissy.

Krissy Clark: Hi, Kai.

Ryssdal: So I’ve got my list of favorites. Let’s go to you though. You’re the one who’s been doing the research. What do you like of all these terms we’ve heard?

Clark: Oh, there are so many good ones. And it’s not just around well containment but oil drilling in general is just this kind of font of wonderful words. There’s a guy who’s worked in the oil industry for a long time names Nolan Hart and he’s put a list of his favorite terms together. It’s sort of a glossary. I’m going to read you some of the greatest hits. So there’s “dog house,” “fishing,” “possum belly,” “monkey board,” and my favorite, “doodlebugger,” which is a guy who does seismic surveys in an oil field. They use this giant truck that sends big vibrations down into the earth and here’s Nolan explaining how that connects to “doodlebugging”:

Nolan Hart: There’s a little animal called an ant lion. Some people call them doodlebugs in the south and they flick out dirt. Kind of vibrate there rear end and shaking out dirt, and I think that’s probably where the term “doodlebugger” might come from is from shaking the earth, shaking the ground.

Ryssdal: Who comes up with these things? I mean, where do they come from?

Clark: Well it’s kind of human nature. Any where you go where you have a bunch of people working together on one task, you’re going to get jargon. And especially in Texas, you’re going to get a lot of colorful jargon. We’ve got the whole cowboy poetry legacy. Nolan, the guy who made this glossary thinks that there’s something about how dangerous work can be in an oil field, that people want to bring some levity to the place, kind of gallows humor.

I also talked to Barbara Shook who’s a 40-year veteran in the oil industry herself. She had another theory about how these words get coined:

Barbara Shook: Well, in the old days they might’ve been invented under the influence of spirits. People who go in the oil patch are different. They’re a lot of fun. You should meet my Uncle Henry.

Ryssdal: Did you talk to Uncle Henry?

Clark: I tried, but he’s 90. But I did ask Barbara what her favorites were. She told me, but the FCC wouldn’t let us broadcast them. But she laughs about them now, but she says actually these words and this jargon is just sort of the tip of the iceberg. It reflects a pretty macho culture that she lived with.

Shook: I remember going to oil field conferences that had trade shows, where the hookers staked out their turf in the exhibition halls. I just acted like I didn’t know what was going on. This is how life has changed in the last 40 years.

Ryssdal: It’s not all off-color though, I mean, especially now. There’s some boring stuff too isn’t there?

Clark: Yeah, of course there’s lots of boring old phrases. “Lower marine riser package,” acronyms like “ROV” or “remotely operated vehicle,” and in fact a lot of the words that we hear like “top kill” or “jump shot” that we think are funny now it’s more that we have our radar tuned in to it. These words would just go by if we didn’t care so much about what’s going on in this oil spill.

Ryssdal: Speaking of which, the news is this storm that’s coming up into the Gulf of Mexico, which leads us to the last phrase of our lesson here today — “storm packer.”

Clark: Yes, not to be confused with a storm trooper, but a storm packer. I did some amateur etymological research of my own, and it turns out that this term first shows up in a citation in 1968 in the Journal of Petroleum Technology. I highly recommend that book. And they say, I quote, “a new application for the quick retrievable bridge plug is an offshore operation, such as a storm packer, in the event of an emergency requiring a well to be quickly secured.”

Ryssdal: As we have today. Krissy Clark, also known as the William Safire of oil industry jargon. That was interesting. Krissy, thanks a lot.

Clark: Thanks, I do my best.

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