OFFSHORE DRILLING:

Boom goes bust for key group of scientists

The Obama administration's moratorium on deepwater drilling in the Gulf of Mexico in the wake of the catastrophic BP PLC oil spill can claim its fair share of victims. The drillers and their crews are idle. The oil majors lack production. Even the federal government, which has long subscribed to offshore licensing fees, has lost money.

But in the end, the ban may harm no group more than the paleontologists.

The Gulf Coast has long been home to a small fleet of scientific consulting firms that use ancient fossils to date rock formations buried deep beneath the ocean. Rather than hunting for the big bones of dinosaurs, these industry scientists have an eye for truly small fry, the fossils of plankton, microns in width, that once bobbed in the Gulf's ancestral waters.

While in the past these consultants were a luxury for oil wells, they have become a necessity for nearly any deepwater operation. The paleontologists are fixtures on oil rigs, providing real-time guidance to drillers burrowing beneath layers of salt, a rock that baffles traditional seismic imaging (Greenwire, July 28).

Identifying, in rapid fire, plankton fossils heaved up from the earth, the paleontologists often work grueling shifts for weeks at a time and are paid richly for their work. It had been a boom time -- until the Deepwater Horizon exploded and started the BP spill.

"I have 22 employees here, and their livelihoods are hanging in the balance right now," said Art Waterman, the president of Paleo Data, one of the Gulf's largest and oldest paleontology firms. The company has already fired four people, and the moratorium has effectively cut revenue by 80 percent. Wage cuts and austerity measures can only go so far, Waterman said.

"I expect we'll be able to hang on until sometime in December," Waterman said. "After that, I don't know."

The experience of the paleontology firms is being felt, to a degree, at service companies stretching across the Gulf Coast. And unlike the fishermen and resorts that will be eligible for compensation from BP's $20 billion spill fund, these small businesses sit in limbo, unlikely to qualify for spill payments and uncertain whether BP's $100 million fund for rig workers, promised in June, will extend further down the Gulf's oily food chain.

After more than a month of limbo, BP announced Friday that a Louisiana-based nonprofit, the Gulf Coast Restoration and Protection Foundation, will administer the rig-worker fund, which could begin taking applications in early September. The nonprofit is ironing out the guidelines on who can qualify for the fund, a development anxiously awaited by the paleontology firms, several of which are also holding out hope to qualify for the $20 billion spill fund, administered by Kenneth Feinberg.

So far, BP's claim adjusters have resisted appeals from Paleo Data's employees, Waterman said.

"A claims adjuster informed me that our claims are all moratorium-related and not oil-spill related, and adjusters are not authorized to process or pay any moratorium-related claims," he said.

"It's likely," he added, "there will be no immediate relief to allow the company to continue for very long."

Mitch Covington, the owner of BugWare Inc., Paleo Data's friendly competitor, is in similar straits, he said, despite his frequent past collaborations with BP, which included work on the Deepwater Horizon, though not BP's out-of-control Macondo well. For that well, he said, the firm used its own paleontologists, typical for its more sensitive drilling projects.

"We've filed claims, but at this time BP is not helping us out," Covington said. "[Their] logic is that our loss is due to ban, which 'is not their fault.'"

With 15 employees, BugWare is on track to lose $1 million if the moratorium stretches for six months. Should the ban last that long, Covington said, "companies will start moving their rigs to other countries, and it will take a while to get them back."

"We can barely last the six months," Covington said. "More than that and we'll have to start looking for other jobs, at least temporary jobs. ... We'd go anywhere if it meant keeping afloat. We're overspecialized and can't do much else."

BP keeps pushing off claims requests, added Bryan Lander, an independent paleontologist in Louisiana.

"I kind of get the impression they're just waiting for this Feinstein guy to take over," Lander said.

Fixtures on rigs

The exposure of these firms to the moratorium, of course, is a function of their success.

While biostratigraphers, as the scientists are known, used to be consulted on only the most difficult wells, their talents have come into so much demand that several labs, at Florida State University and the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, have minted a generation of private Gulf enterprise. It's a close-knit community, numbering about 50 scientists, plus support staff. The best biostratigraphers can pull in $200,000 in a year, though salaries are typically just more than $100,000.

"There's no justice in the world," said David Watkins, a micropaleontology professor at the University of Nebraska, in jest. "I train these guys, and they make twice as much as I ever did."

Watkins' former students are adept at identifying the fossilized remains of nannoplankton, minute algae that have floated in the world's oceans for millennia, evolving at a steady clip. Curiously, this nannoplankton variety has assiduously covered its single-cell self with interlocking shells that resemble medieval armor -- if the armor's plates were made of spindly buttons.

"The intricacy of how these things make their shell is astounding," Watkins said.

Scientists are uncertain why nannoplankton engage in such strenuous self-protection, he said. There are theories. The shells could protect the cell from viruses, or simply represent an easy place to stash waste. But whatever the reason, when the plankton dies, the shells float down to the ocean floor, forming chalk and fossilized star bursts. The plankton's body is devoured by bacteria, though occasionally it becomes trapped, cooking over the centuries into oil.

Decades ago, as oil became increasingly difficult to find, scientists realized that several abundant fossils could be tied to specific ranges of geological history, their eras bracketed by extinction events large (asteroid impacts) and small (ocean temperature shifts). Early on, tiny foraminifera fossils were favored, but as deepwater drilling expanded, scientists found that nannoplankton, even smaller than foraminifera and thick in ocean waters, were an ideal prehistoric gauge.

"The way they're used now just astounds me," Watkins said.

Working beneath salt, the exploration companies depend on accurate, encyclopedic knowledge from their biostratigraphers, using their dating expertise to decide whether to continue drilling, reroute the bore or stop entirely.

As the rig drills, it is continually receiving rock samples from the wellbore. A thimble from such a sample can contain hundreds of thousands of nannofossils, which remain intact and identifiable thanks to their small size, BugWare's Covington said. And within 15 minutes, he can tell when the nannoplankton bloomed.

"We sometimes work really fast and hard and long hours," he said, as the drillers go through 200 feet of rock in an hour. In the past, shifts used to stretch up to 30 hours straight, though now BugWare will often have two paleontologists on a rig, working 12-hour shifts with lab assistants.

Tough times ahead?

Of course, the paleontologists now have more free time than they can handle.

Most existing deepwater wells have already been studied and dated, and unlike their peers laboring for the oil majors -- an increasingly rare breed -- the freelance scientists have no safety net. Many resent the ban, seeing it as a political decision, while acknowledging that drilling regulations must be improved.

"I'm a proponent of strong regulation and oversight," Paleo Data's Waterman said. "My feeling is, do we need a moratorium to enact strong oversight and new regulations? My answer is no."

Instead, he said, the government should have hired the best 33 deepwater engineers out there and put them on each deepwater well, continually checking how the rigs are operated while better regulations are written.

"To me, that would have been a much more effective approach," he said.

Assuming that deepwater operations do resume in the Gulf by year's end, Watkins feels confident most of his former students will end up on their feet. "As soon as the moratorium passes, I think things can get back to normal," he said.

Until then, though, sole proprietors like Ladner will face hard times without the rigs, he said.

"Offshore is where you pay the bills," he said. "That's where you make the most money."

Reporter Jason Plautz contributed.