Touring Tough Oil: A Reflection on the Infrastructure of Offshore Energy

This year, I had a somewhat unusual birthday request. During a beach trip with my partner and friends down to Galveston, Texas, I asked that we visit the Ocean Star Offshore Drilling Rig & Museum. I had just finished my dissertation on the relationship between Gulf Coast energy infrastructure and aesthetic form, and was curious to see what it felt like to wander through the spaces I had spent months imagining, theorizing, and analyzing. That is, I was curious what it felt like to tour the extractive infrastructure of “tough oil”—the increasingly risky fossil-fuel resources buried miles beneath the surface of the ocean, hidden in shale formations, and saturated in toxic tar sands. My friends were kind enough to oblige, and so on a rainy day in early June, we drove to a pier in Galveston’s industrial harbor and prepared to wander through one of the coastal city’s most popular museums, which itself occupies a former drill rig. We entered through the Ocean Star’s unassuming gift shop, which was nestled in a construction trailer, and made our way down the long walkway to the museum. The museum, purchased in the late 1990s by a non-profit organization with the backing of corporate donors, offers multi-level, interactive exhibits, and invites visitors into the elaborate architecture of deepwater energy extraction to learn about the industry’s complex technologies and its central role in the economic infrastructure of the modern United States.

I wasn’t sure exactly what to expect. Questions about what it means to devote a space to—memorialize—an industry that is rapidly accelerating climate crisis immediately leapt to mind: who gets to tell the story of offshore oil? Who are these stories for? If all museum exhibitions involve the construction of a coherent narrative, what is cast out of this museum’s public memory? To be sure, I expected a certain degree of industrial boosterism—which is exactly what we found. A docent greeted us and gave us a map of the vessel. “On the top floor,” she explained, “there’s an exhibit about the Deepwater Horizon disaster, and how the industry fixed the spill.” Since much of my research explores the lingering residues of the 2010 spill—and the toxic dispersants used to invisibilize it—I felt my eyebrows raise in curiosity. “They didn’t tell you that part on TV—how they fixed it,” she reiterated.

One of the central questions my research asks is what it feels like to move through the infrastructures that sustain the fossil-fuel economy—to inhabit the elaborate yet mundane objects, systems, and networks that quite literally fuel our carbon-heavy U.S. lifestyles. As I found in the museum, it was by turns incredibly fascinating and profoundly boring. Peering at an exhibit that staged the evolution of diving suits from clunky Space Age get-ups to contemporary pared-down designs was compelling, inviting visitors to imagine themselves in the ultradeep. An informational display about the economic boon of the offshore industry conversely sank my spirits, a nearly floor-to-ceiling reminder of fossil fuel’s saturation of our economic, political, and environmental imaginations.

Perhaps what struck me most about the museum was departing from it. Walking along a covered plank that led from the rig back toward the gift shop on the pier, our group stopped numerous times to look over the railing at the marine life that teemed around the pilings. Clusters of pelicans fought for space on rough-hewn wooden poles and enormous fish cut slowly through the murky water below. I thought about the wreckage of the Deepwater Horizon rig on the floor of the Gulf of Mexico, and how industrial footage from the benthic zone showed the sunken rig completely and utterly covered in marine life. Anthropologist Anna Tsing has written extensively about the ways in which rogue species thrive in toxic environments, such as the matsutake mushrooms that emerge in human-disturbed landscapes across the northern hemisphere. In the largely inhuman spaces of the extractive offshore, where subjective and embodied knowledges are eclipsed by elaborate industrial sensing technologies, it seemed fitting to leave the museum with these visions of life surviving and thriving amidst the ongoing, everyday disaster of energy extraction.

*See also e.g. Stephanie LeMenager’s Living Oil: Petroleum Culture in the American Century (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2014), and Anna Tsing’s The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2017).

*Featured image: Ocean Star Offshore Drilling Rig & Museum, Galveston, TX, June 2019. Photo by author.