The Center for Land Use Interpretation Newsletter

Texas Oil

Permain Basin oilfield
Permain Basin oilfield, from Texas Oil: Landscape of an Industry. CLUI photo

TEXAS, NEARLY A NATION UNTO itself, is the cradle of oil, the industry that built modern America and that continues to spread across the globe. It will be a while before the fuel of the fossils gives way. To help understand the form, scope, and scale of this transformative human activity, the CLUI produced the exhibit, Texas Oil: Landscape of an Industry, shown in Houston, and now on view at the CLUI in Los Angeles.

CLUI photo
A Brucker Survival Capsule was displayed outside the Blaffer Gallery, as part of the CLUI exhibit. The craft is used for emergency evacuations of offshore oil rigs. It is one of 1,100 of this style built by Whittaker Survival Systems between 1968 and 1982, many of which are still in use today. Typically the vessel hangs off the side of the platform, and is lowered by a mechanical winch in the event of a fire or an impending explosion. It is equipped with rations of food and water to support its capacity of 28 people for three days. The craft was supplied courtesy of Alexander/Ryan Marine Safety Company, Houston. CLUI photo

The Texas Oil exhibit's first incarnation, at the Blaffer Gallery of the University of Houston (on view from January to March, 2009) started outdoors, where passers-by on the campus couldn’t fail to notice a large orange craft, looking like a flying saucer from another planet. The craft is, indeed, from another placethe parallel universe of oil production, an industry so sophisticated, remote, and evolved that it seems like science fiction.

The building next to the survival craft, the Blaffer Gallery, housed the exhibit. Inside, the show began with a video room, where a looped, wall-sized landscan was shown as a continuous loop. The landscan is an unedited, 14-minute shot of the ground, from a flight over the nation’s largest petrochemical corridor, which begins just east of Houston. The image was procured using high definition video camera inside a gyro-stabilized ball mounted on the nose of a helicopter. The route was scouted and directed by members of the CLUI, and was shot by Ron Chapple, an aerial videographer. The scene is further enhanced by an other-worldly room tone created by Kevin Doherty, of the UK-based musical group Sleep Research Facility.

After sitting through the landscan, a kind of orientation and recompression room, visitors of the Houston exhibit then entered the Gallery of Companies, where 40 framed images of corporate offices lined the walls, like portraits of chairmen-of-the-boards in a company boardroom or lobby. The entities selected are the primary engineers of the Landscape of Oil. Though they operate globally, most are based in Houston.

The gallery shows these corporation’s public face—the corporate headquarters building (or their primary administrative location) in Texas, accompanied by a descriptive text, written by the CLUI. They range from oil service companies, such as Baker Hughes, Schlumberger and Halliburton, to equipment supply and engineering companies like NOV, the Wood Group, and Lufkin. Also included are the two global supermajor oil companies based in Texas (ExxonMobil and ConocoPhillips), and other independent oil and exploration companies like Marathon, Apache, and Anadarko. Major offshore rig construction and drilling companies (like Diamond Offshore and McDermott), and global petrochemical companies based in Texas (Lyondell, Oxychem, ChevronPhillips, Celanese, Huntsman) are also presented. All in all forty of the lead characters that have created the contemporary petrochemical landscape are portrayed. Collectively, this gallery describes the spectrum of the industry, from the diffused upstream sources of onshore and offshore oilfields, to the refining and petrochemical processing that occurs at the other end of the pipeline.

After this gallery, the exhibit continued down a hallway lined with maps. These maps, made for the industry by the PennWell/MAPSearch company, show the character, distribution, and extent of the infrastructure of oil and gas nationally, and how much of the national system is concentrated in Texas, and on the Gulf Coast, in particular. A big part of the oilscape is submerged in the Gulf of Mexico, where 4,000 oil and gas wells are linked by manifolds and pipelines on the ocean floor, connected to refineries on the coast, and ultimately to the Midwest and Northeast.

The maps show a crude oil pipeline network extending from California to New Jersey, and illustrate the density of the infrastructure in nodes around West Texas, Oklahoma, and Houston. The maps show the corridors connecting production areas, with the processing centers along the Gulf Coast, the busiest in the nation. Also apparent on the maps is the degree of interconnectedness between these processing centers themselves, especially around Houston, Port Arthur, and southern Louisiana, where in addition to crude, gas, and fuel, specific petrochemical feedstocks like propylene, ethylene, and butydene, have their own dedicated pipelines between plants, and spanning the Gulf Coast.

The last and largest room in the Houston exhibit served as a portrait gallery of petrochemical places in Texas. Fifty six aerial images of fifty six sites, including the most productive and dense oil fields of the Permian Basin; the Federal government’s petroleum reserves at Bryan Mound and Big Hill; the specialty chemical plants around Orange and Beaumont; offshore rig yards at Brownsville, Ingleside and Sabine; and the refineries spread across the state, from Port Arthur to El Paso.

In the course of the research and documentation for this exhibit, members of the CLUI visited just about every major petrochemical site in the state, both on the ground and by airplane. The CLUI has been working on this exhibit over the past year, as part of its efforts to focus on oil in the United States. The majority of photography took place in October-December, 2008. Images and text have been integrated into the Center’s online Land Use Database. 

exhibit in gallery
In the middle of the main gallery was 42 gallons of oil (in a clear plastic barrel), a physical representation of the unit of volume used as the basis for the global commodity of oil. The barrel was filled with used lubricating oil from the University of Houston motor pool, a substance administratively considered “academic waste.” It is the residue at the end of the process of oil consumption. CLUI photo