Behind the Book
The concept for this book—the destruction of the world’s oil supply—actually started out as a component of my previous book, The Second Horseman. The idea was that someone was trying to force peace on the Middle East by destroying Israel and cutting off the flood of money derived from the sale of petroleum.
As I worked through the outline, though, it seemed like one idea too many. Instead of enhancing the story, it kind of muddled it and was leading me into an 800-page epic that I didn’t want to write and you probably wouldn’t want to read. In the end, I decided the Israel angle was enough. My scheme to wipe out the Middle East’s oil went into the dreaded ‘deleted’ folder, never to be seen again.
Or so I thought. I just couldn’t completely shake the idea and the more it festered in the back of my mind, the more entrenched it became.
The ramifications of America’s dependence on oil are so much more dire than you’d realize from casual thought. When I first considered the scenario, I figured a serious drop in oil availability would be a nightmare, but a more or less manageable one. Deeper thought brought up some disturbing questions. How would I feed myself? I’m not a farmer—I rely entirely on the trucks that stock our local grocery store. What if the shelves of that store were suddenly empty? The obvious answer is that I’d drive to a more distant store. But what if there was no gas to fill my tank? The more I thought about it, the easier it became to picture a cascade effect that would descend the country into violence and anarchy.
Initially, the problem with the idea was that I didn’t think there was anything that could cause this kind of a sudden, catastrophic shortage. Oil is pretty resilient and the supply is reasonably diversified.
Enter bacterial contamination.
I had never really heard of hydrocarbon-eating bacteria before I started my research, but not only do they exist, they’re actually pretty common and pose a constant threat to drilling operations. Quickly the scenario went from ridiculously implausible to frighteningly simple…
“Stupid piece of crap!” Erin Neal shouted, throwing his screwdriver and rolling out from underneath his perpetually jammed solar array. He gave it a hard kick before remembering he was wearing sandals, then limped off across the dusty wasteland that passed for his yard.
He’d spent the last three days using everything short of a cutting torch to get the panel tracking again, but it had been a complete waste of time. So now he was living his life at the evil whims of a glitchy solar panel and a windmill that sat dead in the still air. Building his house ten miles from the nearest paved road—too far to practically connect to the grid—didn’t seem quite so smart now. At the rate his batteries were draining, his freezer would soon be dead and he would lose the elk he’d bagged that fall.
He stepped up onto the wide porch that wrapped around his house, escaping the Arizona sun that was doing nothing for him but deepening the red of his back, and slammed through his front door. It was time either to break down and call a professional or to go buy the diesel back-up generator he’d been resisting for so long.
The water in the sink was lukewarm, but he scooped some on the back of his neck anyway. Not as satisfying as a handful of ice, but since he couldn’t open his goddamn freezer, it was the best he was going to get.
Erin grabbed a dirty drinking glass from the counter and spun, throwing it through the kitchen door and hitting the fireplace that dominated his small living room. It shattered spectacularly, and watching the shards scatter across the floor made him feel a little better. It always did.
The house wasn’t large—an open living area built around the glass-strewn fireplace that supported a spiral staircase leading up to a loft and down to a basement, and a narrow hallway that led to a bathroom and an unused office. He’d built the structure himself out of old tires packed with sand and then covered it with white adobe. The materials not only created elegant curved lines that he probably wouldn’t have thought of on his own but had the added benefit of covering up his mediocre carpentry skills. Despite a few things he wished he’d done differently, and the fact that he was starting to suspect that his solar panel was possessed, he couldn’t really complain about how it had turned out. The orientation was perfect for passive heating and cooling and, with the exception of the last few days, the electrical system he’d designed kept him in the twenty-first century.
Erin splashed some more water on his neck and grabbed a dustpan from beneath the counter. The broken glass would at least force him to pick up a bit. By necessity, he didn’t have many possessions, but somehow they always seemed to scatter themselves across the floor when he wasn’t looking.
The ring of the cell phone startled him—not only because of the self-imposed silence around him but because no one really ever called him. Sometimes he wondered why he even had it.
The sound was slightly muffled, suggesting the phone had worked its way between his sofa cushions again and he dug around until he came up with it.
“Who wants to know?”
“Ah, I see you haven’t changed. It’s Rick Castelli. How you doin’, man?”
Erin flopped down on the couch and propped his feet on a table he’d artistically welded together out of pieces of an old pickup.
“Rick? It’s been a long time. Since that oil spill off the coast of California, right?”
“Yeah, we appreciated all your hard work on that cleanup, Erin. If I hadn’t put you in charge of that thing we’d still be out there scrubbing rocks.”
“So you’re still at Exxon?”
“Nah. I hung out my own shingle a while ago. Mostly doing government consulting work now.”
“Cushy,” Erin said.
“Yeah, it’s not bad…” His voice trailed off.
“So what do you want, Rick? I assume you’re not calling to catch up.”
“Not entirely. See, it’s like this. The Saudis are having some production problems and I think it’s something you’d be interested in.”
Erin crossed his eyes and watched a bead of sweat slide down his nose. “I can guarantee you that I won’t be.”
“I haven’t even told you anything yet.”
“You’re fucking thirty-seven years old.”
“Are you telling me you’ve got something better to do?”
“Than go to Saudi Arabia? Are you kidding me? Shit’s blowing up over there and I hear they get double points for Americans.”
“That’s just media hype.”
“Media hype,” Erin repeated skeptically. “What, five bombs in the last two weeks? And how many people dead? From what I hear, the royals are working on an exit strategy.”
“You know the fucking towel heads,” Castelli said. “All we ask them to do is stand there while we pump cold, hard cash down their throats, and they can’t even handle that.”
“You’re still full of shit, aren’t you, Rick?”
“What are you talking about?”
“Could it be that while we jump up and down squealing about democracy we’re supporting a bunch of kleptomaniacal monarchs who use all that money to buy Rolls-Royces while their citizens starve?”
“Jesus Christ, I forgot what a self-righteous prick you—”
“So do we have anything else to talk about?” Erin said, cutting him off.
“Come on, man. Quit breaking my balls. I’ve got a guy here who’s supposed to be an expert, but he’s not you, you know? Besides, since when did you become a nervous Nellie?”
“Why don’t you—”
“I’ll send a plane, okay? Hell, I’ll send a jet with a vibrating bed, a hot stewardess, and some hundred-year-old scotch. Then we’ll stick Uncle Sam for the entire bill, plus our fee. It’ll be fun.”
“Goddamnit, Erin! Quit being such a jackass. Do it for an old friend.”
“I never liked you.”
That wasn’t really true. In his own obnoxious way, Rick was an okay guy. But there were so many reasons not to get involved in the oil business again that he’d need a calculator to count them. Those years didn’t even seem real to him anymore. Just another one of the past lives he was collecting.
“My ass,” Castelli said and then his voice softened. “Hey, I know I should have called. I was real sorry when I heard about your girlfriend. What was her name?”
Erin felt a familiar tightness in his chest. It was hard to breathe for a few seconds, but only a few seconds. That was an improvement wasn’t it?
“Yeah, that’s it. Jenna Kalin. I hear she was a nice girl. Kind of a tree hugger, though, wasn’t she?”
Erin let out a breath that almost could have passed for a laugh. “I see you’re still the picture of sensitivity.”
“Jesus, Erin. That was what, two years ago?”
“A year and a half.” Actually, nineteen months, four days, and an odd number of hours depending on how you treated the time zones. “It was just a few days after Christmas…”
“Well, nothing like a free trip to sunny Saudi Arabia to take your mind off it,” Castelli interrupted, obviously not looking to dig too deeply into the subject. “And how ‘bout I guarantee you’ll get lucky with that stewardess—”
The phone went silent and Erin looked down at it. Dead battery. He stuffed it back into the cushions and reached for a framed photo propped on the table next to his feet.
It had been taken in better times. The beach he and Jenna were standing on was black from a tanker spill and she was holding an oil-soaked bird in her arms. The lines of her body were obscured by heavy overalls and a grimy, oversized sweater, leaving only her tan face and thick brown hair visible. Why had that always been his favorite photo of them? Was it the way she was looking at that stupid bird? Was it the memory of letting himself put his natural cynicism aside and get caught up in her moral certainty?
He remembered how the oil had caused her to break out and how she’d blamed each zit on a specific energy company, as though there was a massive corporate conspiracy focused on nothing but screwing up her complexion.
God, he wanted a beer. Even a warm one.
But he didn’t drink anymore, and that was because of Jenna, too. She’d been the only person with the guts to correctly point out that he was a psychotic drunk. So now that she was dead, why hadn’t he started again? Sure, booze brought out the worst in him, but sometimes the anger was easier to deal with than everything else.
Erin set the picture aside and sunk a little farther into the sofa, staring at the empty wall across from him. Everything had seemed so clear after he’d gotten his PhD. He was going to be a new kind of environmentalist. Instead of waving signs and trying to convince everyone that the sky was falling, he’d bring sanity to the debate by taking into account that no one was ever going to do anything for the earth unless there was something concrete in it for them. Preferably money.
On the surface, it had been a great idea—a revolution he’d told himself. But there had been too many compromises. The truth was that the environment had become more of an emotional problem than a scientific one. No one wanted to look at his equations or listen to his carefully laid-out arguments. They just wanted to believe.
He’d laughed off the initial attacks, deconstructing his detractor’s arguments and ramming them back down their throats. And he’d been thoroughly entertained by the occasional death threats, putting up a bulletin board shaped like a tombstone to hang them on. Things had become more difficult when his friends started walking away, but it was bearable. When Jenna had turned her back, though, he’d been completely lost.
Predictably, it hadn’t taken long for his confusion and despair to turn to anger, which landed him with a job in the oil industry. He’d show them.
But what had he shown them? That he could become a fabulously wealthy and incredibly lonely thirty-seven-year-old, sitting around a dark house, surrounded by the ghost of a woman who had hated him before she died?
He wondered if that was what made it so hard. If they’d been on better terms when she’d…
“Then you’d probably be even more fucked up than you are now,” he said aloud, forcing himself off the couch to sweep up the broken glass.
“Mark Beamon slammed on the brakes too late, causing the subcompact he’d unwisely rented to fishtail along the dirt road before the front wheels dropped into a deep rut. He frowned deeply as the dust caught up with him and billowed through the open windows, wondering if this time he was irretrievably stuck.
The idea of spending government money to replace the rain inundating Washington, D.C., with the blue skies of Tucson had been appealing in theory. A little sun, some Mexican food, maybe a quick round of golf. But this wasn’t Tucson. It was a godforsaken desert in the middle of nowhere.
It was impossible not to wonder what would prompt a sane person to live in this cactus-strewn dust bowl. No pools, no manicured fairways. Hell, no shade.
He stuck his head out the window to make sure there were no buzzards circling before gunning the car out of the rut and continuing up the narrow scar that passed for a road.
When his phone rang five minutes later, he’d barely made it another mile. The nine holes he had planned for that afternoon were starting to look shaky.
“It’s about time.”
“You said 4:00 p.m. It’s exactly 4:00 p.m. Arizona time. In fact, the second hand is hitting the twelve. Now.”
Beamon couldn’t help smiling. Of all the people who worked for him, Terry Hirst was his favorite. Not only was he incredibly competent and annoyingly punctual, but he simply couldn’t be intimidated. A rare trait in the skittish, PC world of today’s government.
“Fine, you win, Terry. What have you found out?”
“You received the email on his basics, right? Work history, education, and all that?”
“Yeah. Moving along…”
“Okay, first of all, the one thing everyone agrees on is that Erin Neal is a genius in the true sense of the word. He’s the guy in the field of bioremediation.”
“What the hell’s bioremediation?”
“I asked the same thing. It’s essentially the business of using bacteria to clean up toxic spills. So basically he breeds bacteria that eat all kinds of stuff. Mostly we’re talking about oil, but he’s also come up with bacteria that eat radioactive waste and ones that can work in really harsh environments, like in coal processing.”
Beamon crested a hill, but still couldn’t see any sign of human habitation. Did the guy live in a cave?
“Neal started a bioremediation firm that did work all over the world and made him a lot of money,” Hirst continued. “Most of which he plowed back into research or used for environmental causes…”
“Christ,” Beamon moaned.
“He’s a hippie, isn’t he?”
“Not so much,” Hirst said. “In fact, I think it would be fair to say that the hard-core environmentalists can’t stand him. He wrote a pretty influential book calledEnergy and Nature. I ordered you a copy.”
“Why don’t you just give me the Reader’s Digest version?”
“Essentially, it’s about the future of energy and the environment, taking into account politics and human nature. He takes a dim view of people—that if it costs us absolutely nothing, we might do something to protect the environment, but if it comes down to saving a tree or running our A/C, it’s going to be no-contest. So he felt like the eco-movement needed to refocus itself on creating technologies and realistic strategies that would get people excited, regardless of any benefit to the earth. So, for instance, he’d say that building an electric car is pointless unless it’s really sexy, four wheel drive, and goes from zero to sixty in under six seconds.”
“Let me guess,” Beamon said. “He managed to piss off both sides.”
“More or less. The environmentalists saw him as a sell-out and the business community wasn’t really persuaded to cough up any money. Anyway, about a year after his book came out, he folded his company.”
“His company folded?”
“No, he just shut it down. The guy was printing money as near as I can tell.”
“You mean he sold it.”
“I’m telling you, Mark, he handed his people big severance checks and closed the doors. Then he went to work consulting for the oil companies–Exxon, BP, and Saudi Aramco primarily. Then he dropped off the face of the earth.”
“So he just walked away from that, too? I gotta think the Saudis pay pretty well.”
“No doubt. But other than his address and bank records, we’ve got nothing current on him. He doesn’t have a job, he doesn’t do research, and doesn’t write anything that gets published.”
“So he’s some kind of hermit?” Beamon said.
“You know what a hermit is?”
“A lonely hippie. Anything else?”
“I checked his criminal record—”
“Wait, let me guess. He chained himself to a tree in a logging camp.”
“They found marijuana plants growing in his VW bus?”
“Are you going let me finish? He has two arrests for disturbing the peace and one assault. The charges were dropped in all cases. So maybe he’s an angry, lonely hippie.”
“There,” Mark Beamon said, pointing weakly through the Cessna’s windscreen. “Thank God. You can see lights.”
Erin pushed the yoke forward, causing the plane’s nose to dip violently. Beamon grabbed the instrument panel, but once again managed not to throw up. He was a hell of a lot tougher than he looked. The combination of the snow beating against the glass, the profound darkness extending out in every direction, and Erin’s artfully simulated turbulence would have broken most people.
Erin swung the plane wide and circled, looking down at the well lit drilling rig centered in a meticulously scraped snowfield. As they continued to lose altitude, he could make out a tangle of trailers, snow cats, and weathered machinery, but no people.
“Where is everybody?”
Beamon started to take a deep breath in preparation for answering, but then seemed to conclude that it made him feel even worse. “All the normal personnel were reassigned when the bacteria was discovered. There are people who think the price of gas could go up as much as twenty percent overnight if this got out—and that’s something politicians don’t like telling the people who vote for them.”
That explained why Beamon had been so pleased when he’d discovered that Erin was a pilot—one less chance of a leak. Of course, it was a decision that Erin was taking great pleasure in making him regret.
He eased back on the throttle and the plane started to dive—too fast and angled improperly into the wind, of course. It was a shame the flight wasn’t longer. Another hour or so and he was sure he could have Beamon burning through air-sickness bags like a newborn went through diapers.
On the other hand, he had to admit that he, too, was feeling a little queasy—but not for the same reason. Just being back in Alaska was enough—the strangely unique feel of the cold, the empty scent of the air. This was where he and Jenna had spent some of their happiest times, but now those memories mocked him with the absolute certainty that they’d never be repeated. Even worse, it looked as if he was about to replay his brief and incredibly self-destructive stint with the energy companies. Outstanding.
The plane’s skis touched down and he glanced over at Beamon. His eyes were tightly closed but he wasn’t actually praying—at least not out loud. Erin shut down the engine and Beamon immediately threw open the door and dove out.
“You made it!” Steve Andropolous shouted as Erin dropped to the snow and retrieved his duffle from the back. “I wasn’t sure you’d come.”
He thumbed at Beamon, who was teetering around as though he’d never felt solid ground before, but was still holding down that stubborn lunch. “Didn’t have a hell of a lot of choice.”
“But did they tell you? It’s the same bacteria.” He grabbed Erin’s arm, dragging him along. “My mind’s officially blown, man. I mean seriously, do you have any ideas on this? It’s freakin’ me out.”
“Have you checked their data, Steve? This doesn’t make a lot of sense to me.”
“No mistakes, dude. You wouldn’t believe the shit you can get done when the oil companies and the government are with you instead of against you. We’ve already done a full genetic profile of both the Saudi and Alaskan bacteria. They’re exactly the same.”
“So what’s the verdict, then?” Beamon said, his breath coming out a thick fog as he caught up to them.
Andropolous shot the man a nervous glance, but didn’t answer. It was a trait Erin had found infuriating when they’d worked together—Stevie hated delivering bad news and, if given the choice, would just remain silent.
“Spit it out,” Erin said.
“Uh, yeah. This well’s offline—basically it’s a rerun of one you worked on in Ghawar.”
“What about the other wells you tested?” Beamon said. “What did those samples show?”
“You’re not going to believe it, man. More than seventy percent of them are showing at least trace infestation.”
“Jesus Christ,” Beamon said, putting a gloved hand to his face and wiping at the sweat that was already starting to freeze. “Why the hell am I just hearing this now?”
“The satellite’s out! There’s no way I could contact anyone. And with all this secrecy shit…”
Erin threw an arm around Andropolous’s shoulders. “Relax, Steve. What would a bunch of politicians and FBI guys do with that information other than go out and short a bunch of oil stock in their IRAs?”
Beamon ignored the insult. “Look, you’ve been clear on how you feel about drilling here, and I’m sure you’re enjoying the hell out of all this, but for your own good I suggest you start taking the situation a little more seriously.”
“Are you threatening me, Mark? Because if so–”
“I’m not fucking threatening you. What I’m saying is that if you just forget about the hundreds of millions of dollars invested here, the incredible political costs of getting drilling in the wilderness approved in the first place, and the billions the energy companies expected to make here, it’s still one of the country’s biggest oil reserves. And that’s a national security issue—something a lot of very powerful people don’t have much of a sense of humor about.”
“The bacterial loads aren’t high enough to bring down production in most of the other wells,” Andropolous interjected hopefully, then looked at his boots. “Yet.”
“Yet?” Beamon said, working to keep his voice even. “Could you define yet, please?”
Andropolous pushed through the door of a trailer and Erin followed, peeling off his jacket and feeling the warmth soak painfully into his bruised, sunburned, and now half-frozen skin.
The trailer was a typical wreck—just like he remembered from the old days. Card tables covered in papers, an old sofa with the stuffing coming out of it, carpet covered with dirty footprints. Andropolous grabbed a damp notebook off the floor and tossed it to him. “This is everything we’ve got.”
The first few pages consisted of maps of the ANWR fields with well positions superimposed and individual bacterial loads noted. Erin fell onto the couch and stared down at the diagrams, trying to make out a pattern.
“Well?” Beamon said.
He didn’t answer, instead picking up a pencil and shading the different wells. The higher the bacterial load, the darker the shading. Then he connected them, gradually darkening and lightening the shading to smoothly join all the wells and give him a picture of how the bacteria might be traveling.
“Erin?” Beamon prompted again.
He ripped the page from the notebook and held it out. “Look at the different levels, Mark. This didn’t start in one place and radiate out. And it wasn’t already there or you’d have more random variation in the loads.”
“So in my opinion, you had a number of wells contaminated all around the same time, and now it’s spreading from those individual wells.”
“What are you saying?”
“If I had to guess—and it’s only a guess—I’d say that some of the drilling chemicals were contaminated, and when they got pumped down the holes, the bacteria took hold and started to spread. I’d look at suppliers the Alaska drilling companies have in common with the Saudis.”
“Okay, let’s say you’re right. What can you do about it?”
Erin thought about it for a moment. “Nothing.”
“That’s not going to go over real big, Erin. You’re going to have to do better.”
“What the fuck do you want me to use on this stuff, Mark? Harsh language? I just spent an entire week in Saudi Arabia and got exactly nowhere.”
Beamon’s face, which had lost the green pallor it had taken on in the plane, now looked pale. “So you’re saying more wells are going to go down?”
“Eventually, all of them, I guess.”
“All of them. That’s just great. How long?”
Erin shrugged and looked over to Andropolous, who was trying to disappear into a corner. “Did you look at the spread rate?”
“We don’t have any history, Erin. And we don’t really know much about this reservoir. So, it’s impos–”
“For God’s sake, Steve!” Beamon said. “I’m not here to shoot messengers. Just give me your best guess! A year? Two?”
Andropolous chewed his lip for a moment. “Oh, no, definitely not years. At this point, we’re talking about months.”