HORNER, Va. -- The whirling yellow rotor head that drove pipe more than a mile into the earth stopped suddenly yesterday.
It pulled away from the floor of the drilling rig, lifting the end of the pipe high into the air as three roughnecks in gray coveralls stood ready with giant mechanical wrenches.
Quickly the roughnecks moved in, twisted the coupling at the end of the pipe away as the mud lubricating the drill bit slopped onto the floor. Then they carefully attached another 30-foot length of pipe.
Once again, they clamped shut the jaws of the wrenches to secure the connection. The rotor head settled into its spot on the floor and began whirling again, driving the drill bit deeper into the ground, as Texaco continued its $14-million, roll-of-the-dice search for fossil fuels in the Atlantic Coastal Plain.
The Louisiana-based company already has drilled one test well near here, with marginal success. Analyses of the mud it had pumped into the ground indicated reserves of natural gas that were too small for commercial production, but large enough to whet the company's appetite for more information about what lies below the Earth's surface.
Texaco has permits for two more wells in Virginia and one across the Potomac in Charles County.
Douglas R. Weaver, a company engineer, conceded that "9 1/2 chances out of 10," they won't find anything. "But you gotta take that chance," he said.
The decision by Maryland's Department of Natural Resources to issue the permit for a 10,000-foot well near Faulkner has generated sharp criticism from those who fear potential damage to the environment in the event of an oil spill.
Will Baker, executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said yesterday that his organization would appeal the ruling and has scheduled a news conference next Tuesday to discuss its concerns.
Yet Virginia officials say the company has been a good neighbor.
"They've complied with everything that's been required of them," said Tom Fuller, director of the oil and gas division of Virginia's Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy.
Company officials led a tour of the rig yesterday, hoping to assuage fears about Texaco's environmental commitment. They concentrated on dials and gauges that keep track of what's going on below the surface, and on explaining how non-toxic chemicals often used with cattle feed and fertilizer are mixed with the mud used to cool the drill bit and extract tiny slivers of rock.
Texaco engineer Barton Wiley explained how the well is sealed to protect ground water and pointed out the redundant safety systems to cap the well to stop a "blowout."
But Mr. Baker, interviewed in his office in Annapolis, was unimpressed.
Texaco has built "a Cadillac of an exploratory well because they LTC know they're going to be under a spotlight," he said. But the oil industry's environmental record is "one of the most abysmal in the country," he said.
"Now this time, they say they're going to do things differently?"