HORNER, Va. -- The whirling yellow rotor head stopped short and began to pull away from the floor of the drilling rig yesterday, hauling thick, black pipe high into the air as three roughnecks in gray coveralls stood ready with giant wrenches.
Quickly, the roughnecks moved in, twisted two sections apart as mud slopped over onto the floor, then carefully lined up another 30-foot length of pipe braced in a long holder. The rotor head, suspended from a huge block and tackle, came back down.
Once again the roughnecks 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 as Texaco continued its $14 million, roll-of-the-dice search for fossil fuels in the Atlantic Coastal Plain.
The Louisiana-based firm already has drilled one test well near here with marginal success. Engineers found reserves of natural gas that were too small for commercial production, but large enough to whet their appetite for more information about what lies below the Earth's surface.
Texaco has permits for two more such wells in Virginia and one just across the Potomac River 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 insisted. "And hope the time you do find something, it will more than pay for the times you didn't."
The decision by Maryland's Department of Natural Resources to issue the permit for a 10,000-foot well near Faulkner generated sharp criticism from environmental leaders who fear it could lead to production of fuels and 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 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. "Whenever we've seen anything wrong, they've corrected it right away. And we haven't seen anything wrong on this site."
Company officials led a tour of the rig yesterday, hoping to assuage fears about the firm's environmental commitment. They concentrated on dials and gauges that keep track of what's going on below the surface and explaining how non-toxic chemicals often used with cattle feed and fertilizer are mixed with the mud that is used to cool the drill bit and extract tiny slivers of rock.
Barton Wiley, a Texaco engineer brought in from New Orleans for the tour, explained how the well is sealed to protect ground water and pointed out the redundant safety systems to cap the (( well to stop a "blow-out."
"We have back-ups on top of back-ups on top of back-ups," he said.
But Baker, interviewed in his office in Annapolis, was unimpressed.
Texaco has built "a Cadillac of an exploratory well because they 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?"