Nom de plume

One of the very few things capable of conjuring humor amid the spewing disaster-headlines surrounding the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe has been the revelation of the wild, seemingly lawless frontier that exists deep beneath the ocean's surface. A June 8 Mother Jones blog brought some of the playground culture to light when it pointed out that many of the oil and gas fields littering the Gulf's floor were known by names of "downhill ski runs, weapons and rock bands," in addition to Greek mythology and cartoon characters. There is a Supertramp oil field. There is also one called Nirvana.

But there's one in particular that stands out, one that Mother Jones missed when perusing the 2009 Offshore magazine oil field map, one that is located approximately 10 miles northeast of the BP oil disaster at a similar depth of between 4,000 and 5,000 feet. That oil discovery field — co-owned by BP and ExxonMobil (with the latter handling operations) — bears the dubious name of Mica. Could it be named in deference to drill-happy Florida Republican Congressman John Mica? Worse still, could some of Mica's oil be bleeding into the incessant gush of BP's environmental nightmare?

It may be a stretch. None of the other oil fields in the region appears to be named after congressmen — though there is one that is called Wide Berth, hilariously — nor do the oil and gas discovery reservoirs often boast the names of boring geological materials like the mineral group mica (interestingly, the Mica field is sometimes referred to as Mickey in oil-industry materials, only drawing the Central Florida connection closer).

According to the Minerals Management Service, the Mica oil field was discovered in May 1990, with its first production listed as June 2001. It was a big discovery, one ExxonMobil press-released in 2001 saying, "the Mica field is 100 miles south of Mobile Bay and is estimated to contain recoverable oil and gas of approximately 100 million oil-equivalent barrels."

John Mica was elected to the U.S. Congress in 1992, shortly after the field's discovery. Prior to holding national office, Mica served two terms in the Florida House of Representatives. In 2005, he was quoted in the Sentinel saying, "I voted to drill in the Everglades in the 1970s … and I'd do it again." In 2003, Mica was the only member of the Florida Congressional delegation to refuse to sign a letter intended to stop federal surveying of Florida's coastal waters for oil. Through the duration of his congressional career, Mica has received more than $100,000 in campaign cash from the oil and gas industry, $3,000 in the 2010 election cycle alone. His brother David runs the Florida Petroleum Council; his daughter has been connected with oil interests through her public relations firm. Not surprisingly, Mica continues to support offshore oil drilling. Also, not surprisingly, he blames the Obama administration for the current oil disaster.

But whether Mica's "drill-baby-drill" stance makes him a virtual accomplice to the crime is scientifically unclear. The Mica oil field — from which 100 ExxonMobil employees were evacuated at the time of the April Deepwater Horizon explosion — may not be capable of connecting with BP's blown reservoir directly, despite its proximity.

"It wouldn't be unprecedented that you would have communication between different oil and gas reservoirs," says James Knapp, a professor of geology at the University of South Carolina and former exploration geologist for Shell Offshore Inc. "In fact, typically that happens naturally. But typically that takes place over geologic time frames and not human time frames."

As for the bizarre naming practices of the industry — an industry he used to work for — Knapp doubts any political payback motivations.

"Historically it's been the role of the individual explorationist to come up with a scheme for the naming of a whole set of prospects that he or she may have come up with. Usually it will be built around some theme: maybe rock groups or names of dinosaurs, whatever it is," he says. "If it is politically motivated, it's strictly on the basis of the individual explorationist that's developed the prospect. It's sort of considered sacred ground in the industry; it's not the prerogative of management to overturn unless there was something truly offensive."

"Who know where that name would have come from?" he adds. "I would have to say in this case it's got to be a coincidence."

The coincidence comes as a surprise to Mica's chief of staff Russell Roberts, as well.

"You can connect the dots all you want and come to whatever conclusions you want, but no, that's a good one," he laughs. "I haven't heard of it. Hopefully that's just a coincidence. If they wanted to name something after us, I think they'd tell us. It's out of the blue, but I'm going to tell him that he's got a plot of land named after him and ask him where his royalty is!"

Dave Eglinton, a spokesman for ExxonMobil, says that there are a number of reasons the company names its oil fields the way it does — he could not immediately determine the origins of the Mica designation, however — and that, in this case, the implication of congressional favor is untrue.

"I can categorically say that it has absolutely nothing to do with any connection like that," he says.

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