The Dangerous Life of Working on an Oil Rig

If there is any doubt we live in an oil-based economy, consider this:

Chevron, the second-largest American oil company, spends $40 million a day just looking for the stuff in the Gulf of Mexico, 130 miles southeast of New Orleans.

"A lot of people say, 'Why would you go to an environment like this to find oil?'" said Mickey Driver, spokesman for ChevronTexaco, which was created by the merger of Chevron and Texaco in 2001.

"Well this is where nature has put the oil. You want to see the Grand Canyon, you go to the Grand Canyon. You want to find oil, you have to go to where it is."

Once the corporation finds it, it stretches the limits of sweat and steel and human engineering to bring it up.

Chevron has spent half a billion dollars building Petronius, the world's largest oil platform, which manages 14 oil wells. Petronius is the largest free-standing structure in the world at 2,001 feet tall, with most of it underwater.

The Washington Monument is 555 feet tall, and the Empire State Building is 1,250 feet tall.

When Hurricane Katrina came, Petronius was spared. When Hurricane Ivan tore through the Gulf last year, though, it dealt the platform a direct hit that shut it down for six months.

Luckily, the whole crew evacuated in time. Gas prices went up, and the rig got fixed. Yet even with massive rigs like Petronius pumping day and night, America only can supply 40 percent of its own oil.

The first thing you notice when arriving on Petronius is the deafening noise. From the rotors of the chopper to the roar of the diesel generators to the hammering to the driving and pounding of metal on metal, it is a constant assault on your eardrums.

Everyone is required to wear earplugs virtually everywhere on the platform. It's just one part of the safety gear: Hard hats, eye protection and steel-toed boots are also mandatory.

It is a dangerous place. Just looking through the grates is a constant reminder that there's just a few inches of steel between you and the Gulf. There are cranes that constantly swing pipes across the deck to supply the drilling rig; the power tools on the drilling floor can sever limbs in an instant. Almost everything on Petronius is combustible.

The crews have three life pods that can lower them to the water in the event of an emergency. There is nothing but water for miles and miles. If something goes wrong, help is hours away.

It takes a tough person to live under such extreme conditions. The workers here seem to take it in stride.

Their schedule is two weeks on, two weeks off, and the starting salary is $50,000 a year. On Petronius, they're fed four meals a day, sleep four to a room, watch satellite TV, and have a gym.

The harsh working conditions are tempered by the natural beauty. One of the fascinating things about being here is seeing all the fish -- manta rays, sharks, yellowfin and blue tuna -- that gather at the waterline of the tower.

At the end of a tough day, the sun sets perfectly in the Gulf of Mexico behind Petronius, as the drilling floor workers toil through the night.

ABC News' Bill Weir reported this story for "Good Morning America."