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'Planet Money' Team Heads To Kansas To Get Into The Oil Business


Oil is one of the biggest economic forces on Earth - runs our cars, generates our electricity, makes plastic. And yet, most of us have never seen oil in its raw form - crude, fresh from the ground - which is why our Planet Money team decided to try their hand in the oil business. Over the next few days, we'll follow them as they drill, transport and refine a hundred barrels of crude. Robert Smith and Stacey Vanek Smith begin our series.

ROBERT SMITH, BYLINE: Look what I have, Stacey.


STACEY VANEK SMITH, BYLINE: (Laughter) Why did you get a briefcase?

SMITH: So that I could make that little click. And...

VANEK SMITH: What's in the briefcase?

SMITH: ...Look what's inside.

VANEK SMITH: That is a stack of hundreds. How much money is this?

SMITH: Ten thousand dollars.


SMITH: Now, nobody in the oil business works in cash anymore. But then again, nobody really lets amateurs like us into the oil business.

VANEK SMITH: It took months and months of paperwork and lawyers just to get to this point, just to have the legal standing to purchase crude oil.

SMITH: Now we just have to bring the money to a cow pasture in Kansas.


SMITH: Oh, there's cows. Oh, wait, there's a lot of cows.

VANEK SMITH: I had always thought of the oil business in this country as these big sort of dystopian, torn-up landscapes.

SMITH: Or a desert, you know, a Texas landscape dotted with oil towers.

VANEK SMITH: Yes. But in much of the Midwest, you are drilling for oil in corn fields and behind barns.


VANEK SMITH: We pull up to a big man next to a machine.


SMITH: Hey. Good to meet you, Jason.

JASON BRUNS: Yup, nice to meet you.

VANEK SMITH: Looks like...

BRUNS: Like a teeter-totter, I've been told. But to me, it's a pump unit. I've been looking at them since I was 4 years old, so it's always been a pump unit to me.

VANEK SMITH: Jason Bruns is this big, friendly looking guy with these big bear-paw hands. One of them is missing a finger.

SMITH: Oil rig accident.

VANEK SMITH: Yes. And Jason is a very small-time producer. He buys up old wells that used to gush out oil back in the day. But now this one drips out just a gallon or two an hour.

SMITH: Which is probably why he's willing to make such a small-time deal with us.

VANEK SMITH: So this is like the bottom of the milkshake.

BRUNS: Yeah, the bottom of the milkshake. I like that.

SMITH: Got to suck that much harder.

BRUNS: You got to work harder to get it out of the ground.

SMITH: It's all in pipes. But since we are here to buy oil, like, we want to see the oil.

VANEK SMITH: Yeah. We want to see the bottom of the milkshake.

SMITH: So he turns this little, tiny faucet on the side, puts a bucket underneath and out pours...


SMITH: ...A lot of water, which is what's in the ground, and a little bit of oil.

VANEK SMITH: Oh, my gosh. It's - it is the color of coffee.

BRUNS: Yeah, it looks like a good latte.

VANEK SMITH: Oh, that feels really weird. This is our oil, right?

BRUNS: Right now it's my oil...

VANEK SMITH: I thought this was like...

BRUNS: ...But it's going to be your oil (laughter).

VANEK SMITH: ...I thought in this - I thought this was, like, handshake country.

SMITH: Oh, yeah, it is. But we haven't shaken hands yet.

SMITH: Because before we can shake hands, we have to decide on the price. And that's where we learn how little we know about the oil business. We have the most awkward negotiation in oil history tonight on All Things Considered.

VANEK SMITH: Stacey Vanek Smith.

SMITH: And Robert Smith, NPR News, outside Wellington, Kan. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Robert Smith is a host for NPR's Planet Money where he tells stories about how the global economy is affecting our lives.
Stacey Vanek Smith is the co-host of NPR's The Indicator from Planet Money. She's also a correspondent for Planet Money, where she covers business and economics. In this role, Smith has followed economic stories down the muddy back roads of Oklahoma to buy 100 barrels of oil; she's traveled to Pune, India, to track down the man who pitched the country's dramatic currency devaluation to the prime minister; and she's spoken with a North Korean woman who made a small fortune smuggling artificial sweetener in from China.