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Oil Leak Drama Draws Public Outrage, Outpouring of Ideas

May 31, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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As the Gulf oil leak persists, more than 80 percent of Americans report they are closely following the unfolding crisis. Margaret Warner talks to science educator Bill Nye, energy expert Amy Jaffe and technology forecaster Paul Saffo for more on the public reaction.
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MARGARET WARNER: Today, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration warned that shifting winds will spread the oil eastward toward Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida. Moreover, the Atlantic hurricane season begins tomorrow.

And, week after week, as the oil spews out of the earth, and plans for stopping it keep — stopping it coming up short, more than 80 percent of Americans have been telling the Pew Research Center they’re following events in the Gulf closely.

We get three perspectives now on what’s behind the extraordinary public response to the spill. Bill Nye is an author and science educator trained as a mechanical engineer. He’s the former host of the PBS program “Bill Nye the Science Guy.” Amy Jaffe is a senior energy adviser at the James Baker Institute at Rice University. And Paul Saffo is a writer and technology forecaster in Silicon Valley. He’s also a visiting scholar at Stanford University.

Welcome to you all.

Paul Saffo, beginning with you, the public’s fascination with this story, what is driving it? Is this like other disasters, or is there something more at work here?

PAUL SAFFO, visiting scholar, Stanford University: I think this is a new chapter. This is one of those McLuhan moments that would have seemed pure science fiction 10 years ago, watching in real time this spreading horror deep in the ocean below the level anybody can reach. It’s part “Titanic” the movie and part 1950s “The Blob.”

It’s just strangely compelling. I know all sorts of people who just can’t stop watching.

MARGARET WARNER: Bill Nye, how do you see it? Do you find this a McLuhan-esque moment, a turning moment?

BILL NYE, former host, “The Science Guy”: Well, I hope it’s a turning moment. I hope it’s a moment that changes the world, in that we would now acknowledge how much time, effort and energy we put into getting oil.

But I think that what really focused it were two things, the Exxon Valdez, which people still make fun of or refer to, and then Katrina. This happened in the same region, almost to the nautical mile, as Katrina. So, the same people are going through a new suffering.

And this is the kind of suffering that could happen to so many of us. Now, there’s thousands of — there’s almost a million oil wells around the world. There’s a few thousand oil rigs. And this is the kind of disaster that could happen almost anywhere.

MARGARET WARNER: Amy Jaffe, how does it look to you in — in Houston? What do you think this — this event is tapping into in the American public?

AMY JAFFE, Rice University: Well, you know, we, in the American public, we are a big believer that there’s a science and technology solution to everything — everything.

So — and it was really amazing that the industry — we were sort of running out of oil onshore, and the industry was able to go out to the depths of the earth, under the sea, and keep us driving around in our cars. So, to sit here night after night and watch all these scientists unable to close a simple pipeline, even though it’s a very complex engineering problem, as a layperson, when you sit here and watch the oil just spewing out of this pipeline, it is. It’s just this horror movie, like we cannot believe that there isn’t a technology to close this pipeline.

And we, as Americans, believe there’s a technological solution to everything. And the idea that we’re going to have to wait until August for the technological solution, I think it’s just got people just gripped in terror.

MARGARET WARNER: Paul Saffo…

AMY JAFFE: And it gets to our fundamental core.

MARGARET WARNER: So, Paul Saffo, do you — do you agree that it’s shaking our faith in technology and in Americans’ ability? I mean, usually, we think — part of our whole ethos is, if there’s a problem, Americans can fix it.

PAUL SAFFO: Well, we have had an uneasy accommodation with our faith in technology for the last 10 years. It was shattered first with the popping of the dot-com bubble. And the whole climate debate circles around us right now.

In fact, you see two camps in the climate debate. There are the druids who say we need to turn the clock back because we can’t solve it, and the engineers who say we need to accelerate because we can solve this with heroic engineering.

This oil well has done more to discredit heroic engineering than anything that has happened in the last 10 years.

MARGARET WARNER: Bill Nye, as Mr. Science here, do you think it’s discredited at least tech — engineer — tech — excuse me — at least technology, if not our own sort of scientific prowess?

BILL NYE: OK, everybody, look, technology doesn’t come from outer space. Humans made this thing.

Now, what I — you know, the old song, don’t let your babies grow up to be cowboys, doctors, and lawyers, and such — no, they should grow up to be engineers. What happened here was, engineers are working the problem. And they have done the same thing the same way for over a century.

And there are backup systems, but the backup systems were not inspected. The backup systems were not regulated. No, it’s — this problem is in fact technologically solvable. And what are you — how are we going to solve it? With these relief wells.

The problem is that engineers are humans. And mistakes are made. The problem might be that we rely so heavily on this. Now, people referred to the last 10 years. For me, my heart started to break as an engineer from the United States around the Ford Pinto, maybe in the late ’70s, when people were wearing leisure suits and making terrible vehicles.

And then the Columbia and the Challenger space shuttle both exploded. No, this — this problem of not having good engineering, in the United States anyway, goes way back. Now, this underwater thing, this gizmo that’s called the lower marine recovery package — hold on — LMRP — now you have got me doing it — anyway, the problem with this thing is, it’s going to have to be refitted on top of a gushing oil well.

Now, this is the way it’s done on land all the time. When you get a gusher, you put a new valve on it, a new Christmas tree, and then you close it down. But now, underwater, it’s a huge problem. And I hope it — I hope we can keep it in the news, so that everybody realizes just how much we rely on this technology, how much we rely on engineering.

And, when things go wrong, it’s potentially troublesome. Now, just one more thing. We have tens of thousands of coal-fired power plants around the world. We have thousands and thousands of oil- and gas-fired power plants. We have about 400, 434 nuclear power plants.

Climate change is a huge problem. If we try to address our energy needs with nuclear power, and we get into the tens of thousands of nuclear power plants, we will have remarkable problems, astonishing problems.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Let me get…

BILL NYE: I hope this keeps everybody focused.

MARGARET WARNER: Let me get this refocused on Amy Jaffe.

So, Amy Jaffe, as someone who has been working in the energy field for a couple of decades at least, has this affected your own attitude, your own confidence in our technological abilities?

AMY JAFFE: You know, I have to tell you, I have found it a sort of a shocking and personally depressing experience, because I watched the industry in the late ’80s and early ’90s really crack this puzzle of how to get oil from the ocean.

And, in the Gulf of Mexico anyway, we have been very successful at doing it without a major accident. So, when I learned, after this accident, that the industry actually had no blowout technology — in other words, they didn’t have a technological solution to address a blowout — I was shocked.

Even myself, who has been in the — watching the industry and writing about industry for 30 years, I just couldn’t believe that people would go out there and drill these wells, and they didn’t have a backup plan. I mean, I understand they had good prevention systems, but they didn’t have a backup plan.

And now we’re all watching in horror over the fact that there is no backup plan. And it does raise this question — I — I like what our other guests are saying — I work at a university that’s known for its math and science departments and its engineering. And it — we find it very depressing that a lot of young people who are good in mathematics in this country have chosen to use that to develop financial derivatives that have actually hurt our economy — and we see it here in Houston with all the people who rushed to work for Enron — instead of going into concrete science that could be used today to shut this pipeline.

If we had more American children sticking with math and science and going to engineering, there might just be some young bright person out there who could come up with an idea of how to do this in a way that isn’t the way we did it on land 50 years ago or 100 years ago.

We really need more science capability in this country.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, we keep talking about how we’re watching this. And, of course, one way we’re watching this on the Internet.

Paul Saffo, what has been the role of the Web in all of this in — in creating a kind of community that’s tuned in to this all day every day, or at least part of the day?

PAUL SAFFO: TV brought the world into our living rooms. And the Internet has done something that’s vastly more intimate. It brings it to our desks and to handheld devices.

And, so, I think people feel an emotional connection with this that is much, much, much deeper than television. And the fact that it’s real-time and it’s unedited and at any moment something completely surprising could happen just has people captivated.

You know, the only thing that would become more captivating is, we have got a dozen or so robots, telerobot ROVs down there, running around. If one of those got tangled in some cable or stuck in the Christmas tree blowout preventer, and the name of that robot got out, then you would have a drama of the first order.

MARGARET WARNER: And, Bill Nye, the other thing that’s happening online, on our Web site and elsewhere, are just thousands, tens of thousands of suggestions about what can be done to stop this.

Now, what does — what does that tap into? I mean, do you think people really think that BP is going to turn around and adopt their solution?

BILL NYE: Maybe.

I think the way to have a good idea is to have a lot of ideas. But it shows you also sort of, how to say, a level of scientific illiteracy. And that — by that, I mean, to understand the pressures involved, when someone say it’s 6,800 PSI, 400 atmospheres, it’s just way beyond our ordinary experience.

When it’s 5,000 feet down, and the only way to get to it is with remotely operated submersible vehicles, it’s way beyond your ordinary experience. On the other hand, all — every inventor started out thinking about problems like this, imagining unsolvable problems.

So, having a lot of ideas is probably a good thing. Isn’t it better than suppressing people’s ideas? That would be — that would be horrible. And, by the way, I will say it’s pretty good that BP, British Petroleum, has kept those engineers and remotely operated vehicle operators isolated.

Can you imagine you’re in there, you have some very good minds who have been working undersea for decades, and then all these ideas are coming at you and you’re trying to drive this submarine? I mean, it’s really — that nothing has gone wrong with the submarines is — is pretty good.

But I think we’re finally there, in that somebody has acknowledged they really have got to cut the thing off, put something new on top of it. And, so, I will say that’s been most of the suggestions that come to my Web site. I have gotten several thousand.

And it’s just, got to cut it off, get a clean surface, and start over. So, we will see if we can get this done.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, it certainly…

BILL NYE: You know, if it stops in the next few months, it will be all’s well that ends well — oil’s well that ends well.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, there certainly — it certainly is a problem still in search of a solution.

Bill Nye and Paul Saffo and Amy Jaffe, thank you all.

AMY JAFFE: Thank you.

PAUL SAFFO: Thank you.

BILL NYE: Thank you very much.