BP’s mission statement
In the arc of human history, the notion that nature is a machine for us to re-engineer at will is a relatively recent conceit. In her groundbreaking 1980 book “The Death of Nature,” environmental historian Carolyn Merchant reminded readers that until the 1600s, the Earth was alive, usually taking the form of a mother. Europeans — like indigenous people the world over — believed the planet to be a living organism, full of life-giving powers but also wrathful tempers. There were, for this reason, strong taboos against actions that would deform and desecrate “the mother,” including mining.
The metaphor changed with the unlocking of some (but by no means all) of nature’s mysteries during the Scientific Revolution of the 1600s. With nature now cast as a machine, devoid of mystery or divinity, its component parts could be dammed, extracted and remade with impunity. Nature still sometimes appeared as a woman, but one easily dominated and subdued. In 1623 Sir Francis Bacon best encapsulated the new ethos when he wrote in “De Dignitate et Augmentis Scientiarum” that nature is to be “put in constraint, molded, and made as it were new by art and the hand of man.”
Those words may as well have been BP’s corporate mission statement. Boldly inhabiting what the company called “the energy frontier,” it dabbled in synthesizing methane-producing microbes and announced that “a new area of investigation” would be geo-engineering. And it bragged that, at its Tiber prospect in the Gulf of Mexico, it had “the deepest well ever drilled by the oil and gas industry” — as deep under the ocean floor as jets fly overhead.
Imagining and preparing for what would happen if these experiments went wrong occupied precious little space in the corporate imagination. As we have all discovered, after the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded, the company had no systems in place to respond effectively. Explaining why it did not have even the ultimately unsuccessful containment dome waiting to be activated onshore, BP spokesman Steve Rinehart said, “I don’t think anybody foresaw the circumstance that we’re faced with now.” Apparently, it “seemed inconceivable” that the blowout preventer would ever fail — so why prepare?
This refusal to contemplate failure clearly came straight from the top. A year ago Hayward told a group of graduate students at Stanford University that he has a plaque on his desk that reads, “If you knew you could not fail, what would you try?” Far from being a benign inspirational slogan, this is actually an accurate description of how BP and its competitors behave in the real world. In recent hearings on Capitol Hill, Congressman Ed Markey of Massachusetts grilled representatives from the top oil and gas companies on the ways they had allocated resources. Over three years, they had spent “$39 billion to explore for new oil and gas. Yet the average investment in research and development for safety, accident prevention and spill response was a paltry $20 million a year.”
These priorities go a long way toward explaining why the “Initial Exploration Plan” BP submitted to the government for the ill-fated Deepwater Horizon well reads like a Greek tragedy about human hubris. The phrase “little risk” appears five times. Even if there is a spill, BP confidently predicts that, thanks to “proven equipment and technology,” adverse effects will be minimal. Presenting nature as a predictable and agreeable junior partner (or perhaps subcontractor), the report cheerfully explains that should a spill occur, “Currents and microbial degradation would remove the oil from the water column or dilute the constituents to background levels.” The effects on fish, meanwhile, “would likely be sublethal” because of “the capability of adult fish and shellfish to avoid a spill [and] to metabolise hydrocarbons.” (In BP’s telling, rather than a dire threat, a spill emerges as an all-you-can-eat buffet for aquatic life.)
Best of all, should a major spill occur, there is apparently “little risk of contact or impact to the coastline” because of the company’s projected speedy response (!) and “the distance [from the rig] to shore” — about 48 miles. This is the most astonishing claim of all. In a gulf that often sees winds of more than forty miles an hour, not to mention hurricanes, BP had so little respect for the ocean’s capacity to ebb and flow, surge and heave, that it did not think oil could make a paltry 48-mile trip. (In mid-June a shard of the exploded Deepwater Horizon showed up on a beach in Florida, 190 miles away.)
None of this sloppiness would have been possible, however, had BP not been making its predictions to a political class eager to believe that nature had indeed been mastered. Some, like Republican Lisa Murkowski, were more eager than others. The Alaska senator was so awestruck by the industry’s four-dimensional seismic imaging that she proclaimed deep-sea drilling to have reached the very height of controlled artificiality. “It’s better than Disneyland in terms of how you can take technologies and go after a resource that is thousands of years old and do so in an environmentally sound way,” she told the Senate Energy Committee just seven months ago.
Drilling without thinking has, of course, been Republican Party policy since May 2008. With gas prices soaring to unprecedented heights, conservative leader Newt Gingrich unveiled the slogan “Drill Here, Drill Now, Pay Less” — with an emphasis on the Now. The wildly popular campaign was a cry against caution, against study, against measured action. In Gingrich’s telling, drilling at home wherever the oil and gas might be—locked in Rocky Mountain shale, in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge or deep offshore — was a surefire way to lower the price at the pump, create jobs and kick Arab ass all at once. In the face of this triple win, caring about the environment was for sissies: as Senator Mitch McConnell put it, “In Alabama and Mississippi and Louisiana and Texas, they think oil rigs are pretty.” By the time the infamous “Drill, Baby, Drill” Republican National Convention rolled around, the party base was in such a frenzy for US-made fossil fuels, they would have bored under the convention floor if someone had brought a big enough drill.
Obama eventually gave in, as he invariably does. With cosmic bad timing, just three weeks before the Deepwater Horizon blew up, the president announced he would open up previously protected parts of the country to offshore drilling. The practice was not as risky as he had thought, he explained. “Oil rigs today generally don’t cause spills. They are technologically very advanced.” That wasn’t enough for Sarah Palin, who sneered at the Obama administration’s plans to conduct more studies before drilling in some areas. “My goodness, folks, these areas have been studied to death,” she told the Southern Republican Leadership Conference in New Orleans, just 11 days before the blowout. “Let’s drill, baby, drill, not stall, baby, stall!” And there was much rejoicing.
In his Congressional testimony, Hayward said, “We and the entire industry will learn from this terrible event.” And one might well imagine that a catastrophe of this magnitude would indeed instill in BP executives and the “Drill Now” crowd a new sense of humility. There are, however, no signs that this is the case. The response to the disaster — corporate and governmental — has been rife with precisely the brand of arrogance and overly sunny predictions that created the disaster in the first place.
The ocean is big; it can take it, we heard from Hayward in the early days, while spokesman John Curry insisted that hungry microbes would consume whatever oil was in the water system because “nature has a way of helping the situation.” But nature has not been playing along. The deep-sea gusher has busted out all of BP’s top hats, containment domes and junk shots. The ocean’s winds and currents have made a mockery of the lightweight booms BP has laid out to absorb the oil. “We told them,” says Byron Encalade, president of the Louisiana Oysters Association. “The oil’s gonna go over the booms or underneath the bottom.” Indeed it did. Marine biologist Rick Steiner, who has been following the cleanup closely, estimates that “70 percent or 80 percent of the booms are doing absolutely nothing at all.”
And then there are the controversial chemical dispersants: more than 1.3 million gallons dumped with the company’s trademark “What could go wrong?” attitude. As the angry residents at the Plaquemines Parish town hall pointed out, few tests had been conducted, and there is scant research about what this unprecedented amount of dispersed oil will do to marine life. Nor is there a way to clean up the toxic mixture of oil and chemicals below the surface. Yes, fast-multiplying microbes do devour underwater oil — but in the process they also absorb the water’s oxygen, creating a new threat to marine life.
BP had even dared to imagine that it could prevent unflattering images of oil-covered beaches and birds from escaping the disaster zone. When I was on the water with a TV crew, for instance, we were approached by another boat, whose captain asked, “Y’all work for BP?” When we said no, the response — in the open ocean — was, “You can’t be here then.” But of course these heavy-handed tactics, like all the others, have failed. There is simply too much oil in too many places. “You cannot tell God’s air where to flow and go, and you can’t tell water where to flow and go,” I was told by Debra Ramirez. It was a lesson she had learned from living in Mossville, La., surrounded by 14 emissions-spewing petrochemical plants, and watching illness spread from neighbor to neighbor.
Human limitation has been the one constant of this catastrophe. After two months, we still have no idea how much oil is flowing or when it will stop. The company’s claim that it will complete relief wells by the end of August — repeated by Obama in his June 15 Oval Office address — is seen by many scientists as a bluff. The procedure is risky and could fail, and there is a real possibility that the oil could continue to leak for years.
The flow of denial shows no sign of abating either. Louisiana politicians indignantly oppose Obama’s temporary freeze on deepwater drilling, accusing him of killing the one big industry left standing now that fishing and tourism are in crisis. Palin mused on Facebook that “no human endeavor is ever without risk,” while Texas Republican Congressman John Culberson described the disaster as a “statistical anomaly.” By far the most sociopathic reaction, however, comes from veteran Washington commentator Llewellyn King: rather than turning away from big engineering risks, we should pause in “wonder that we can build machines so remarkable that they can lift the lid off the underworld.”