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The Gulf oil spill: A hole in the world

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?

Photo: Kris Krug

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.)

Photo: AP Photo/Alastair Grant

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.”

 

Comments

  • Gabe

    This was a very good article. BP should go bankrupt for what they have done to this country.

  • A. F. da Rocha Coelho

    “Steven Koonin, Obama’s under secretary of energy for science ,BP’s former chief scientist, the man who just fifteen months ago was overseeing the technology behind BP’s supposedly safe charge into deepwater drilling. ” If THIS is the guy who’s advising our President about science, he needs to be kicked to the curb. NOW! What is it with our government hiring these guys, like the ones from Goldman Sachs, who are complicit in some of the worst financial and ecological disasters, the country and the planet have seen? Are there no scientists in all of the ecological groups, who actually care about the planet before profit? Are there no economists, who care about utting the health of our country’s and the world’s financial systems before the pursuit of outrageous profit? When is enough, enough. Is Gordon Gekko, our God?

  • Dianne George

    The hollow promises of these souless, consciousless, prevaricating (BP) officials is very obvious — the almost implacable smirk on the face of Tony what’s his name, CEO of BP, told me all I needed to know about the ‘why’ of the disaster; just another “business as usual”, matter-of-fact occurrence. Recently, I heard ‘ole Tony was on his way to Russia — to sell him their bill of goods, as they move out of the Gulf? Makes one ashamed to be human — or in the case of the above — Ashamed to be NON-human!

  • yobaba

    First off, Gabe – BP has done a lot more in the history of their company than this little thing called “destroying the Gulf of Mexico”. Please check this link: http://www.thenation.com/article/36816/bps-history-meddling-persian-gulf

    Secondly, you all got teed off when President Obama expressed his absolute confidence that his administration would “leave the Gulf Coast in better shape than it was before,” that he was “making sure” it “comes back even stronger than it was before this crisis.” I wonder – what would you want him to say? “We’re ()#%ed”? In all seriousness, we ARE fu**ed, and all of us know it, but we don’t want to hear that from the president. Hearing about it ad nauseum from Foxy News is bad enough. We KNOW there is nothing that anyone can do right now to “fix things” and no way of bringing anything back “stronger than it was before”. A way of life is gone. It’s gone. At least for the people, they can move on, they can relocate, hopefully with the financial assistance of BP [who owes it to these folks]. Unfortunately the brown pelican and the Ridley’s turtle and the shrimp and oysters and the delicate ecosystem they live in can’t do that. The Gulf can’t regenerate itself by next shrimp season. It simply can’t and won’t happen – even if Obama had immediately run from his secret superman phonebooth and leaped straight into the air and had flown faster than a speeding bullet for the Gulf. We were screwed from the moment BP decided to drill in that spot. Hell, we were screwed before that.

  • Jake

    excellent essay, this is such a disaster but what’s worse is the train wreck of policy and lax regulations that led us here.

  • Loves To Spooge

    Why is no body screaming about Transocean? You know, the AMERICAN company that owned and operated the rig.

  • Jackie Kersh

    Why is there no reporting being done on the concerted effort to hamstring or, at worst, destroy the President’s commission on the oil spill? Now the Senate is trying to set up its own study group and is refusing to grant the commission subpoena powers. I am getting very nervous about the overt political power of the oil companies and the people they control. Somebody needs to start telling this story before it is too late.

  • http://royceeddington.com/?p=2002 News stories the mainstream media missed : 07/03/10 | Royce Eddington

    [...] * The true horror of the Gulf Oil Spill: The gulf, as we knew it, is never coming back. Because BP was too damn cheap to do build their rig right the first time. [PBS] [...]

  • Catharine Tyler

    Thanks to Naomi Klein for her article! As the rest of the country watches with growing sadness and desperation, a cherished member of the family and the generous nature and gifted culture of a unique region are being slowly destroyed. Are we all to blame? No. Are we all responsible? Yes, in that, as Ms. Klein points out, we are but a part of the earth’s ecosystem, a reality that we ignore at our peril–and can embrace with empowerment. We know that the Gulf oil spill is not an isolated incident, and yet on a group level the full significance of this seems hard to grasp. Like the frog sitting in the slowing heating pot of water, we seem caught up in a system of exploitation that has become the norm. Back in the robber baron days, the LA subway system was squashed by the power surge in the auto industry. Do we now point fingers at all those commuters sitting in traffic jams? A lot of people would love to get a hybrid car, but until we can buy a Prius at the price of a used Corolla, we simply can’t afford it. We are barraged with “choices” and the message that we have the freedom to choose, but the reality is we are living in a Truman Show of corporate/media engineering. And when things go wrong, we are vaguely asked to sacrifice: once again, the American people are the problem. Based on the comments above by Jackie Kersh, the brooms of corporate deniability are very busy in the halls of Congress. Beyond the pain of it all, we can’t afford to watch anymore, which means that those of us who do not live in the Gulf area need to look at what is going on there as if it is going on in our own back yards. I believe that one of the powerful little rocks in our bag is this very connectedness Ms. Klein speaks about, whether it is with the past, with geography, with other cultures and spiritual concepts, with other events across the world. The more we can connect with, personally, outside the bubble we are in, the more we can see it for what it is, see our own lives and communities in a different light, and ultimately dethrone the “man behind the curtain” (and give him a job, too). This is real democracy, not the separatist brand of individualism we have been fed.

  • http://www.blig.ca/?p=628 267.81 MPH & How Google Works : BLig

    [...] Just like with Haiti every other disaster, we are getting bored with the BP disaster. • “The Gulf oil spill: A hole in the world” by Naomi Klein • “It’s Just a Leak” by Barry Eisler (fiction, but [...]

  • Frank Monachello

    For decades now, particularly since the Ronald Reagan era, Americans have been fed a steady diet of political rhetoric that claims that all of our country’s real and imagined economic ills are due to our government’s OVERregulation of economic activity. The passive, self-serving acceptance of this mythology by those in the American public who simply want lower takes will very likely lead to more environmental disasters in the years to come until the national media takes the time to expose this myth and reveals how much of the environmentally sensitive economic activity taking place in the U.S. is actually NOT monitored closely by any federal agency.

  • Donald Willetts

    If something can go wrong, it will. – Murphy’s Law

    Whatever can go wrong will go wrong, and at the worst possible time, in the worst possible way. – Finagle’s Law

    Murphy and Finagle were optimists. – Flanagan’s Precept

  • Catharine Tyler

    I too wish the Reagan era were broadly understood for what it was: this out-sized hostility toward “government meddling”–a hostility that in reality pandered to the special interests and will to power of the other big brother, corporate America. Government is supposed to protect the interests of the little people, those who don’t have a public voice or the big bucks to entertain congresspeople. Reaganomics seems less “toughness” (read racism, for one) than naivete about the nature of capitalism, which is to grow itself and accumulate power and wealth. The natural conclusion of deregulation was to open a Pandora’s Box of greed, as we have all witnessed and been hurt by. “Trickle-down” economics: LOL. The reality is that oil billowing up from the ocean.

  • Poop

    The disaster MUST, take this long. If it did not, how would we keep the nations attention away from the flood of new legislation? Oh look, Dispursent sales are way up. What a country.

  • Mary

    The disaster in the Gulf I think is a perfect metaphor for all that is wrong with our government and way of life. Please do not say that we need more government regulation so that our elected politicians can appoint their friends to high salaried positions to do nothing. We have plenty of regulations, just a lack of will to enforce them. More government does not solve the problem and only gives politicians a way to legally buy votes. We need campaign reform NOW or we, the people, our ways of life and our environment will not be preserved. It will continue to be sold out to whoever has the most money or “influence”. So much for Obama, the leader of change.

  • Jack Haesly

    The BP Gulf oil spill disaster has turned the Gulf of Mexico into the new La Brea Tar Pit of Los Angeles fame. Tar and asphalt will be with us, as in Los Angeles, for the next ten thousand years. Need proof? Visit La Brea in LA to get an education as to just what the Gulf could be facing in the years to come. It isn’t pretty.