May 20, 2010
It would be funny if it wasn't so serious. It would be fiction if it wasn't a fact.
On March 31, President Obama announced a plan to open areas off the East Coast and new portions of the Gulf of Mexico and Alaska to oil exploration. Exactly three weeks later, the BP oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico exploded, killing eleven workers and sending a gusher now estimated at over 200,000 gallons of crude per day — and possibly much more — into the sea. The slick continues to grow, threatening coastal wildlife, Louisiana fisheries still recovering from the convulsions of Hurricane Katrina, and the tourist trade along the Mississippi and Alabama coasts. It was as if God herself had anted up at the energy- policy table and was playing some cards of her own.
The plume issuing from the ruptured well a mile deep in the Gulf was, as God often has it, not only a physical reality but a moral metaphor, and the human responses to both rival some of the best stories in religious literature, the sulphurous fire over Sodom and Lot's wife entombed in salt coming readily to mind.
The attempts at physical damage control have been pure Rube Goldberg. First came the "dispersants" — detergents used to break down the oil into droplets — which are turning large sections of the Gulf into a giant washing machine, sending the oil below the surface and possibly endangering layers of sea-life on the way down. Then came a giant concrete dome lowered over the blow-hole on the sea bottom, and when that failed, a smaller "top-hat" which has yet to be deployed. Then underwater robots attached a tube to siphon some of the escaping oil up to a drill-ship above. And just when you thought it couldn't get any crazier, BP delighted news-media illustrators and commentators with the "junk shot," a proposed procedure apparently often used successfully on land, to funnel a collection of debris including golf balls, rope, and old tires and topped off with mud, into the hole to stop it up, much like food scraps stop up your sink. My plumber stands amazed.
The metaphorical plume is widening too. Through its spokesman, the aptly-named Kent Wells, BP assured the public that everything possible was being done and those businesses hurt by the spill would be compensated, all the while shifting the blame for the event to the equipment maker and the contractors. (The far-off Marshall Islands, under which the rig is registered, have yet to be blamed.) You wonder who the insurers are; might one of them be AIG? The world economy could sink again, not only by Greece but by grease.
It gets better. A key player in the debacle is the Minerals Management Service, an arm of the Interior Department responsible both for issuing permits for offshore drilling and for enforcing environmental laws. This once-lighthearted group has long been known for what Obama has called its "cozy relationship" with the oil and gas industries, a relationship both figurative and literal. During the previous administration, the MMS regularly drew up leases without demanding the required safety and environmental-impact studies — the BP rig was one of them. Equally regularly, members of its staff not only took countless gifts from industry personnel but took drugs and had sex with them too, giving new meaning to the term "interior department." Though the Obama administration early on vowed to clean up yet another deadly spill from the Bush years, the permits kept coming, even if the orgies did not; in fact, five of them were issued just a couple weeks ago.
BP's Wells, among other industry advocates, has evoked the memory of man-made disasters from the Titanic to the Exxon Valdez to the space shuttle Challenger to remind us that clouds have silver linings; they've led to improved technology and increased safety. But in each of these cases, as in the present one, it was primarily negligence in construction and/or operation that doomed them.
The administration has now put a hold on new permits, pending an investigation by an independent panel. And some drill- baby up in Alaska, looking back, may end up as a pillar of salt.