Carv's Thinky Blog I'm an author with a focus on satirical sci-fi and agnostic commentary.

23Jun/100

Beyond the Deepwater Abyss

Note: This is the first draft of an essay for The Weekly Volcano. It's right at three thousand words, too long to be published there as is. I'm posting it here, though, by permission of editor Matt Driscoll (thanks, Matt) because I like everything in it, and I hope you'll have time to read it before such time as he runs it in its abbreviated form.


"There's an old saying in Tennessee--I know it's in Texas, probably in Tennessee--that says: Fool me once, shame on...shame on you. Fool me...You can't get fooled again."--President George W. Bush, 17 September 2002

This is an op-ed piece. It is not the news. You already know the news. As I write this, we're over two months into an ongoing ecological disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, precipitated by an industrial explosion that killed eleven workers and wounded seventeen others. Numerous attempts to cap the broken oil line at the wellhead a mile below have failed, and we're still a month away from the completion of relief wells that’ll probably terminate the flow.

We've known for some time that running our country on fossil fuels invites clear and present danger. The question is how big an oil spill we’d need to get our attention. It turns out a spill in the Gulf of Mexico is incredibly difficult and expensive to cap, and its repercussions are devastating in both immediate and enduring timeframes. Thousands of endangered birds and turtles drown in sludge. Tens of thousands of barrels flood the Gulf each day, and chemical dispersants are ineffective and damaging in their own right. Costs for containment alone cross a hundred million dollars, but that won't begin to pay for ecological repairs or the economic damage to fishing communities. By the time the spill is fully repaired, a hundred and forty million gallons of oil will have escaped into America's favorite fishing hole. It's an ecological nightmare scenario that plays out over an entire summer. Surely that's enough to convince us to take immediate, meaningful, sustainable action, right?

Except it isn’t. We know because it didn't. Here's the punch line: That paragraph wasn't about the Deepwater Horizon spill. It was about the Ixtoc-1 spill, which occurred in the Gulf's Bay of Campeche thirty-one years ago. It began on 3 June 1979 and released an average of twenty thousand barrels a day until it was finally capped 23 March 1980. That’s no secret. People watched it play out on the news over dinner, night after horrible night, till the story lost its sex appeal and everyone simply forgot about it. I chose the Bush epigraph above not to mock him, but to say we were, in fact, fooled again. The BP spill is our "again." Surely we won't need a third cataclysm to impel us, at long last, to take serious action?

It amazes me that after two months, we still have politicians and commentators scrabbling for anyone to blame who isn't British Petroleum. Let's be clear: The Deepwater Horizon explosion and fire of 20 April--two days before Earth Day, sadly--did not come as a surprise to every interested party. Granted, the Department of the Interior's Minerals Management Service was satisfied by a 2009 BP report that found it "unlikely that an accidental surface or subsurface oil spill would occur." If such a spill did occur, according to the BP report, some oil might reach shorelines, but "due to the distance to shore (48 miles) and the response capabilities that would be implemented, no significant adverse impacts are expected." That's good enough for us, said the federal watchdog agency. When the Deepwater well exploded fourteen months later, four executives from BP and Transocean (the contracting company that owned the Deepwater Horizon offshore platform) were on board to celebrate their fine safety standards. But warning signs had been noted on a daily basis, and BP staffers communicated those warning signs clearly by email. The writing on the wall had been so undeniable that when the drill column blew that tragic day, Transocean installation manager Jimmy Harrell screamed, "Are you fucking happy? Are you fucking happy? The rig's on fire! I told you this was gonna happen!"

If British Petroleum was deplorable for its sloppy, dishonest safety protocols, it was downright damnable for its attempts to hide the extent of the spill. On the day of the explosion, BP announced the well was leaking a "mere" thousand barrels a day. A barrel of oil contains forty-two gallons. Three weeks later, BP acknowledged there may be as many as five thousand barrels escaping per day, but insisted there was no way of judging for sure. Well, there is a way of judging for sure. It's a branch of math called particle image velocimetry; and when Purdue engineering professor Steven Wereley ran the numbers, they added up to sixty thousand barrels a day. At this rate, physicist Eugene Chiang calculated, we'd be looking at an Exxon Valdez disaster each week--maybe two or three. BP officials said those numbers were ridiculous: They were based on erroneous data. The mathematicians objected they used BP data for many of those calculations. On 27 May, the experts agreed which data to use; and thankfully, the spill was downgraded to fifteen thousand barrels a day. Those same experts doubled that number two weeks later. At time of writing, their best estimates are back up to sixty thousand gallons a day. That’s over two and a half million gallons of oil each day, seventy-six million gallons a month, for at least four full months. And while relief wells almost certainly will bring the spill to an end, David Rensink, the president of the American Association of Petroleum Geologists, says it’s a trial-and-error process and that the odds of success on the first attempt are “virtually nil.”

In a Senate subcommittee hearing, BP chairman Lamar Mackay was asked if his company lowballed those estimates in an attempt to minimize losses. Mackay said he didn't know; and besides, it didn't matter because BP was committed to paying for the spill, no matter how high its price tag. Edward Markey, the Massachusetts Representative who asked him that question, noted later that the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 does mandate fines based on volume of oil spilled, a fact Mackay knew all too well. "I think they were hoping they could fix it before they would be forced to allow the world to measure it," he mused.

How toxic is oil, anyway? A single part per million is toxic to wildlife, and one gallon of oil can cover four acres of ocean surface. That's bad enough, but BP insisted on using the chemical dispersant Corexit, which many experts believe is more toxic than oil alone. It's deeply hazardous to wildlife, and if we believe numerous reports from Gulf cleanup workers (and responders to the Exxon Valdez spill of ’89), it makes humans sick, too. It causes nausea and fainting in the short term, kidney and liver damage if allowed to accumulate. BP rejected the use of safer compounds because the company "does not have a stockpile of the other dispersants...and the manufacturers tell us that they cannot produce the requested volume for 10 to 14 days or more." The cleanup, of course, will take much longer than fourteen days, but BP stands by Corexit for the whole job, even after clear EPA demands. Why? This is probably a coincidence, but Corexit is manufactured by Nalco Holding Company. Rodney Chase, a board member at NHC, is also on the board of British Petroleum, and BP bought NHC's entire inventory of Corexit in early May. NHC's stock rose sharply as a result. As dangerous as Corexit is to animals and humans in the Gulf, we can only guess at its long-term effects--because some chemists believe it’ll return in the form of "toxic rain" throughout North America.

Almost immediately after the spill began, commentators on both the right (Rush Limbaugh, e.g.) and the left (Harry Shearer) characterized it as "Obama's Katrina." Some believe the administration's response was slow and/or ineffective. I believe its logistical response was the best we could rationally expect given the fact that Obama is not President Gandalf. His political response, on the other hand, may have been poor; he's a calm, measured, intellectual speaker, but in crises most Americans seem to prefer the monosyllabic slogans of a Michael Bay action hero. Either way, this is not Obama's Katrina, as the disaster isn't a hurricane or even an insufficient levee designed and built by the Army Corps of Engineers. It's an oil company screw-up. No reasonable person expects the federal government to keep equipment on hand to repair every possible industrial disaster, nor do we expect the president to be a petroleum engineer or the headmaster of Hogwarts. We have, however, given him the power to impose his (our) will on BP's North American operations, courtesy of the Oil Pollution Act of 1990. Thus far, no one seems to agree what the exact course of action should be, though, other than to "fix it!" and "make the oil go away!" And that, of course, is much easier said than done.

The Deepwater Horizon spill is not Obama's Katrina; it's his 9/11. Remember the mood of the country on 12 September 2001? We were angry beyond words--even customary peaceniks like me wanted the heads of the guilty set on pikes in Times Square--but we were also united. We knew al Qaeda was responsible. We knew we had to rally behind our leader, even if that leader couldn't express a common aphorism. We set political differences aside in pursuit of one necessary cause. Polls have shown the American people are similarly united with regard to the Gulf spill. A USA Today poll found almost three out of four Americans hold BP primarily responsible for the spill and its repercussions (though slightly more than half of us place secondary blame on the president). So we’re angry, we know whom to blame first, and we’re ready to do something about it--but what? Both the USA Today poll and an ABC News/Washington Post poll suggest we've reached a tipping point with regard to our view of fossil fuels; for the first time, a majority of respondents said they support reducing domestic oil production in favor of alternative energy sources.

We get it, folks. We do. So why have a growing number of Republicans rejected the memo? Representative Joe Barton--the ranking Republican on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, by the way--notoriously apologized to BP CEO Tony Hayward for an Obama-mandated twenty billion dollar compensation fund for victims of BP's mess, calling it "a shakedown." Should we be surprised to learn Representative Barton received almost one and a half million dollars in campaign contributions from the oil industry since 1999? Barton later apologized under pressure from GOP, but only for "misconstrued misconstruction." In other words, he's sorry we didn't understand what he meant by, "I'm ashamed of what happened in the White House yesterday. I think it is a tragedy of the first proportion that a private corporation can be subjected to what I would characterize as a shakedown, in this case a twenty billion dollar shakedown." We were confused by his vague sentiment. Silly us, we thought he felt sorry for BP. Incidentally, Joe Barton was a consultant to Atlantic Richfield Oil and Gas Co. in the early 1980s--but again, that's probably just a coincidence.

Representative Barton isn't alone in siding with British Petroleum against the American people. Representative Steve King said, "I think Joe Barton was spot-on when he called it a shakedown." Representative Michele Bachmann said Obama was using the fund as a "permanent ATM card"--"a redistribution of wealth." Rush Limbaugh called it "extortion." Representative Tom Price said, "These actions are emblematic of a politicization of our economy that has been borne out of this Administration’s drive for greater power and control." Granted, no less a liberal pinko than Bill O'Reilly argued vehemently against these BP apologists. But Randy Brogdon, currently running for governor of Oklahoma, made it unmistakably clear why he's against our government imposing penalties on British Petroleum: "This is a perfect example of why government should never be involved in the public sector...Government is not the solution. It's the problem. The more government tries to get in and regulate the free market, the worse things become."

We didn't misconstrue Joe Barton. He expressed himself perfectly and meant every word. Congressman Barton and others on the right believe the government should never intrude on the freedom of any business to do exactly what it wants, even if it jeopardizes public security. I disagree, most disrespectfully. I believe freedom is a concept that must be applied only to a feeling entity. Yes, an animal may have freedom. People can and should receive freedom, assuming they’ve earned it. A corporation is not a person, however; nor is it a feeling entity, though the people who run it may well be. In Jaws, the Richard Dreyfuss character, Hooper, describes a Great White thusly: "[W]hat we are dealing with here is a perfect engine, an eating machine...All this machine does is swim and eat and make little sharks, and that's all." Like Dr. Lecter, I quote Marcus Aurelius: "Of each particular thing, ask: What is it in itself? What is its nature?" A corporation is a machine that hunts for profit, and that's all. It has no intrinsic conscience or compassion. We therefore require our government to keep the predatory nature of corporations from impinging on individual freedoms and "the general welfare." When government fails to impose the interests of The People on big business, we all suffer. Animals suffer. The environment suffers. And when any politician, conservative or liberal, argues for total deregulation of the "free market," he or she ignores both the stated intent of that machine and that it is not a feeling entity, automatically guaranteed freedom.

So what can we do? What power, ultimately, do private citizens possess in an environmental disaster perpetrated by a global megacorp? Sarah Palin, among many others, threw her folded hands in the air and suggested we pray for "divine intervention." In other words, she's banking on a miracle. Bless her heart. I have two responses: First, we should keep careful watch on Ms. Palin's influence on the Big Man Upstairs; if she has any, we could use her back in office immediamente. Second, I believe we can do something more directly pragmatic.

We do, after all, bear some measure of culpability here. If the Obama administration failed to monitor Big Oil sufficiently, we did, too. Every president since Richard Nixon has expressed the need for greater investment in alternative energy sources. Did we listen? Did we care? Now that we care, how should we respond? It's foolish to argue for the demonization of Big Oil in toto. Over nine million Americans work for the oil and natural gas industries. Bill Maher compared those nine million people to workers in the "kiddie porn" business. That's low, unfair and misguided. Yet we can and should insist the fossil fuel business regulate itself more carefully, prepare sufficiently for cataclysmic blunders, invest in alternative energy R&D, and help guide the country into an era devoted to non-petroleum energy sources. How do we insist? We use the only voice big business can hear: our collective wallet. I sincerely doubt British Petroleum is the only unethical member of the oil industry, but it is the one currently spilling millions of gallons of oil into our Gulf, so start there: I ask you to join me and thousands of others in an indefinite boycott of British Petroleum and its subsidiary companies, including Amoco, Arco, Castrol, ampm convenience stores, and the gas pumps in Safeway parking lots.

It’ll be argued that a boycott of BP hurts the "small business owner" who runs, for example, an Arco gas station, but BP is not a small business. Even now it has an enterprise value of over a hundred and twenty billion dollars. Y’know who is a small business, though? The owner of a shrimp boat in Venice, Louisiana. Teaching ethics to corporations requires the strategic application and withdrawal of money. Pleading alone won't do the job. BP can, however, end our boycott quickly by making significant changes in the way the company does business, thus supporting its franchise managers.

It’ll be argued that a boycott of BP is like setting one’s house on fire because a mouse ran behind the refrigerator. Yeah, we’re overreacting. That sounds reasonable.

It’ll be argued that a boycott of BP will have no appreciable impact on BP's bottom line. That is true. It will, however, inspire ongoing negative press about the company, which will crater its stock sales. British Petroleum's stock price has already fallen about forty percent in the wake of its assault on the Gulf.

It’ll be argued that a boycott of BP is an attack on the free market capitalist economy. This would be true only if "free market" meant a company could only increase profits. We capitalists have the right, nay, the freedom to discontinue patronizing an unethical business. Indeed, it's the only real check on such companies individuals wield, which makes it something of a responsibility.

Some will snort that we're all liberal wack jobs who want to stick it to business, any business, just for the "sin" of its success. Well, BP has been nothing if not successful. In the first quarter of 2010, even as those much-denied oil plumes billowed, BP was earning about sixty-six million dollars a day in pure profit. That's your money. Any further money we give BP makes us complicit in the single most catastrophic environmental disaster ever witnessed in American history. It’s a moral abyss, a deepwater event horizon.

Finally, in a last-ditch effort, some will claim, sobbing insincere tears, that a boycott of BP "hurts America." That's true only if the two hundred million dollars BP spent last year to convince us its first letter stands for "Beyond" rather than "British" worked. If America represents some irresponsible, mendacious, multinational conglomerate over the natural beauty of the Gulf or its hardworking residents, then what the hell are we even doing? Why the hell are we trying?

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  1. Carv, what an excellent article. It’s too bad it will be edited down because I don’t know what would be cut out. Excellent.

  2. Ditto what Donna said. Excellent work, my friend.

  3. Your comparison of large corporations to Jaws is brilliant. BRILLIANT.

  4. Well said, Carv.

  5. If you’re curious how this essay was transformed for publication in the Weekly Volcano, you’ll find that version here: http://www.weeklyvolcano.com/mudroom/features/2010/07/gulf-oil-spill-boycott-BP/


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