Saturday, May 22, 2010

"We Have Met The Enemy, and He Is Us!"

I find myself lately in the odd position of almost being an apologist for BP and Big Oil. On the one hand, I understand the frustration:
"I think they actually believe that BP has some kind of a good motivation here," he said. "They're naive! BP is trying to save money, save everything they can... They won't tell us anything, and oddly enough, the government seems to be going along with it! Somebody has got to, like shake them and say, 'These people don't wish you well! They're going to take you down!'"
I even think Carville is right, to an extent. On the other hand, there is a fundamental problem here: the well is 1 mile below the surface. The only thing that works down there are robot ships. As for capping the well, we were told from day one that would take 3 months or more. Simple issue of physicality and technology: the only way to stop this well is to plug it, and the only way to plug it is to drill another well and force cement down the hole. And another well can't be drilled in less than 2 months. Period. End of Discussion.

There is no hero to send in, no technology designed just for this purpose that nobody believed in until right now! This is the situation we were told couldn't happen, and hasn't happened before, and didn't happen (yet) with the even deeper below water offshore platform, also leased by BP. There is no technological fix available to the Coast Guard, or the military, or the EPA, or any secret government organization which has just been waiting for its chance to pull that underfunded program off the shelf and launch it 1mile deep and do the job yesterday. The fact is, we can put men on the moon, but we can't put them a mile below the water. Period.

There is, in other words, no solution other than the ones being tried, and the one that may work, if the well can ever be drilled. And I emphasize may work.

From a PR perspective, could Obama do more? Maybe. But that's not what's being asked for; what's being asked for is salvation from our error, rescue from our foolishness, redemption from our hubris. Oil and gas have lived side by side in the Gulf for decades now. Oyster-men and shrimpers didn't much complain, and the platforms provided good employment for people in Louisiana and Mississippi and Alabama. They still do. But now that may all come to an end, because we didn't appreciate that our reach had exceeded our grasp, and we got not heaven for it, but hell on earth. Welcome to our nightmare.

It does no good to blame Obama, except to say he shouldn't trust BP. He shouldn't, but what else should he do? Send in the Marines? They have more expertise and capping deep water wells? The Navy Seals are trained in diving 1 mile down? No. There is no solution here, that isn't offered by the people who made this mess. They have the expertise. They have the equipment. They even have the management systems in place to get the job done. Talk to anyone familiar with offshore drilling, they'll tell you what's going to happen next. And it isn't going to happen soon; because it simply can't.

Nor is it the result of alien forces sweeping down upon us. The standard joke is you don't want to see how your sausage or your laws are made. Well, we don't want to see where our oil comes from, either. But we don't want to give up our plastics, our computers, our cars, our grocery stores, our food supply, our petro-chemical way of life. Did anybody balk at buying gas because it may have come from Nigeria? I doubt we so much as hesitated at the pump, so much as considered where the plastics for that throw-away coffee cup or drinking straw (who recycles drinking straws, in fact?) came from. Now we are shocked, shocked, to find out oil spills and creates a mess. Nobody was too shocked when it spilled in the fields of East Texas. Nobody was too shocked when it poured over the land in Oklahoma. I've seen the oil fields of America, and they weren't pretty places, and they weren't pristine, and nobody gave a wet snap, because they don't want to know how their sausage gets made, they just want to eat it.

So don't tell me this is a great evil foisted on us by an unholy alliance of powers far beyond those of mortal men. Don't talk like this is Wall Street redux, and the oil business doesn't have everything to do with what we've come to consider is "everyday life." This is plain old economics and enlightened self-interest. We inhabit an industrial world that would grind to a halt in a heartbeat without petroleum products produced in abundance. Don't tell me this is something terrible done to us and we didn't know. We didn't want to know. We just wanted to consume.

I understand the concern with this crisis, I even understand the anxiety it's creating. Perhaps the anxiety is connected to some vague sense that we, too, are guilty, and that's why we secretly think that Bruce Willis could solve this, if we'd just ask him. I understand that, in the movies, we always have a technical fix available, like a giant drill that Hillary Swank can pilot to the center of the earth to solve whatever problem we have foolishly caused, or Will Smith and Jeff Goldblum can fly a virus into the aliens' computer while President Bill Pullman leads the fighters to shoot down the bad guys.

But this ain't the movies, and there isn't some US agency ready, willing and able to make everything okay again. Like New Orleans after Katrina, we are at the limits of our technology again. Like New Orleans after Katrina, this is a screw up of epic proportions. This is the consequence of drilling where we can't fix it when it goes wrong. And Obama can no more swoop in and "take ownership" of this and make it all better, than Bruce Willis or Hillary Swank or Will Smith can.

Get used to it. We fucked up. We get to live with the consequences. This isn't a Jerry Bruckheimer story. It's Cormac McCarthy. It's brute realism, not escapist fantasy.

Welcome to our nightmare.


  1. Great post. Thank you.

  2. Robert, you're right that the limits of technology have been reached insofar as stopping the gush of oil. I'm sure that BP wants the oil stopped as much as anyone.

    But as far as mitigation strategies to clean up the oil, many suggestions have come in from ordinary folks which have not been recognized or tried, like hay or bagasse impregnated with oil-eating microbes and many other suggestions out there. Booms sit unused. Big corporations and government bureaucracies do not always know best nor do they always function in the most efficient manner. One would think that in a desperate situation, the powers might listen to the little guys, but one would be wrong.

    And those of us who live in the industrialized, technologized world are complicit in that we continue, mostly unfazed, to pursue our "way of life".

  3. Mimi--

    I think mitigation is another issue; otoh, so much of this oil is so deep underwater, and likely to stay there, that the big problem is the effect of dispersants and how much of that oil will stay near the bottom, "invisible" but not out of the environment.

    We will barely begin to remove this oil from the Gulf, and the effects will devastate far more than marshlands and bird nests.

    This is very, very bad.

  4. much of this oil is so deep underwater, and likely to stay there,....

    Tom and I talked about the dispersants tonight, and we wondered why BP continued to use them. Is the reason perhaps to hide the true quantity of oil that is already present in the Gulf?

    And the disaster could possibly have been prevented had BP installed the acoustic switch as a back-up to shut off the pipe and/or done the final safety test that they decided to skip.

    Here again the federal agencies failed also by not making the installation of the acoustic switch mandatory. There's blame enough to spread around, and the blame game is in full play.

    You're also correct that the effects will spread far beyond the coasts and marshes of the Gulf areas. When I begin to consider the ripple effects, I have to stop myself, because the disaster is simply too big to contemplate.

  5. But...but...I recycle!