An Oil-Driven Memorial Day

By: Michael Kessler

May 28, 2010

Memorial Day 2010 will go down in history as all about oil. As the economic near-collapse of the past two years appears, finally, to be subsiding, we are measuring recovery in terms of the increased number of travelers this Memorial Day Holiday. At the same time, we sit by our live visuals of the 5,000 foot deep underwater top kill experiment to see if BP can stop the gush of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. It is worth taking a moment to memorialize just who is responsible for all of this mess.
The Gulf of Mexico is now feared to be a giant oil slick, with perhaps even more deadly dangers lurking below the surface. Dead fish and sea turtles are washing up next to oil-coated pelicans. Mile-long plumes deep below the surface may lead to dead dolphins and whales and the destruction of many fishing habitats. The clean-up will take years. The litigation will take decades.

I've found it sadly ironic that over the past few months--long before the April 20 explosion on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig that started the gush of oil--Proctor and Gamble has been playing a moving commercial about the alternate use of their soap. In a brilliant example of "cause advertising," oily little creatures caught up in the human neglect of oil spills are gently cleansed by caring lab technicians. An animal bubble bath, if you will, at a second chance marine spa. Kudos to P&G, who had pledged $500,000 for donations to the International Bird Rescue Research Center and the Marine Mammal Center. This is a a brilliant act of marketing a corporation's social responsibility. Yet the commercial is also an eerily prophetic recognition of the all-too-common mixing of oil with seawater.

It's that chance of spillage of crude into the ocean that has everyone playing the blame game. BP, Transocean, and Halliburton are all claiming the others are at fault. The Minerals Management Service has, by all appearances, been regulating the drilling of oil as if their sole interest was the minimization of regulatory impediments. Government oversight was lax, to say the least. Some blame President Bush's reported pressure to loosen the regulation and oversight; others claim this reduction in oversight has been happening for decades. Palin and Kudlow proclaim "drill, drill, drill" and point to America's need for greater energy sources as an economic booster. Others blame President Obama for a failure to act swiftly. It's not clear what the government could have done differently, and the Coast Guard commander--in charge of the government's response--has assured the public that everything that can be done has been done. The government has no magic bullet. It seems BP has the robotic vessels and engineers who might be able to figure this out.

What is clear is that BP has as much at stake in shutting off the flow of oil as anyone (and, as Steve Pearlstein noted, they have stuck around to fix this). I don't doubt their intentions after the accident to do everything to stop the consequences. The information flow, however, has been less than transparent (e.g. the actual flow rate of oil is much worse than originally estimated by BP; the fact that all day Thursday the attempted top kill was actually not happening, even as BP gave the impression it might be working).

The public's lack of attention to this story for much of the past month reveals many facets of our modern culture. Abstract news stories about underwater oil leaks don't capture our news clicks. Editors and producers thus bury the news. Only in the past few days--once the live video feed of the action underwater has stormed the Web--have most news organizations started carrying the events on their front page (the significant exception to this has been the real-time and comprehensive news coverage from the Times-Picayune).

Likewise, our faith in technology assumes that we will conquer this. That same assumption is what made us empower corporations to drill for oil in ever deeper--and riskier--waters. Oil slicks on the surface, we suppose, can be cleaned up. We have faith in engineers with their robots and heavy mud to overcome the gushing oil from the abyss. Even when we screw up--and that's apparently what happened here with cut corners and faulty procedures--we can always fix the problem. The Exxon Valdez disaster got cleaned up, right? And the Gulf recovered after the 1979 Ixtoc 1 disaster, which Rush Limbaugh seized on to suggest this present crisis was really no big deal.

The more we think about the power of Dawn soap to clean the little birds covered in oil, the more we accept the risks that the oil drilling inherently carries. Rest assured that changes will occur to regulations and redundancy of safety systems will drive the cost of oil harvesting higher. But there will be more disasters like the Deepwater explosion.

And those are the risks we seem willing to accept. Over 30 years of efforts to reduce consumption has not changed the public's demand for oil. Our alternative energy policies still seem to be in the fetal stages, with many skeptical about their long-term viability.

Others, like the Manhattan Institute, will simply point out that from the perspective of the massive amount of oil that we humans harvest and transport, the rate of accidental spillage is proportionately low.

Whether one agrees with that assessment or not, what is true is that our demands for consumption will continue to out-pace our intolerance for the catastrophic effects of the occasional mass spill. We have instrumentalized natural resources and become ever more numb to the widespread consequences of our interventions into nature. Our faith in technology and human creativity is responsible for both phenomena. So long as we buy Dawn soap, and hope that blowout preventers are properly maintained, we will assume the risk. If it blows up, we will hope it can be fixed. And we will buy shrimp from other places for a while until the Gulf recovers. We share the bulk of the responsibility for the disaster.

So as we get into our vehicles powered by fossil fuels this Memorial Day holiday, take note that one consequence of harvesting that fuel will be splashing into the marshes of the Gulf and the gills of fish as you drive to your destination. This year, as the economy begins to grow again, about 6 percent more of us will be on the road than last year. Safe travels.

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An Oil-Driven Memorial Day