Saturday, June 05, 2010

Fatal error

Oops. We killed it. All of it. That is the short version of the BP disaster.

The long version is that they chose to drill deep into the earth, starting a mile under the ocean, without having any back-up plan whatsoever for the event of a catastrophic failure of their equipment or methods. No back-up plan whatsoever, no effective back-up plan in existence, and they did not even choose to use the best available accident-prevention technology that is required to be used in other places, such as in the off-shore waters Brazil and Norway. To save a few bucks ($500,000), BP chose not to install remote-controlled or acoustic-controlled triggers for their ill-fated blow-out preventer. Although this might not have worked either, at least they could then have claimed to be using “best available” technology.

The real question is: Why is such deepwater drilling even allowed, when the catastrophic failure potential is so catastrophic, when there are no effective remedies to mitigate such failures?

BP’s main response to this grotesque debacle of their own creation has been the application of huge quantities of “dispersants” to the monstrous plume of crude, and I would conclude that their motivation in doing this is only to mask the full extent of the “spill” (a word that is vastly too miniscule for use in this context).

Why would we want to “disperse” the plume to cover an even greater area anyway? This just magnifies the extent of the clean-up that must be done, and breaking up the crude oil just makes it more likely to be consumed by wildlife at all depths. The dispersant itself is toxic too, so why would we choose to make the situation even worse? The widespread assumption seems to be that “dispersants” are a good thing, but all they really accomplish is to make the situation look better to overflights.

The figure of 40% has been widely used in news reports as the reduction to the US seafood harvest as a direct and immediate result of this spill. But that is only the beginning. As the oil kills the vegetation on the barrier islands (and any living creatures so unlucky as to be living there), the barrier islands will erode, i.e., disappear forever. As the barrier islands disappear, so will the coastline of the continent be hit. As the coastline marshes disappear due to the death of their vegetation, and erosion ensues, the coastal areas will have lost their main defense against storms, and even more damage (and oil contamination, and vegetation death, and erosion) will take place.

Ocean creatures over a huge expanse will disappear, even those who normally spend only small parts of their lives in the Gulf during seasonal migrations. Birds, mammals, fish, invertebrates, plankton, protists, plants—every living thing will disappear from these vast expanses of ocean and coastal waters, and with them will go the intricate food webs and normal oxygen production. This is a dead zone that will last for decades, and that will have a vast reach, and that cannot be effectively remediated by humans, no matter how we may wish otherwise. We can, however, make it a lot worse; for that we only need to use dispersants by the hundreds of thousands of gallons, as we are presently doing.

BP has made a fatal error (actually a string of fatal errors). Their actions directly caused the immediate deaths of 11 rig workers, and serious injuries to 17 rig workers (probably severely burned, but where is this ever noted in the news reports?), and toxic exposures to clean-up workers, and uncountable wildlife deaths, and BP has killed a large proportion of the Gulf of Mexico, as well as the coastlines of at least three states. BP made this final fatal error based solely on their desire to maximize cost-savings—by ignoring the warnings of rig workers who noted problems with the capping process, and by doing the underwater well technology on the cheap by omitting the acoustic- or remote-controlled triggers for their blow-out preventer (and who knows how many other short-cuts they took along the way).

In making these choices, BP has created a Pandora’s Box situation, where in their efforts to access the riches within, they now cannot get the lid back on no matter how hard they try. BP has loosed death on a incomprehensibly massive scale onto the Gulf, and while this will cost them a pretty penny now, their cost pales in comparison the what the rest of us, and the sea life, and the coastal regions, and the biosphere itself will have to pony up.

Will we learn anything at all from this? Will we learn that some technologies are too big to be allowed to fail, and therefore cannot be used, ever? That is the most doubtful outcome of all, as humanity seems to be hell-bent on rushing headlong to its own demise.

Humanity’s greatest asset, supposedly, is the frontal lobe in our collective cranium, the mass of intertwined neurons that allows us to speculate in any situation: “and then what?” So why is no one in charge of such technologies using this, our unique and immensely valuable talent? Could it be that the structure of corporations simply does not allow it? That the immediate bottom line trumps all else, just like in the “decisions” to be made by a cancerous tumor? The corporation says “I want it all now” and its minions have no choice but to obey or be destroyed.

Indeed, we have created a monster in these amoral corporations, and the monster cares not a whit about life—not ours, not the pelican’s or turtle’s or dolphin’s, not the ocean’s, not the planet's, not even its own life; its only directive is to grow, and consume, and grow, and consume, and grow…ad nauseum…ad infinitum…and so we reap the whirlwind.
Photo: Charlie Riedel/AP