Exploiting the spill
The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is a serious problem, and could get worse if the capping maneuver being attempted by BP fails. But the spill is not “Obama’s Katrina” (Rush Limbaugh) or “destroying North America” (Chris Mathews) or “a national tragedy” (Robert Redford). Except for the 11 workers who died, and their families, is the spill even a “disaster,” as is being said by practically everyone?
The recent history of serious environmental events is that as they occur, their significance is drastically exaggerated in media and political commentary: then little attention is paid when supposedly “destroyed” areas recover rapidly. When Mount Saint Helen’s exploded in 1980, many scientists said the local biosphere would require centuries to return to life; pundits said this would never happen.
Instead it took the area about 10 years for most wildlife and plant life (except mature trees, of course) to recover. When the Exxon Valdez spilled about 11 million gallons of oil into Prince William Sound in 1989, commentators called that an unprecedented calamity. Considerable harm was done, and some residual problems remain to this day. But aquatic and intertidal life were mainly back to normal in less than a decade.
We forget that the biosphere has been conditioned, over the eons, to resist and recover from far worse than oil spills – comet strikes, ice ages, super-volcanoes. Life would not be here if it were not able to resist insults worse than any caused by people. That does not excuse BP – the company deserves strong public condemnation – nor forgive the Interior Department for being in bed with big oil. (Surely this will make you feel safer.) But the sense of perspective is missing.
“I heard someone say last night this well could give off oil unfettered for the rest of our lives on Earth,” Brian Williams supposed on NBC Nightly News on Tuesday. “That’s right,” his guest replied. There is no chance that’s right, unless you have some reason to believe the human experiment is about to conclude. If similar past events are a guide, the spill will do less total damage than now expected, while recovery will happen faster than expected. Eleven people are dead, Louisiana wetlands and Gulf of Mexico fisheries are damaged. That is awful, but not the epic calamity being depicted.
So far the worst-case estimates for the volume of oil leaked are roughly in the range of the Amoco Cadiz oil spill of 1978. Wednesday morning, CNN quoted unnamed sources as saying oil is leaking at the rate that works out to about 60 million gallons so far.
The Amoco Cadiz oil spill was about 65 million gallon. That spill caused a broad range of problems for the Brittany coast and its tidal rivers, but no lasting “disaster” – Brittany has long since returned to being a magnet for tourism. BP’s estimates put the leak volume lower, at about 8 million gallons so far. That is a fraction of the 43 million gallons spilled by the Odyssey, and most likely you don’t know where or when that spill happened, let alone recall the event as a disaster. (The depressing inventory of major oil spills is here.)
Political convenience is a reason figures left and right are exaggerating the severity of the spill. Conservatives, who often downplay environmental concerns, suddenly are ultra-green and using the “Obama’s Katrina” nonsense to denounce the president. Katrina killed nearly 2,000 people and depopulated much of a major city: the Deepwater Horizon spill isn’t vaguely close in significance.
Republicans, among them Rep. John Mica of Florida, are waving around a timeline that shows Obama has spent less time in Louisiana in the aftermath of the spill than George W. Bush spent in the same number of days following Katrina. Conservative talk radio host Jeff Kuhner denounced Obama for planning to go to Chicago over Memorial Day weekend, rather than go to the Gulf – to what, personally clean a bird? (Now the president will head to Louisiana.)
Bush was unfairly slammed by Democrats for not visiting New Orleans immediately after the hurricane – and now the same sort of unfair criticism is being directed at Obama. The elder George Bush was unfairly slammed for not going to Prince William Sounds, as if the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, who went immediately, wasn’t the appropriate person. The key question for any of these presidents isn’t whether they went to the scene for an admiring photo-op, the key question is whether they directed an effective response.
Democrats are using the Gulf spill for political purposes, too. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has said the spill means greenhouse-gas regulations should be enacted immediately. The two concerns are unrelated; greenhouse restrictions, if already law, would not have prevented the Deepwater Horizon from exploding, nor ended demand for its oil. Democrats including Rep. Edward Markey demanded the BP video of the leak be shown live. If the goal was raising public awareness of U.S. oil addiction, showing the leak video makes sense; but the goal is to generate politically embarrassing images.
There’s a financial aspect to the exaggeration, too. Billions of dollars in federal payments went to Louisiana after Katrina. The clock on those payments has run out – and now many in Louisiana, perhaps the nation’s most corrupt state, see the spill as a chance to resume reaching into the nation’s pocket. “These people are crying, they’re begging for something… we’re about to die down here,” Louisiana’s Democratic political operative James Carville said Tuesday on ABC’s Good Morning America, speaking from New Orleans. An absurd excess of overstatement, or an appeal for yet another federal giveaway?
After mostly-Republican Alaska was showered with special payments in the wake of the Exxon Valdez, many Alaskans began to wish for more handouts. PLEASE GOD, JUST ONE MORE SPILL was a common bumper-sticker in Alaska about a decade ago. Now Louisiana finds itself with a political incentive to make it seem the oil spill is a second Katrina.
For the media, the spill is that most-desirable of stories – visual bad news. “You turn on the television and see this enormous disaster,” California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger said a few days ago, announcing he now opposes offshore drilling. (Everyone wants unlimited amounts of gasoline that comes from that magical place, Somewhere Else.) Greenhouse gases are many orders of magnitude more troubling, as environmental and as social issues, than an oil spill. But they’re invisible. They’re terrible television. The spill is really good television.
Institutional Washington benefits from exaggerating the severity of oil harm in the Gulf. The Deepwater Horizon explosion “has unleashed a gusher of congressional hearings that may prove nearly as hard to cap as the blown well,” Associated Press reporter Tom Raum noted. With an election approaching, politicians of both parties want to be televised while fulminating about the spill or BP or Obama’s response – though many now appearing on the tube to comment on drilling mud and blowout preventers six weeks ago didn’t even know a Minerals Management Service existed.
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano has made trips to the Gulf to view the spill and speak for the cameras. Interior, the EPA and the Coast Guard have good reasons to be dealing with the spill: for Homeland Security, perhaps the spill can be leveraged into some nice empire-building. Many in Washington right now are pondering how the oil slick can be exploited to increase their budgets.
The Deepwater Horizon spill is a terrible event that has taken 11 lives, harmed Louisiana, and could get worse if the leak isn’t stopped soon. But the environmental harm is likely to be less, and shorter-lived, than commentary suggests. Meanwhile about 3,400 people have died in auto accidents in the United States since the day that drill platform exploded. The vehicles involved in the crashes that killed those 3,400 people were running on petroleum – and we would be entirely outraged if ample amounts weren’t available. Close to 100 Americans will die in traffic accidents today, and little or nothing is done, let alone an “enormous disaster” proclaimed. Perspective is not the strong point of American politics.
WILL BP CHANGE ITS NAME TO BS?
Footnote: one reason anger about the spill did not seem to build for the first two weeks is that BP over the last decade has done a masterful job of buying public opinion. CEOs John Browne and now Tony Hayward have been fixtures at environmental conferences and think tanks, saying all the right things about clean energy and corporate governance. BP was a leading donor to Barack Obama when he was a senator and spent $15.9 million in 2009 on U.S. lobbying, Erika Lovley of Politico recently reported.
Crafty image-creation — and the CEOs’ tasteful British accents, no Texas drawls — seemed to blind the Washington and New York establishments to BP’s record. The Deepwater Horizon blast wasn’t some weird anomaly for BP – in 2005, one of the company’s refineries exploded, killing 15 workers. Five years later, BP is still fighting a $87 million federal fine for some 300 safety violations at the facility. Here is the Center for Public Integrity on BP. Here is Second City satirizing BP’s self-serving image ads. At this point the company needs a slogan to replace “Beyond Petroleum.”
BP: Pillaging the Environment One Ocean at a Time
BP: We Make Goldman Sachs Look Responsible
BP: George III’s Revenge