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Ignorance and Greed Compete for Primacy: The Slick Politics of Oil Spills

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In the world of aviation, if a systemic flaw is found in the design of an aircraft, usually following a deadly crash, the entire fleet is grounded until the problem is fully characterized and fixed. In 1979 the FAA grounded the entire DC-10 fleet because of "grave deficiencies in the structure which attaches the engine to the wing" discovered after what was then the nation's worst air disaster. In 1995 the FAA grounded 6000 general aviation aircraft. In 1998 the FAA grounded 282 Boeing 737s. Two years ago the FAA grounded 300 MD80s, causing the cancellation of more than 500 flights, because of a problem with the auxiliary hydraulic system. These actions cause huge economic and social disruptions that ripple throughout the country. But in spite of the high cost, authorities must act when a fundamental flaw is revealed; anything else would be the equivalent of playing Russian roulette with thousands of lives.

NASA grounded the shuttle fleet for nearly three years after the 1986 Challenger disaster. As with commercial aviation, this action came at great cost because during this interval the United States had no means of launching astronauts into space. The fleet was only certified to fly again after intense research unambiguously identified the cause of the accident, a potential fix was identified, and the proposed solution exhaustively tested.

Now we are faced with another national disaster following the explosion of the Deep Horizon platform in the Gulf of Mexico that left 11 workers dead and crude oil pouring uncontrollably into the Gulf of Mexico. Of course all Americans would want to put a moratorium on further deep sea drilling until the cause of the explosion was understood, measures were put in place to prevent further environmental and economic calamities, and methods were available to cap deep water wells should another problem arise. As any responsible leader would, President Obama prudently halted deep water drilling for six months.

As with the shuttle disaster, the oil spill resulted from a combination of technology and systems failures, perverse incentives and a culture that grew complacent in the face of growing risks. As authorities did with the shuttle, Obama grounded the "fleet" of deep sea rigs until we better understand the full extent of the problem, how to minimize the chances for future calamity and how best to respond should the worst occur.

Finally we have a circumstance in which all Americans can come together and agree on a shared set of commonsense principles. Well, no we do not. Mississippi's Republican governor, Haley Barbour, claims that the temporary moratorium on offshore drilling is worse than the effects of 120 million gallons of oil spilling into the Gulf, and still counting. Governor Bobby Jindal of Louisiana in a tangle of confusion, contradiction and hypocrisy, vigorously opposes the temporary ban with the explanation that "the last thing we need is to enact public policies that will certainly destroy thousands of existing jobs while preventing the creation of thousands more." This is the guy who rails against big government while begging the federal government to "do more" to help in the Gulf; he laments BP's irresponsibility while opposing closer industry oversight.

Opposition to the moratorium and concern about jobs makes little sense with close scrutiny, even if we exclude Jindal's haze of hypocrisy. Let us first look at jobs. Opponents talk with great angst about oil rig workers losing jobs during the moratorium, but somehow fail to conjure up equivalent concern for the fisherman now out of work or the hotel and restaurant workers who will no longer get a paycheck with the implosion of tourism. Opponents fail to properly weigh the long-term interests of public safety and environmental integrity against short-term economic solutions. Did anybody argue that DC10s should not be grounded because it would cost jobs at the factory in Long Beach? Of course not. Opponents also fail to acknowledge that jobs do not trump all other social and economic concerns. What if the jobs in question were to take oil stored in large tanks on shore and dump raw crude into the water all day long? Would anybody get up and say we must not stop the practice in order to preserve jobs? The fact of employment does not make everything else off limits for discussion. Finally, opponents are blind to alternatives to unemployment for rig workers impacted by the moratorium. For much less than the public cost of cleanup, the government could pay the full salary of every worker who lost a job and retrain them to work in the growing field renewable energy, making wind turbines for example. Invoking job loss to oppose the moratorium might make good TV but certainly not good policy.

Opponents of the moratorium are asking the public to continue flying DC10s before engineers can figure out how to keep the engines from falling off and killing everybody on board. After watching a fiery crash killing hundreds of passengers, would you get on the airplane until the problem was identified and solved? No? Then why would we continue drilling until we understand how to prevent future calamities? Moratorium opponents are willing to risk another explosion just like Deep Horizon's, willing to risk more deaths and hundreds of millions of gallons of oil pouring anew into the Gulf, all in the name of "jobs" of the oil workers at the expense of every other job in the Gulf. The situation becomes even more bizarre when we consider that the opponents in their own words acknowledge they are incapable of working in 5000 feet of water to solve the problem. Let's listen in:

"This scares everybody, the fact that we can't make this well stop flowing, the fact that we haven't succeeded so far," BP chief operating officer Doug Suttles.

Anticipating the attempt to use a containment dome to stem the flow, we heard that, "This has never been done in 5,000 feet of water... so we'll undoubtedly encounter some issues as we go through that process." BP CEO Tony Hayward

"Almost everything we're trying here has never been done before at these depths." BP chief operating officer Doug Suttles

Prior to the attempted "top kill" fix, which ultimately failed, we were told that:

"It has never been done in 5,000 feet of water; if it was on land, we have a high confidence of success. Because it's in 5,000 feet of water, we need to be realistic about the issues operating in a mile of water. We rate the probability of success between 60% and 70%." BP CEO Tony Hayward

"This has never been done in these sorts of depths at all before. This is 5000 feet." BP Spokesman Jon Pak

Yet in the face of this reality, with the clearly acknowledged inability to work in 5000 feet, Jindal, Barbour and their supporters want to keep doing the same thing as if the Deep Horizon explosion never took place. They not only want you to fly the DC10, they want you to do so while admitting they cannot fix the problem. Sure the engines might fall off, but hop on board. I cannot recall in recent times a more irresponsible position taken by public figures. The only explanation for this outrageous behavior is greed. The allure of revenue from oil is simply too great for the Gulf states to jeopardize, no matter the cost in lives, jobs and environmental degradation.

If the moratorium on deep sea drilling is to be opposed, the only rational reason would be to object to the six month time frame. The moratorium should be indefinite until we have the technology to work in 5000 feet of water to contain a blow out or other problems that can arise. Simply stating that "this has never been done before in 5000 feet" does not cut it. That technological barrier should have been considered prior to drilling. Working one mile under water without the capability of fixing problems at those depths like going to a surgeon who can open you up but has not yet learned how to suture you closed.

I have heard only one reasonable argument against the moratorium: that preventing drilling here will simply drive deep drilling to countries and waters over which we have even less control, which would further endanger the environment. In theory the argument is sound, but in practice has little value. Moving a deep water rig, or building a new one, is a gargantuan task itself full of risk and terribly costly. The economics of a temporary ban would hardly warrant such exposure, and in fact the actual reaction to the moratorium proves the point.

The depths of Republican depravity have never ceased to amaze me, but opposition to a six month deep drilling moratorium is a new low. Such opposing is the height of irresponsibility, bordering on criminal negligence. Nothing can justify the position except an appeal to ignorance and greed, which seem to be the new currency of the GOP.


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