Ian Guidry stopped shoveling the brown ooze off the beach at Grande Terre island on the Louisiana coast long enough to survey the dark line of oil marking high tide. He was happy to have this job, since the blowout of the Deepwater Horizon oil drilling rig had shut down the local economy; but he was eager to do this work for more than just the money. “I want my children to be able to experience what I experienced,” he told America. He grew up near Grand Isle, a popular summer surf and sport-fishing resort. No sooner had Mr. Guidry shoveled some oil off the beach than the surf rolled in with more. Does he think this apparently futile effort will achieve his goal? Mr. Guidry turned away a second to regard the beach. “I don’t think it will ever be the same again,” he said.
Dead pelicans and porpoises have already washed ashore not far from the site of Mr. Guidry’s labors; oil-covered survivors were being rushed to treatment. The oil’s rainbow sheen covers the Gulf waters, and for those who watch the brown blotches of oil rolling and turning in the current like drifting autumn leaves, it is hard not to pause a moment to grieve for the crime being commited against God’s creation. “What have we done,” a reporter at the site wondered aloud in a half-joking, half broken-hearted apology to circling pelicans.
British Petroleum will bear the heaviest responsibility for the unnatural disaster unfolding in the Gulf of Mexico. During the last three years, BP has committed 829 of the 851 willful health and safety violations among all the refiners cited by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. After a series of deadly incidents and smaller ecological accidents, BP’s record of irresponsibility makes the case that Deepwater Horizon was simply an accident waiting to happen. The company placed profit over safety and in its arrogance chased oil into the depths without a clear, practiced and reliable recovery plan in the event of disaster. We are all living with the predictable outcome of its monumental carelessness. It would be a disservice, however, to the survivors of the 11 men who lost their lives on April 20 and to the suffering of the people, wildlife and ecology of the Gulf states if the shame and the culpability ended with BP.
Our government performed badly long before the blowout and sinking of the Deepwater Horizon when it abdicated its appropriate oversight role. Staff members of the Minerals Management Service were caught accepting gifts from oil industry executives, snorting cocaine and bed-hopping with industry employees. And government reliance on BP for expertise, which the company lacked, and rapid response, which it failed to achieve, indicates that the United States, in its eagerness to promote a dependable energy supply, has for decades ceded too much authority to powerful multinational corporations. The scale of this disaster might have been hard to predict, but the possibility of it certainly was not. Where were the back-ups to the back-up plan? Why, after years of deep-water oil exploration, should this one event prove so confounding? More to the point, if the scale of the Deepwater Horizon disaster truly exceeds the capacity of all industry and federal agencies to respond, then why is this method of resource extraction allowed in the first place?
The American public also bears responsibility as a consumer society living beyond its means. We have been in denial about our appetites, unwilling to make the sacrifices required by a real world of diminishing fossil fuel reserves and content to divert risk elsewhere. Americans say they want small government and limited regulatory intervention; then they express surprise when government cannot respond to big crises or has not done a better job preventing them. We disparage civil service employees and skimp on their salaries, then complain about Washington’s “revolving door” when regulators retire to become lobbyists or industry experts. And while many Americans support alternative energy, most resist an extra tax at the pump that could propel its development. We cannot have it both ways.
We could start to change our ways by redoubling conservation efforts. We could turn our backs on “cap and trade” for the boondoggle it is and embrace the more effective carbon tax instead. It would not require much to put off dangerous proposals for Arctic exploration indefinitely. The deep ocean is not merely a difficult site from which to extract resources; it is part of a beautiful, breathtaking gift for all generations to share, preserve and pass on. We have failed in our responsibility as its stewards. An accounting wizard may someday tally up the cost of this oil spill and the cleanup to taxpayers, the fishing and tourist industries and the unfortunate residents of the Gulf states and deliver a comprehensive bill to BP executives. But no human can calculate the cost of the disaster to the marshes and the ocean and the wildlife, to God’s good creation. God may forgive us; our grandchildren may not be so merciful.