Forty days and forty nights is a period of time rich in religious imagery. It is also, sadly, the measure to-date of the ecological disaster occurring off the coast of Louisiana. Today, I hope the prayers of all Americans are focused on the efforts deep in the Gulf of Mexico to stop the flow of oil from the broken undersea oil rig that blew up almost 40 days ago.
The disaster in the Gulf raises many issues. It turns out that big oil, which has recorded the largest profits in the history of the human race in recent years, failed to devise much in the way of tested and proven safety measures in the event of a catastrophic explosion. An investigation will determine the degree to which shortcuts were undertaken around safety measures, or whether the safety measures were simply insufficient, and the degree to which any of this was the result of conscious decision-making by executives looking to run risks to increase profits.
To be sure, all business ventures run risks, but it is one thing to run a risk with your investors’ money and another to run a risk with a delicate ecosystem that supports the livelihood of others. No one gave British Petroleum the right to ruin the Gulf of Mexico. Unless and until we devise safety measures that really do eliminate the risk of another disaster like the current one, all off-shore drilling should be forbidden. By "we," I mean the government. Entrusting the capping of the well to the company that caused the problem in the first place has been exceedingly frustrating and I was frankly shocked that the government had not already devised the equivalent of a fire brigade to deal with such problems.
Of course, BP did not just run risks. Evidently, BP and the other oil companies also ran the equivalent of a bordello for the government officials charged with oversight of their activities. The administration’s proposal to separate the leasing function from the oversight function is the first step towards rooting out the corruption in the Minerals Management Service not the last. Criminal prosecutions should be pursued as well.
When the final bill for the efforts to cap the well, and for the clean-up of the damage, comes due, it will be important to ask ourselves: How could that money have been better spent? How many wind turbines could have been built? How many improvements to mass transit? Our voracious appetite for energy needs to focus on renewable sources, not on ever deeper off-shore oil wells, or rigs in the more remote, and therefore pristine, areas of the Arctic. The catastrophe in the Gulf was an accident, to be sure, but it was an accident waiting to happen. It cannot be allowed to happen again.
Michael Sean Winters