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Tapping A Beast

by Rudy M. Baum
June 14, 2010 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 88, Issue 24

The video feed is absolutely mesmerizing, if utterly monotonous. It looks like dirty blackish-brown smoke billowing furiously from some sort of metal contraption. We know, however, that it is a mixture of crude oil and natural gas boiling out of Earth a mile below the surface of the Gulf of Mexico. There is nothing anyone can do to stop it. It is the environmental catastrophe that is the blown BP well that tapped into the Macondo oil deposit off the coast of Louisiana.

This week’s cover story focuses on many aspects of the spill, from the environmental impacts of the oil and efforts to disperse it to the regulatory failures that contributed to the disaster. Senior Correspondent Jeff Johnson and Assistant Editor Michael Torrice collaborated on the main feature, and Johnson and Senior Editors Melody Voith and Bethany Halford contributed sidebars.

Substantial original reporting went into producing this comprehensive report. No one, for instance, was particularly interested in discussing the volume of Corexit oil dispersant BP has been spraying on the surface of the Gulf and directly onto the spill. One source told Voith that, if she really wanted to know, she could check the daily logs at the Deepwater Horizon Response website. So she did—one day at a time since the spraying began. The result is the graph on page 23 that clearly shows that the Environmental Protection Agency and BP don’t see eye-to-eye on the use of Corexit.

After reading the C&EN article and the outstanding coverage of events leading up to the spill that has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, and Washington Post, one cannot help but be outraged at the arrogance of BP and the utter ineptitude of the Minerals Management Service (MMS), the government agency charged with regulating oil development on the outer continental shelf. According to these reports, the Macondo oil field had given BP numerous warnings that it was an unruly beast of an oil field.

Every sign from the well said loud and clear, “This field should be treated with the utmost caution and respect.” Every decision about how to proceed with drilling and cementing the well should have been informed by worst-case scenarios. In fact, every decision by BP and every MMS waiver granted to the oil giant seems to have been based on best-case scenarios. The attitude at BP and MMS appears to have been, “Nothing is going to go wrong,” even while experts on the scene cautioned that, in fact, it looked like things might go very wrong. And they did.

Moving Forward on a New Foundation
Credit: Courtesy of The White House
President Obama speaks at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, PA.

If BP had a record of correctly factoring in risks associated with its businesses, it would be easier to grant the company some slack. But it deserves no such slack. BP is a walking nightmare when it comes to managing risk. All public relations aside, BP has, by its actions over the past decade, proven itself to be an outlaw among petroleum companies, wanton in its disregard for the environment and the safety of its workers.

That said, what are we doing drilling for oil in 5,000 feet of water and through 13,000 more feet of Earth? Because we can do it doesn’t mean we should be doing it or that it makes sense to be doing it. In a speech last week at Carnegie Mellon University, President Obama acknowledged as much, saying, “An America run solely on fossil fuels should not be the vision we have for our children and grandchildren.” He went on to say, “The only way the transition to clean energy will ultimately succeed is if the private sector is fully invested in this future—if capital comes off the sidelines and the ingenuity of our entrepreneurs is unleashed. And the only way to do that is by finally putting a price on carbon pollution.”

The President promised to work tirelessly to make that happen so that the “next generation will not be held hostage to energy sources from the last century.” It’s what we need to do, and we need to do it now.

Thanks for reading.

Rudy Baum



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