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BP's Hole in the World: The Absurdity of the Fix-It Mentality

The BP disaster shows how little control even the most ingenious among us have over the intricately interconnected natural forces with which we so casually meddle.

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The metaphor changed with the unlocking of some (but by no means all) of nature's mysteries during the Scientific Revolution of the 1600s. With nature now cast as a machine, devoid of mystery or divinity, its component parts could be dammed, extracted and remade with impunity. Nature still sometimes appeared as a woman, but one easily dominated and subdued. In 1623 Sir Francis Bacon best encapsulated the new ethos when he wrote in De Dignitate et Augmentis Scientiarum that nature is to be "put in constraint, molded, and made as it were new by art and the hand of man."

Those words may as well have been BP's corporate mission statement. Boldly inhabiting what the company called "the energy frontier," it dabbled in synthesizing methane-producing microbes and announced that "a new area of investigation" would be geo-engineering. And it bragged that, at its Tiber prospect in the Gulf of Mexico, it had "the deepest well ever drilled by the oil and gas industry"—as deep under the ocean floor as jets fly overhead.

Imagining and preparing for what would happen if these experiments went wrong occupied precious little space in the corporate imagination. As we have all discovered, after the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded, the company had no systems in place to respond effectively. Explaining why it did not have even the ultimately unsuccessful containment dome waiting to be activated onshore, BP spokesman Steve Rinehart said, "I don't think anybody foresaw the circumstance that we're faced with now." Apparently, it "seemed inconceivable" that the blowout preventer would ever fail—so why prepare?

This refusal to contemplate failure clearly came straight from the top. A year ago Hayward told a group of graduate students at Stanford University that he has a plaque on his desk that reads, "If you knew you could not fail, what would you try?" Far from being a benign inspirational slogan, this is actually an accurate description of how BP and its competitors behave in the real world. In recent hearings on Capitol Hill, Congressman Ed Markey of Massachusetts grilled representatives from the top oil and gas companies on the ways they had allocated resources. Over three years, they had spent "$39 billion to explore for new oil and gas. Yet the average investment in research and development for safety, accident prevention and spill response was a paltry $20 million a year."

These priorities go a long way toward explaining why the "Initial Exploration Plan" BP submitted to the government for the ill-fated Deepwater Horizon well reads like a Greek tragedy about human hubris. The phrase "little risk" appears five times. Even if there is a spill, BP confidently predicts that, thanks to "proven equipment and technology," adverse effects will be minimal. Presenting nature as a predictable and agreeable junior partner (or perhaps subcontractor), the report cheerfully explains that should a spill occur, "Currents and microbial degradation would remove the oil from the water column or dilute the constituents to background levels." The effects on fish, meanwhile, "would likely be sublethal" because of "the capability of adult fish and shellfish to avoid a spill [and] to metabolise hydrocarbons." (In BP's telling, rather than a dire threat, a spill emerges as an all-you-can-eat buffet for aquatic life.)

Best of all, should a major spill occur, there is apparently "little risk of contact or impact to the coastline" because of the company's projected speedy response (!) and "the distance [from the rig] to shore"—about forty-eight miles. This is the most astonishing claim of all. In a gulf that often sees winds of more than forty miles an hour, not to mention hurricanes, BP had so little respect for the ocean's capacity to ebb and flow, surge and heave, that it did not think oil could make a paltry forty-eight-mile trip. (In mid-June a shard of the exploded Deepwater Horizon showed up on a beach in Florida, 190 miles away.)

 
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