May 29, 2010

Who is to Blame? Making Sense of The Gulf Oil Disaster

After the American Century

I gave an interview to the New Orleans Times Picayune a few days ago. The reporter was rightly interested in the American tendency to believe that all problems have technological solutions. If oil drilling technology created an underground gusher of oil, surely some other technology ought to be able to stop it. And if the solution was not found quickly, then it must be someone's fault. Lately the media has been debating whether it is the President's fault.
Karl Rove - surely the least trustworthy man in American politics - has made the argument that the oil leak is "Obama's Katrina" -  one of the most idiotic arguments ever. But logic has never been the strong point in American politics, and perhaps not in the education of journalists either. So let us do a comparison of Katrina and the oil leak, and see how well they compare.

Katrina was a hurricane, and the last time I checked that makes it a natural phenomena, of the sort known often to hit Louisiana. The federal government had spent years making plans and building defenses to protect New Orleans against a category 4 or 5 hurricane. However, the Bush Administration cut back funds to improve the levees around New Orleans, and George W. Bush specifically appointed a political hack as chief administrator to deal with such crises. The entire world knew that Hurricane Katrina was headed for the Louisiana coast, and the failure of the local, state, and federal authorities were many, both before and during the disaster. People died because of their incompetence, not least in the evacuation of the city.

A deep-water oil drilling disaster is a man-made phenomena. Moreover, no one saw it coming on a radar screen for days beforehand, as was the case with Hurricane Katrina. The explosion, fire, and oil leak resulted from the failure of a new kind of oil drilling, and unlike a hurricane, the specific accident was not foreseeable days in advance. The permit to do this kind of drilling came from the Bush-Cheney government, and it is worth noting that both Bush and Cheney worked as executives in the oil industry before coming to Washington. 

In contrast to a hurricane which is beyond human control, oil drilling is a human activity, in this case run by British Petroleum or BP. They were responsible for building the platform, and drilling from a point that was about one mile down in the ocean. BP was present at the site before, during and after the accident and "leak", so one might think that BP and more generally the oil industry, is to blame. People died because of BP's incompetence, but no one died because of anything Obama has done in this matter. 

Moreover, the oil industry gave the federal government assurances that deep water oil wells would be safe. Perhaps they lied, perhaps they are just incompetent, but one thing is certain: the oil industry was a whole was not ready to deal with the disaster. They failed to make contingency plans. They failed, in effect, to construct the protections, the levees if you will, that were needed. The oil industry was not prepared to defend the shoreline or the fishing industry against a massive oil spill. The oil industry decided, as it usually does, to put profits first.

And speaking of profits, BP had a profit of more than $4 billion in the fourth quarter of 2009, and it made even more in the first quarter of 2010, a rather tidy $6.1. That is more than $10 billion in the last six months. Why is BP making so much money? The price of crude oil has almost doubled in the last year, but the cost of extraction has actually gone down slightly, (see CBS news). BP, which is not even the largest or most profitably oil company, could have afforded to make contingency plans. Exxon made a profit of $45 billion in 2008 and continues to rack up big profits. If such companies cared about more than the bottom line they would have jointly funded a permanent task force  that is always ready to deal with oil leaks and spills. The oil industry could have been prepared. Instead, they just kept drilling and hoped to pass on the bill, and the responsibility, to someone else.

Yet even had they prepared, and this was my point when speaking with the Times Picayune, Americans tend to think that there is a technological fix. Not all problems can be quickly solved, and not all powerful natural phenomena can be stopped. Human beings might be able to provoke a volcanic eruption, but we cannot stop one.  BP opened a hole that let the oil escape into the Gulf of Mexico. Plugging that hole is harder than drilling it in the first place. Tampering with powerful natural forces can get us in over our heads, and Americans need to understand that  smart technology may not always be immediately available to get them out of trouble.

So, blame the oil companies for not being prepared, for not investing very much of their enormous profits in accident prevention or oil leak protection. Blame the Bush-Cheney oil-friendly administration for allowing this kind of drilling in the first place, and for not assuring that the safeguards were adequate. But do not imagine that just because human beings can create a problem, we can always create a solution. As our technologies grow more powerful, the responsibility to use them carefully increases exponentially.

If you want to read more along these lines, most libraries have a copy of my Technology Matters (MIT Press, 2006).

After I wrote this blog, BP admitted that it did not have adequate technical know-how to deal with the problem they had created.