I don’t know about you, but it’s hard for me to imagine the scale of the catastrophe unfolding in the Gulf of Mexico. My friend sent me this link, which is certainly helpful in visualizing the size of the spill. (Not for the faint of heart.) But even that graphic representation doesn’t do justice to what’s actually going on. After all, tens of thousands of gallons of oil are continuing to pour forth, befouling the water, the shore, the wildlife, and the image of the mere mortals who are futilely trying to staunch the flow.
Forgive me, but at times those efforts — at least as they have been characterized by the media — have seemed like profoundly simplistic tactics, especially when compared to the sophistication of the techniques used to extract the oil.
They’ve tried lowering a big — and then a small – dome over it. The top hat? Please. Then filling it with drilling mud and — though they didn’t get that far — old golf balls and tires. Finally, they thought maybe they could just run a hose down there and suck that nasty oil right up to a waiting ship. When the word got out a few days ago that the feds and BP were including Hollywood director James Cameron in a group brainstorming possible solutions, it was almost enough to make me laugh out loud. Almost. (Cameron has since criticized the “morons” who wouldn’t hear him out.)
Whether or not James Cameron is smarter than everyone else, what’s obvious by now, and what is not the least bit laughable, is that there is not a single soul who understands what the best next step should be. There is not a single soul who envisioned this calamitous failure of man’s ingenuity.
And why should they have imagined it? After all, consider for a moment what a feat this kind of thing is. Most of us know that the wellhead is a mile beneath the surface of the ocean, but the oil bed itself is far, far deeper. BP was authorized to drill 18,000 feet below the seabed, but some reports suggests that they, in fact, drilled much deeper. Some say 22,000 feet. Think on that. That’s more than four miles beneath the surface of the earth. One commentator on NPR described it — in terms of the sheer bravado of its engineering — as no less remarkable than landing a man on the moon.
That we can locate oil at that depth is amazing enough. That we can drill down into it from a semi-submersible oil rig some 50 miles offshore and bring it forth to be commodified is, certainly by human measures, nothing short of a miracle. It’s certainly clear that BP felt that was the case. We know now that just before the rig exploded, a group of executives from the beleaguered firm were on board to celebrate the Deepwater Horizon’s safety record and its pending conversion from an exploration rig to a oil-producing rig. We all know what happened next.
Back in high school, my English teacher taught me about hubris with illustrations from classical literature. Achilles. Icarus. Macbeth. And for many years, I carried those examples around with me, imagining them to be pertinent only in the rarefied context of literary analysis. What I know now, of course, is that history is littered with examples of man’s folly, of his overbearing pride, and of his contempt for what the consequences of that pride may be.
According to this MSNBC story, BP’s chief executive office Tony Hayward told The Financial Times of London that it was “an entirely fair criticism” to say the company had not been fully prepared for a deepwater oil leak, going on to call the disaster a “low-probability, high-impact” accident.
Low probability. Right.
Thanks, Icarus. I feel so much better now.