by Colby Parker
Written for Liberal Arts Freshman Seminar: Consumption & Waste (LARTS 221, Fall 2011)
At 10:45 P.M. on April 20, 2010, an intense orange glow illuminated the dark waters of the Gulf of Mexico. A pressurized bubble of methane gas had escaped from the Macondo seafloor oil well, blown through several seals, and traveled up a steel drilling shaft to the surface, where it ignited an oil rig named the Deepwater Horizon. After two days of burning, the Deepwater Horizon finally slipped under the surface approximately 41 miles off the coast of Louisiana. Eleven members of the 126-person crew died, and seventeen more were injured. The ruptured Macondo well continued to spew oil into the ocean, persisting against efforts to seal it until July 15. At 4.9 million barrels (205.8 million gallons), the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe is the largest accidental oil spill in history (Achenbach and Fahrenthold). Oil spread not only throughout ocean ecosystems, but also to the Gulf coastline, damaging wetlands, beaches, and the economies that rely on them, including fishing, shrimping, and tourism. The scale and circumstances made the disaster central to national discourse well past the three months that oil gushed into the Gulf. One particularly revealing part of the conversation is the series of press releases published by British Petroleum (BP), the company operating the Deepwater Horizon during the explosion. BP’s representation of the Gulf disaster asserts that an oil production system that admits the occasional spill is acceptable and need not change. Moreover, when their representation is viewed alongside the meager political response to the disaster, our reliance on reform through free market retribution rather than government oversight is laid bare.
BP presents the Deepwater Horizon disaster as a mitigable and unremarkable part of modern life. In their fifth press release after the rig fire, titled “BP Forges Ahead With Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill Response,” the company affirms a commitment to plugging the leak, describes the resources available for containing and dispersing the oil slick, and lists organizations with which they are cooperating. Tony Hayward, the company’s CEO, provides a pithy statement: “We are attacking this spill on two fronts—at the wellhead and on the surface offshore.” The release’s tone is confident and reassuring, from this go-get-’em CEO quotation to the use of words like “secure [the well],” “comprehensive [response plan],” and “specialized [response techniques].” Contributing to this tone of security is the use of the word “spill” to describe the released oil, which makes the amount of oil sound finite, rather than a constantly growing, gushing fountain. Visually, the press release is a dead, unstimulating list of text blocks. Only one section stands out to draw the eye: a centered, inset, bulleted list of BP’s impressive response statistics, including the readiness of “100,000 gallons of dispersant . . . 32 spill response vehicles . . . and 5 aircraft.” But with this touted list of resources, there is no scale to the statistics, no estimate of how many aircraft or dispersant gallons will be needed, no idea of whether those 32 vehicles will be enough to cover the entire Gulf of Mexico (as the spill widened, BP began hiring civilian boats to try to fence in the oil with a program called “Vessels of Opportunity”) (“Vessels”). BP provides only partial context—a theme recurrent throughout the press release. There is no mention of what caused the fire in the first place, why the blowout preventer did not function correctly, or whether all safety measures were installed, practiced, and properly implemented. But the release is designed to blow right past the absence of that information by focusing on the (abstract) size of the response and using optimistic language. The effect is to make spills sound like familiar, customary events BP almost expects to occur, events that can be smoothly controlled and defused. If there’s nothing extraordinary about oil spills, they don’t really require any special attention, certainly not any new regulation, and there’s absolutely no need to consider alternative fuel sources.
This attitude obscures the true human and environmental impact of oil spills. As Oceana Magazine’s Simon Mahan writes,
“The Deepwater Drilling Disaster is not an isolated incident. Since 2006, the U.S. Minerals Management Service reports there have been at least 21 offshore rig blowouts, 513 fires or explosions offshore and 30 fatalities from offshore oil and gas activities in the Gulf of Mexico. Just last year, a new offshore oil drilling rig off the coast of Australia had a similar blowout, and spewed approximately 16,800 gallons of crude oil daily into the Timor Sea for about 75 days.”
In an age of global connections, an entire country can be aware of these spills, but only a handful of people live the consequences, which can make most people see spills as trivial or easily tolerable. And often, the people (or organisms) who do not experience the effects make policy decisions for the people (or organisms) who do. In her examination of how societies define their wastelands, Valerie Kuletz concludes, “Within the context of a nuclear society that produces deadly byproducts that alter and transform the earth and living organisms, those paying the highest price for advanced technologies are often those for whom technology offers the least benefits” (14). In the case of the Deepwater Horizons spill, fishing, tourism, and real estate along the coast all experienced massive damage, and eleven members of the rig’s crew died, but all of those people did depend on petroleum. The wild spaces and creatures of the Gulf region, however, do not benefit from mankind’s use of oil, but they still pay for our energy with their lives. Julia Kumari Drapkin, an environmental reporter for Public Radio International, identifies the animals at the greatest risk from the oil as bluefin tuna, sea turtles, sharks, marine mammals, brown pelicans, oysters, shrimp, blue crab, marsh-dwelling fish, and beach-nesting and migratory shorebirds, animals that have no news media to tell them to stay out of the water, nor, truthfully, the option to do so. Furthermore, an energy system based on oil consumption has far greater repercussions than oil spills, namely, carbon pollution and climate change. The beings who will have to cope with these effects of modern petroleum consumption are future generations of humans, plants, and animals, all of whom lack any voice in the matter or any hope for justice.
Our society believes in the power of the free market to regulate itself and provide justice, but global oil is not constrained by the same rules as other industries. Normally, if a corporation makes a mistake, the angry public stops supporting that company, and the corporation fails. In this way, the market reforms itself, weeding out its own misconduct. But in global business, only a few states experience the violations of a company that can sell to the entire planet. And when that company sells petroleum, a product integral to almost every part of modern life, the public can be angry but essentially doesn’t have the option to stop buying. The government can dock corporations for breaking safety standards and polluting, but setting those standards and giving the government teeth to enforce them is often viewed as interfering in the self-managing power of the system. Unfortunately, though consumers do not have the ability to police oil companies effectively, those corporations can still appeal to people’s desire to believe that the system is working, that businesses are being punished for their misdeeds, that the people aren’t powerless.
BP presents itself as a company receiving and responding to standard retribution. Looking past the ardent, almost patriotically extolling language of “attacking the spill on two fronts” and “the team on the ground,” BP describes at great length how they are cleaning up the mess, spending four out of the release’s nine paragraphs detailing specifics of the response. In fact, starting on June 1, every BP press release publicized expenditures on the spill in a separate section complete with header (BP Global). Additionally, BP attempts to implicate Transocean Ltd., the legal owner of the Deepwater Horizon, though legally it is very clear that as the holder of the drilling permit, BP is fully liable for the damages (Richardson). The very first Gulf press release BP published was titled, “BP Offers Full Support to Transocean After Drilling Rig Fire.” The April 25 release’s very first sentence reads, “BP . . . continues to forge ahead with a comprehensive oil well intervention and spill response plan following the April 22 sinking of the Transocean Deepwater Horizon.” In their study of BP’s image-repair tactics during the Gulf disaster, Brantley, W. Harlow and R. Harlow determined that “BP’s 6 press releases from April 21 through April 28 all (a) include some reference to BP working with Transocean, and (b) are phrased in such away as to imply that BP and Transocean were somewhat equally sharing the burden of response to the explosion” (82). In so obviously publicizing their repair work and headlining Transocean, BP is advertising that they are receiving retribution and expecting more, which, to a society that believes in the power of the free market to regulate itself, translates into, “The system is working.”
But with our dependence on petroleum, the system cannot reform itself. If we want to make serious improvements in safety and spill prevention, we need to step into the process and expand government oversight in the oil industry. However, despite many proposals since April 2010, no legislation has been enacted that would regulate drillable areas, heighten safety measures, or strengthen the ability of the government to hold oil companies liable (Sonmez). In fact, as Nancy Pelosi has said, “Only one measure was able to clear the Senate’s 60-vote hurdle: legislation to permit the Coast Guard to obtain needed resources from the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund to help with clean-up costs” (Sonmez). And ABC News reports, “Rep. Lynn Woolsey . . . said there has ‘absolutely not’ been any progress in terms of ensuring there won’t be a repeat” (Kristina). However, America appears to have moved past it. One year after the spill, a CNN poll revealed that “69% of Americans favor increased offshore drilling . . . up 20 points from last June, while the oil spill was still in progress” (Steinhauser). The Deepwater Horizon fell out of the spotlight without most people ever having a scum-varnished pelican wash up on their beach, and America returned to enjoying giant cars and disposable forks.
BP treats the Deepwater Horizon spill as a manageable part of reality that fits into our existing system of problems and responses—fines, apologies, and clean-ups—not an unprecedented ecological and economic disaster that could, if we allowed it, reshape the global production and consumption of energy. In her essay, Down the Drain: Shit and the Politics of Disturbance, Gay Hawkins considers anthropologist Michael T. Taussig’s idea of the “public secret,” one of the unpleasant realities that makes possible our level of comfort—but that we must know not to bring to light. She writes, “The sight of a brown slick out behind the breakers is disturbing not because of the shock of surprise discovery, but because of the collapse of our active desire not to know” (41). The Deepwater Horizon and its offshore brethren are one of these public secrets that makes our world run, and the Gulf disaster has shown us that this secret is, indeed, very disturbing. We want to believe that because there was so much anger directed at BP, the market will reform the system for us and prevent another spill. But without increased regulations or changes to our energy system, it is only a matter of time before another rig goes down and our secrets come bubbling back up.
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BP Global. Press. Update on Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill – 01 June. BP.com. British Petroleum, 1 June 2010. Web. 10 Dec. 2011. <http://www.bp.com/generic
Drapkin, Julia K. “10 Animals Most at Risk from Gulf Oil Spill.” CBSNews.com. Columbia Broadcasting System, 29 Apr. 2010. Web. 10 Dec. 2011. <http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-503543_162-20003738-503543.html>.
Harlow, William F., Brian C. Brantley, and Rachel M. Harlow. “BP Initial Image Repair Strategies After the Deepwater Horizon Spill.” Public Relations Review 37 (2001): 80-83.
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Kuletz, Valerie L. “The Wasteland Discourse.” The Tainted Desert: Environmental Ruin in the American West. New York: Routledge, 1998. Print.
Mahan, Simon. “Oceana Magazine Spring 2010: Catastrophe in the Gulf.” Oceana.org. Oceana Magazine, 2010. Web. 10 Dec. 2011. <http://na.oceana.org/en/news-media/publications/oceana-magazine/spring-2010/f…>.
Richardson, Nathan. “Deepwater Horizon and the Patchwork of Oil Spill Liability Law.” 2010. Web. 2 Apr. 2012. <http://www.rff.org/Publications/Pages/Publication Details.aspx?PublicationID=21163>.
Sonmez, Felicia. “A Year Out from BP Oil Spill, Parties Still Sparring over Drilling, Response to Tragedy.” The Washington Post.com. Washington Post, 20 Apr. 2011. Web. 10 Dec. 2011. <http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/2chambers /post/a-year-out-from-bp-oil-spill-parties-still-sparring-over-drilling-response-to-tragedy/2011/04/20/AFtsoKDE_blog.html>.
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