After the April 20 explosion on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico, oil spewed into the Gulf at a (conservatively) estimated rate of 5,000 barrels a day for more than a month. And nearly as much ink has been spilled condemning BP, the oil company that leased the deep-water rig and is now spearheading the cleanup.
All that vitriol directed toward BP from the blogosphere, the mainstream media, and the U.S. government has had a discernible effect on public opinion: A recent CNN/Opinion Research poll found that 76 percent of respondents disapprove of the way BP has handled the spill.
And no wonder. BP appears to have consistently underestimated the scope of the spill and overestimated the chances of various proposed fixes. Tony Hayward, the chief executive of BP, admitted frankly that he underestimated the extent of environmental damage the spill could inflict on the Gulf Coast ecosystem. And the current spill is only the latest in a series of unfortunate accidents — a March 2005 explosion at a BP refinery in Texas killed 15 people — that have brought deserved scrutiny to BP’s safety practices and procedures.
But before we ride BP out on the rails, consider this: Finding and extracting oil from the earth ranks among the most dangerous of occupations. And thanks to regulations and pressure from environmental groups, oil companies are largely prevented from seeking new oil reserves near U.S. coasts, forcing them out into deep water where the dangers and complexities of an already dangerous and complex business increase one hundred-fold.
Forced to seek oil up to a mile below the sea level, companies like BP operate literally at the edge of existing technology. As Tom Bower, author of the forthcoming book Oil: Money, Politics, and Power in the 21st Century, wrote recently in the Wall Street Journal:
The constant stream of inventions to allow Big Oil’s masters of the underworld to remotely guide a drill through a mile of water onto the seabed and then squirrel a 12-inch path through five miles of sand, salt, clay and rock towards a potential bonanza depends upon remarkable scientific calculations.
Remarkable indeed, and expensive. According to Bower, each new test for oil can cost upwards of $100 million, with only a third of such tests actually yielding salvageable oil.
Oil exploration, is also, of course, a thoroughly necessary endeavor. Operations in the Gulf of Mexico account for nearly a third of U.S. crude production. We need that oil, and we need someone to go and get it; even the most ardent of environmentalists are for the time being hopelessly dependent on fossil fuels to deliver their food and heat and light their cities. Oil may be a necessary evil, but it is necessary just the same.
And let’s not forget that 11 workers died in the April 20 explosion. Among the casualties was Aaron Dale Burkeen, whose body was never found and whose parents Mary and Robert Burkeen gathered with other grieving family members at a memorial ceremony for the victims on May 25 in Jackson, Mississippi. Mary Burkeen worries her son’s life and death are getting lost in the shuffle: “Our son, we’ll never get him back,” she lamented. “When they get all this cleaned up, they can have their shrimps and their turtles and everything back. But we’re never going to have our son back.”
Quite right. Would that the workers who lost their lives receive as much attention as the large-scale — but temporary — environmental damage caused by oil washing over the Gulf Coast. We would do well to remember that oil is a natural as water, and regularly seeps into the oceans naturally in quantities many times the size of the Deepwater Horizon spill. The ocean can handle the oil, but Aaron Dale Burkeen will still be gone when years from now when beachgoers are once again swimming in the pristine waters of the Gulf.
Burkeen and the others died ensuring that the rest of us have the energy we need to go about our business and pleasure, and risked their lives to bring forth the lubricant that greases the gears of our civilization. They should not be forgotten.