Friday, June 18, 2010

BP: My 2 Cents

(News-Herald, June 17) Since I’m sitting here in the region that birthed the oil industry, I figure I can take a shot at the gulf oil disaster, too.
First, folks should stop latching onto events to either prove, or avoid disproving, political stances. Offering this spill as “proof” that all deep-sea drilling should be shut down is dumb; if City Hall burns down, we won’t outlaw all open flame. (It is a good argument for drilling in shallower seas, though.) Claiming that an oil spill is no big deal and that nature will just fix this up in no time is just transparently stupid; the next talking head who makes the claim needs to be put in a dinghy and dropped in the middle of the afflicted area.
Beyond the various schemes to stem the suboceanic gusher, we’re hearing many ideas about long term responses. Most are unattractive. Shutting down the entire oil industry and living on nuts and berries seems unlikely. The government should either take more charge or back further away. And somebody, somewhere should be held responsible.
Several writers have made a convincing case that this is one more instance of a repeating theme—enterprises that are too large to succeed. The oil drilling industry, the housing industry, the financial industry, and the health care industry are complexes of massive interlocking pieces so hugely beyond human scope that they are destined to crash and burn over something small and stupid.
That last part is not new. Every so-called natural disaster has one thing in common—an exercise of really bad human judgment. The Johnstown flood, the Titanic, any number of catastrophic fires—all of them are the offspring of some humans who said, “Nah, don’t worry. That won’t turn out to be a problem.”
The spewing well did, in fact, have blow-out protection, the same protection that has functioned correctly in the past. Only it appears that this one had been damaged just a short time before the disaster. What do you want to bet that someone said, “Ah, just keep pumping till we get the parts in. It won’t turn out to be a problem.” Safety devices are covered, but there’s no safety device so fool-proof that some fool can’t mess it up.
More government regulation? I’m not a fan, but there are times for governments to step in. Processes that can potentially screw up on a planetary scale seem like an appropriate time. The problem with government regulations is that there are too many dumb ones. The government can’t tell the difference between protecting the habitat of a rare stripey snail and protecting the coastline of seven American states.
And with government, the Principle of Stupid Rules applies: the presence of any stupid rule on a list of rules makes people more likely to ignore ALL the rules, including the necessary ones.
Another part of that problem is that even a government that is too big may still seem smaller than a big multi-national corporation. Congress knows who its boss is, fellow citizens, and we aren’t it.
What would I like to see? I’d like to see some people in handcuffs. BP leaders ought to be ashamed to show their faces in public. At every juncture they have hidden or lied about critical information, and they have invested way too much energy in PR garbage when any decent humans would be too ashamed to do anything but fall on their swords or enter a monastery. How do you show your face in public when you have screwed up an ocean?!
Yes, we are only human, and humans make mistakes. But if you are running a nuclear power plant, operating on my child’s heart, or pumping a gazillion gallons of oil out of the ocean, you don’t get to use that excuse.
Governments should fine them. People should sue them. BP should end up penniless, along with Haliburton and the other involved corporations. Individuals linked to the chain of bad choices should become unemployable pariahs. The work and oil won’t end; other companies should buy it up, take it over, and run it while living in fear of screwing up this badly.
Of course that won’t happen. Even small oil companies here in Venangoland know how this works; if you get in big legal trouble, declare bankruptcy, escape making payments, and re-incorporate as a new company that can’t be held liable for the old sins. And someone will still have to pay to fix the mess…


Dittman said...

I think the real problem here is that the mess is a symptom, not the disease. Before we continue the public pillorying of BP, we should take a long hard look at our addiction to oil in all it's permutations from the obvious - gas to the hidden - fertilizer for factory farms. BP may have pulled the trigger, but we loaded the gun and put the barrel in our own stupidly smiling mouths.

Peter A. Greene said...

Well, yes. That's a whole road that, for reasons of space, I didn't go down this week. I'm not sure the addiction is solvable, but as with many things, I'm not sure whether it's our insistence on having something, or on having it way cheap. It may be that the middle way on this is to get our oil fix, but to have to pay what it would really cost to really do things well and safely.

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