Since the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded and burned and sunk to the sea floor on 20 April 2010, the world has been watching a terrible tragedy unfold. Oil continues to leak from an unstoppable deep-sea gusher. The big question that seems to be on people’s minds is, “What went wrong?” A congressional investigation is ongoing into the causes of the explosion. President Obama has placed a moratorium on new drilling and new laws are sure to follow to make sure that drilling is safe for all. Sadly, this spill doesn’t even rank on the top-10 list, as the BBC reports in How big is the Deepwater Horizon oil spill? The biggest on the list is the Ixtoc 1 well, also in the Gulf of Mexico, which suffered a blowout in 1979 and leaked for nine months, spilling 476,000 metric tons of oil. So it could be worse, much worse. And maybe it will be.
(Actually, using the upper estimate of 45 million gallons, that would be approximately 144,000 metric tons, tying for 7th place right now in oil spills).
Getting too Confident
Our insatiable demand for oil has led us to more and more exotic places in order to extract it. You can see from the image above some of the stages in this development. The Deepwater Horizon was a “dynamically positioned” oil rig, which means that it wasn’t tethered to anything, and it used propellers to stay in one place. The fact that they managed to start a well in 5,000 feet of water boggles the mind. They drilled through about 13,000 feet of rock to strike oil. And this is not the deepest well that has been drilled in deep water. Think of the manpower, knowledge, and years of engineering marvels that led us to this level.
I remember reading an article several years ago about engineering disasters (I can’t seem to find the article now; not everything is on the internet). It looked at things like the Challenger explosion, the Tacoma Narrows bridge collapse and the Hartford Civic Center roof. The author concluded that engineers trying new technologies were very aware of the risks and took many precautions. Their successors took past achievements for granted and became more and more careless. Witness this recent newspaper article:
A decade ago, U.S. Government regulators warned that a major deepwater oil spill could start with a fire on a drilling rig, prove hard to stop and cause extensive damage to fish eggs and wetlands because there were few good ways to capture oil underwater…. Yet over the past decade, the risks faded into the background as America thirsted for new oil sources, the energy industry mastered new drilling technologies, and the number of deepwater wells swelled into the thousands. (“Document: Feds knew of Gulf spill risks in 2000,” Green Bay Press-Gazette, 9 June 2010, A-11)
The Root of the Problem
As we mop up messy scum and clean coated birds, everyone wants to blame BP, George Bush, the Federal Government, contractors or engineers. But none of these is the real problem, I believe. The root of the problem is our belief that, with the right combination of technology and laws, we can always be in control. We examine the technology and the laws to try to regain control. But this idea is false. We cannot control everything, and we are capable of releasing effects far beyond our ability to control them. The right attitude is one of humble caution. Aware of our own limitations, we need to chose carefully and live within our means.
The problem is, our belief that we are in control leads us to take risks and suffer terrible consequences. Bankers who thought they could control all the effects of their actions gambled wildly and the whole economy lost big. Homeowners gambled on mortgages to buy homes they couldn’t afford and lost them to bankruptcy. Engineers who believed they could control everything pushed to drain wetlands and reshape rivers, and faced the consequences with loss of life and massive flooding. Ordinary people think they can stay in control when they march blindly into bad relationships. Abuse, stalking, and emotionally scarred children are the floating scum left by our false sense of control. Why is it, with evidence all around us, that we continue to build carelessly, live carelessly, genetically modify our foods and alter our bodies, expecting the consequences to always be manageable? Stark pictures of the massive cleanup show the results of choices made without humble regard for our limits. If only we would see the oil fowling our beaches for what it really is: Humbling Scum