By Cathryn Castle Whitman
By the time you read this, we may be in the midst of what could become the biggest environmental disaster in US history. Then again, if we can turn off the spigot, maybe not. Of course, what I’m referring to is the oil spill—or what Florida Governor Christ Crist has more aptly termed the “oil volcano”—off the Louisiana coast.
Given its location, some have likened this disaster to Hurricane Katrina, but the analogy doesn’t hold water. True, humans were responsible for what happened to New Orleans in that, for decades, politicians and other decision-makers were warned about the sorry state of the city’s crumbling levy system. But, ultimately, it was Mother Nature who put those events into play. This time it’s different. Mother Nature has little to do with the environmental havoc making its way to shore, aside from creating the crude oil in the first place. This debacle was brought to us entirely by the platform owners Transocean and BP, who convinced government officials that they could easily manage the worst-case scenario of a blown well several thousand feet deep on the sea floor – despite the fact that they didn’t have a proven, fail-safe plan in place before the drilling began.
If the spill creeps its way down the Florida Loop Current and has an impact on my home here in the Florida Keys, a local disaster unlike anything anyone has ever seen or imagined could result. The possibility that this already stressed ecosystem could be dealt a punch it might never recover from in our lifetime is an idea that I don’t believe I’ve yet fully grasped. It’s just too horrible to seriously consider.
But let’s be honest. Certainly, after any disaster, as much energy is put into assessing blame as in responding to the actual emergency. And, make no mistake; both BP and Transocean make excellent targets. Yet to find the primary culprit responsible for the spill we have to look in the mirror. In my view, this mess was caused by hubris, assuming that we had a technical capability that, as events have shown, we clearly don’t. (And let’s not forget that government officials signed off on this project, too.) It’s likely that, while serious, the incident might be all over by now had it happened in shallower water. The heart of the issue is that, unlike their promises otherwise, BP and Transocean couldn’t handle the technical challenge of the depth. The assumption that responding to an emergency 500 feet below the surface was no different than 5,000 feet clearly was a foolish and costly mistake.
So, the question must be asked, why are companies pushing the technological envelope so far? The reason is no secret; it’s our addiction to oil. It’s clear that we won’t get serious about weaning from the petroleum teat until we have to pay for it.
We’ve gotten used to paying at the gas pump, but soaring fuel prices don’t seem to put a dent in our addiction. Now the price has skyrocketed yet again – only this time the currency has changed. Can we really afford to pay for our oil dependency at the expense of fragile coastal ecosystems?