Continuing in a series of diaries here.
The Horizon spill disaster has now entered the "media madness" phase. Regular mass media has done what it does best, which is to take a disaster, and sensationalize aspects of it, creating hysteria and alarm almost as if they are an entertainment product. The first victim in this process is fact itself – simple detailed, factual information about the spill status and its impact are increasingly hard to find in the wall of noise.
The Coast Guard and NOAA have a graphic depicting high-quality predictions of spill extents by Tuesday here. Comparison with a previous graphic showing the projection for Saturday seems to show the spill driven by winds to expand towards more and more of the Gulf coastline. Winds may reverse afterwards driving the slick growth directly into the Delta wetlands in and around the mouth of the Mississipi river. There is not a concise, detailed picture of what shore and marine impact has actually taken place so far. I have not found a good simple estimate of current surface area. All eyes are on the potential and likely impact. The New York Times has assembled an "interactive" (meaning it has a slider control) graphic that simply displays a prettied-up time sequence of the technical spill extent graphics from the Coast Guard and NOAA, on a regional map that indicates the presence of marshlands (!) in the Gulf Coast region.
Detailed information on current environmental and species impact appears limited to the single story of the first bird treated for oil coverage. Media has played and replayed the images of this Northern Gannet being scrubbed with dishwashing detergent by rescuers. We need more information on what has actually happened now that the spill has contact coastal wetlands and shores. Mass media appears to be dropping the ball on this critical issue.
Much noise has been made about the calculations of a single Florida-based academician that he claims show the spill is already "worse" than the Exxon Valdez spill. It is probably quite fair to disagree with estimates of total spill volume to date – even the clowns at BP, who have a dedicated stake in downplaying estimates of spill volume – have had to admit their deeply limited capacity to gauge and respond to the spewing well. However, I encourage all of us, if we are to take the Valdez disaster as a benchmark in the environmental and economic damage that an offshore oil spill can cause, to quit thinking in terms of gallons of oil released, or even simple spill extent in surface area. The history of large oil spills worldwide is quite extensive. Neither the Valdez spill nor the Horizon spill will be the "biggest", by far, in the contest of what disaster poured more oil into the water. The Horizon spill is not the first nor, currently, the worst Gulf oil spill ever.
The damage these spills cause is measurable in terms of species and ecosystem impact, communities wrecked economically, and livelihoods ruined.
There is a much deeper story here. Article after article after article after article has highlighted and exposed just how ill-prepared both industry and government were for a predictable disaster in an offshore drilling operation that both industry and government together allowed to proceed. The deeper story, in the context of the history of oil spills, wherein the Deepwater Horizon appears as the most recent, massive, and technologically advanced drilling platform, which exploded, capsized and sunk, leaving behind a disastrously spewing well, is that industry and government have never been prepared for these spills when they happen. The deeper story in this wreck that is being missed is the story of an industrial energy production system – offshore oil drilling – that is in general emphasized by a big industry and normally co-opted or co-erced government officials and agencies – and that continues to produce major disasters despite decades of technological focus and advance. As worry emerges that even the Eastern US coastline could be threatened by this spill industry and government officials begin to search for a solution to an "unprecedented" problem that should have been planned for completely and soundly prior to any drilling permit or license being issued.
Here is an excellent graphic showing what is going to be done, over the next three months, while the well spews oil. Another oil rig operated by BP is going to start drilling another well that will go three miles into the seafloor to "intervene" in the spewing well. The fact that this response is the only available is a total indictment of the industry and government in the failure to plan for an easily predictable disaster. The fact that this response is the only available, after a long history of oil spills, is evidence or proof that offshore oil drilling is simply too dangerous – neither industry nor government nor the two together will ever take sufficient (and costly!) steps to make it environmentally safe.
I’d really like to see this compelling narrative presented clearly to the public.
Reports have emerged of an internal government document declaring the possibility that further degradation of the ruined Horizon riser pipe or complete failure of the well seal could produce an undersea "gusher" escalating the spill levels to a new catastrophic extent. This report indicates no probability or likelihood of such an event. We can all hope that this situation does not come to pass.
Political gamesmanship has begun in Washington, DC. The Obama administration has "placed on hold" – apparently holds aren’t just popular in the Senate – offshore projects. None were planned in the nearest-term anyway. Agency officials have tried to place blame on the oil industry neglecting the fact that the government had an oversight and regulatory role in producing this disaster without a shred of a doubt. Opposition to further drilling is beginning to emerge from a few sane voices in the Congress. The House Progressive Chorus remains silent. Industry is beginning its own internal witch hunt in which Halliburton may be a designated scapegoat for a much broader failure. Activist organizations are beginning to make tepid appearances in mass media. To date, there has not been a single protest or demonstration visible in mass media, not a single Zodiac filled with activists in the spill zone, nothing except softcore editorial appearances.
Shockingly, there is apparently a bailout mechanism of some sort available by which costs beyond a certain level to industry in the mess may be subsidized or supported by a Federal fund. The cleanup costs are partially sent to the public via an oil or gas tax ultimately paid by consumers. This tax and the bailout it underpins must be put to death completely, soon. Bankrupting BP is not punishment enough for this disaster.
It is worth the time and space needed to note that, in media response to this spill, the New York Times leads the charge in transforming the disaster into a news/entertainment product. The Times’ last two fact-reporting pieces were from Friday and Saturday. Neither piece reported anything so banal as, say, the current extent of the oil slick, or specific locations of impact. The Saturday piece seemed to rely on recapping of official appearances on television talk shows – including the notoriously bent "Fox News" channel. The Times produced one of its typically empty editorials written in the obligatory quasi-authoritative, patronizing tone. They might as well have entitled the piece "Conventional Wisdom Digest". An equally useless guest editorial communicates an un-risky recital of the risks of oil. The Times kicks off Sunday with the spill by giving room to people who want to babble about setting off nuclear bombs on the sea floor of the Gulf of Mexico. The Times expended Helene Cooper on an in-depth report on the kabuki in Washington DC surrounding Obama’s decision to attend the White House Correspondent’s dinner rather than fly to the Gulf, which he did the next day.
I single out the Times for this criticism because in my view, the Times has the greatest possible resources for serious reporting on the Horizon disaster, and produces 4/5 pablum and filler in its output.
I will try to follow on to this diary again. There is more and more non-information to filter through in the sensationalizing coverage of the disaster. As the environmental, political, and economic dimensions of this disaster begin to evolve, we’ll all have to work to try to present a clear, and compelling narrative that the only real issue here is the fact that offshore oil drilling is allowed and will continue to be allowed. This drilling is the mountaintop removal of ocean resource exploitation and it must be stopped.