I haven't been writing about the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico for a couple of main reasons: I'm generally on the sidelines when it comes to environmental issues, and frankly, I have no idea what to do about oil spilling out of a giant hole in the ground. And I don't like to write a lot about what I don't know.
That latter point, though, is apparently no reason not to write something: since the spill "I don't know anything about how to deal with a giant hole under the sea where oil is spilling out" appears to be the main qualification many writers and TV personalities share when discussing it.
There's a profound sense of helplessness watching the oil spill disaster unfold; though I don't necessarily agree with Rachel Maddow's high dudgeon on the subject, I do agree with the point she made last night: there just isn't much known about dealing with the risks posed by oil spills, and we've made a bad compromise worse by "improving" drilling technology so it can be done in deeper, more risky areas.
I share the frustration of many, if not most, people watching the horror unfold: this is a spectacular disaster, one cannot avoid feeling helpless in the face of it, and I wish, heartily, that something could be done to stop the leak and catch the oil before it does serious damage. I do also wish we didn't engage in wildly risky exploration for oil... but I'm also realist enough to say they'll stop drilling when we stop needing it.
And if we really loved this planet... we'd be trying harder to end the addiction to oil. All of us.
So yesterday, into last night, was for me the last straw. Being tired of listening to a rondelay of similar complaints, I just have to point out a few of the things that are just not worth saying and repeating as this mess unfolds... becaiuse someone should. These are my faves:
- "We need to know just how much oil is spilling into the Gulf" - this was Anderson Cooper's refrain all last night, Cooper having positioned himself, yet again, in a warm climate with a tight tee-shirt, to play the impassioned truth teller in the face of sure disaster. He's still my secret boyfriend (it's the t-shirt, and that hair...)... but the sanctimony is starting to grate. So here's the thing: knowing how much oil has been spilling out would be a "nice to know" but it isn't really a "need to know." It's not as if there's some "70,000 Barrel A Day" piece of equipment they'd pull out as opposed to a "5000 barrel a day" alternative" The bottom line is... there's a lot of oil out there. "A lot" covers most of what we need to know, and gives a good indication of the problems we face mopping it up.
- "BP is failing to stop the leak, and the government should step in and take over"... because the Coast Guard knows how to drill for oil? This fairly ludicrous argument, in many forms, suggests that there's some mysterious "expert" person or company who, if we only just brought them in, would magically stop the leak, right now, and make it all better. Talk about Deus Ex Machina! (Yeah, I went to college... I love throwing that in. Best thing I ever learned. Ever.) I've been trying, very hard, to keep my discussions of what the experts think to actually watching experts - which is not easy, these days, when reporters like to do a lot of interviewing each other - and the experts do seem to agree: the people who know about oil drilling and plugging leaks are working on this... and they don't have a lot of good answers. Because... there aren't a lot of good answers.
- "The cleanup is badly managed and going too slowly!" Granting, for a moment, that a massive operation stretching from the Louisiana coastline all the way to Florida (and possibly affecting the entire Florida panhandle at that) is bound to have logistical nightmares... we should remember something more obvious: it's really hard to a) stop oil that's floating in water, and b) clean up oil that hits land. The "let's stop the oil before it makes land" plan amounts to this: wrap the sea in a giant baggie, and either pick up, or disperse it. "We don't have a baggie big enough" only begins to cover it. Second, cleaning up the spill as it hits the coast just won't be pretty. That's especially true in Lousiana's marshland, where the local officials are screaming - literally - that nothing's being done. And perhaps more could be done... I'm not entirely convinced... but there is a reason we call that terrain a "swamp", and it's because the buildup of mud and crud is hard to prevent, and hard to remove... without, well, draining said swamp. And this, really, does back to remembering that Louisiana's problem - aside from being really dependent on, you know, the oil industry - is about what happens when you build a civilization based on living and working in below sea level swampland. There's only so much that can be saved, or fixed.
- "The dispersents are dangerous chemicals! Where's the EPA?" I have to admit, I'm concerned about using the huge amounts of disperents on the oil that they've used... but it does seem pretty clear that pretty much all chemical dispersents are, well, dangerous. So it seems like the choice is... trying to decide which of the dangerous petrochemical treatements is less bad, or don't use them and have more oil issues... or use them, and see what develops. Isn't science interesting?
- "They won't let us build a giant sandbar to protect the coast!" Louisiana officials seem to have two ideas when it comes to public projects: complain, often quite emotionally, about feeling abandoned and mistreated... and propose enormous boondoggle projects to solve their problems. They have been abetted in this, a lot, by having the largest office of the Army Corps of Engineers in their state, mostly because of the (er, somewhat boondoggle-ish) projects of levee building that never seem to end. Last year, they were all about chasing down enormous sums of money to build a new hospital downtown, which they claimed was a way to address the closing of Charity Hospital after Katrina (and which community activitists insisted could be solved by renovating Charity; both ideas being problematic). Now, the President of Plaquemines Parish says he just wants billions of dollars and thousands of man hours to build... islands to protect the... er, islands that are meant to protect the marshes that are not sufficiently protected from oil that's already hittting the coast. Never mind that there probably isn't enough sand for it. Never mind that no one actually knows if it will work. Never mind that it's just the sort of, well, enormous boondoggle that Louisianans seem to know best: lots of federal dollars thrown at dubious solutions which involve enormous amounts of labor and earth moving. Again... you built your lifves and livelihoods around swampland. I'm not saying you should suffer because of it... but there are limits to what's feasible to fix that.