“What happens,” asks one shrewd Internet commentator, “when hurricane season starts in the Gulf of Mexico and lightning strikes the oil slick? FIRE-ICANE!” The movie is, no doubt, already in production. Yet the gallows humour masks an extremely uncomfortable truth – Deepwater Horizon is not an act of God but a disaster we have created.
Yeah, ‘we’. It’s a funny thing, responsibility. The Horizon isn’t actually owned by BP which means the explosion itself may not legally be their fault but the technicality is that as the owner of the oil rushing out of the wells they are the ones obliged to retrieve it. They have a plan, too.
The dome idea they’re deploying, with mixed success, is actually pretty sound; at first I was wondering how they would seal it to the sea floor sufficiently to withold the intense subterranean pressure of the escaping oil but of course they don’t have to. The oil will float up and displace the water above it, meaning that as long as they can pump pure oil out of the top of the funnel onto tankers as fast as it rushes up from below, the spill should be stopped – stopped from getting any worse at least. It’s clever stuff, and getting suckered into being fascinated by the solution is to miss the point in precisely the way that led us to this situation.
Oil has, arguably, been as great a driver in technology as war. In particular, oil exploration and retrieval has been pushing back the boundaries of what’s possible for forty years or more. Rigs exist in places where their operators can barely survive unaided. They drill far, far offshore in waters so deep the rig has to float because legs haven’t been made that would take the strain of such a height. Along with these advances come risks of course but we’re happy to take them; the staff are well paid and we do need plenty of oil. The Horizon was cutting edge when she was built in 2001 and became a record-setter last September, drilling the deepest well in history. Yeah, she was riding high – until she exploded, sank and dragged her feed pipe down so badly that it split in two places. And the safety blowout valve failed.
I doubt anyone involved in the Horizon is actually an environment-hating thug who took belligerent risks; they’re more likely to be top-flight engineers, pushing back the boundaries of what’s possible without being held back by too great a fear of environmental damage. Anyone who watched the Brent Spar fiasco unfold will tell you, they’ll try anything on, that lot! On the contrary, people like me (and famous boat-drivers Greenpeace) queue up daily to buy more and more oil as fast as they can suck it up out of the Earth. I also don’t stand at the pump before a summer road trip and wonder how much of my £1.20 a litre is going to pay for oil booms and dispersal boats and I certainly don’t wonder how much more I would like to pay (and trust me, we will find out in a year or two that we can afford to pay a lot more for fuel) to ensure the environment is kept safe. So if I don’t care enough to sacrifice my money or convenience, why should I expect the oil companies to think about cutting into their profits and efficiencies?
Sometimes it takes personal experience to bring these thoughts home. I was changing the oil in my car this morning and, as I found myself digging through the sickly black waste looking for the drain plug, I paused a moment. Barely a cupful was on my hands yet the cloying, repulsive sensation already reminded me that even a thorough scrubbing wouldn’t quite eradicate the vague whiff of oil from my skin until much later in the day. Barely a cupful, compared to the 210000 gallons (i.e. about five times the amount required to fill a two bedroom flat in Richmond) of crude that’s belching into the Gulf every day. Can’t honestly say I felt that happy about it. The really awful thing is, it’s not yet the biggest spill we’ve had by some margin.
So what’s the alternative? Well, reducing my usage of oil can’t hurt I suppose. Local produce, train to work, avoiding plastic packaging. And, instead of this weekend’s trip up to the Midlands, maybe I’ll have a pub-to-pub conference call with my friends.