The Gulf War

Raffi Khatchadourian’s in-depth account of the BP DeepWater Horizon oil spill cleanup effort provides an interesting perspective on one of the largest responses ever mounted to a man-made environmental disaster. He uses many war analogies and the whole story has a bit of an “embedded reporter” feel to it. It’s a very sincere account of a reporter who clearly spent a lot of time with the responders at and on the Gulf of Mexico. There are many accounts of how the responders were caught between politics, public opinion and mother nature. Just like in a war.

Personally, I am very much inclined to lay the blame for this disaster squarely at BP’s feet. Their sloppy safety caused this. But based on Khatchadourian’s account, I understand now also that BP did make a good-faith effort at containing the spill and mitigating its effects. I also better understand the choices that were made regarding the use of dispersants. There is just no simple “good guy” – “bad guy” picture when it comes to the containment and cleanup effort.

It has become conventional wisdom that the BP-funded response to the spill was a chaotic and mismanaged affair, driven by corporate avarice, lacking in urgency, and at times willfully negligent of the problem’s scope—the idea being that any organization that had caused such a catastrophe, and that was so clearly unprepared for it, could not in good faith clean up the scene of the disaster. The evidence for this is much like the imagery of heavy oiling: vivid and convincing upon first consideration, but also fragmentary, anecdotal. At the peak of the cleanup effort, forty-seven thousand people were fighting the oil, a community equivalent in size to Annapolis, or the workforce of G.M.—as one federal scientist called it, “a company built in the middle of the night.” In just half a year, the response expended nearly sixty million man-hours, roughly nine times what it took to build the Empire State Building. After the well ruptured, BP accepted help from competing oil companies, and hired the world’s leading oil-pollution specialists to run key operations. The logistical demands on the effort, which spanned the entire Gulf coast—a region of varied geography and political culture—were immense. President Obama was not exaggerating when he announced in June, “This is the largest response to an environmental disaster of this kind in the history of our country.”

The cleanup was a monumental task and the bottom line seems to be that the effort was pretty successful. Still, this is the price we pay for our oil addiction and for not forcing BP and the other oil conglomerates to be more careful.

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