As with every modern-day catastrophe, the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is a two-fold disaster: the spill itself is one, and its severe yet expected mishandling the other.
British Petroleum (BP) recently found itself at the center of an environmental controversy. This past weekend, as oil became the second skin of the Gulf Coast’s already fragile ecosystem, questions of accountability trickled from the company’s faulty oil rigs to the Obama administration’s fuzzy position on offshore drilling.
But when disasters such as these persist, what is really needed is swifter action. On April 20, the explosion occurred, and from there, a fire broke out and took the life of 11 oil rig workers, with some 40,000 gallons leaking per day. BP, overconfident in their ability to remedy the situation, did nothing but hold a hasty press conference on the night of April 21. The Coast Guard eventually released its statistic, stating that 200,000 gallons of oil per day were at risk of being released.
Only after this did the administration begin to react — but just barely.
True, the White House has already stated that no new drilling permits will be approved until the cause of the accident is known, but this is a band-aid for a bullet wound. According to The New York Times, the nation has seen an increase in oil demand by 35 percent over the past four decades. Meanwhile domestic production has declined by a third.
Moreover, oil imports have doubled, and the United States now buys more than 12 million barrels a day (two-thirds of its total needs) from other countries. So as efforts to understand the cause of the disaster are prioritized above cleaning up the disaster itself — a task that, if history is any indication, could take years — the first thing to understand is that this is a political disaster.
But offshore drilling is unlikely to be reassessed anytime soon. Republicans are trying to increase domestic oil production in an effort to depart from foreign oil dependence. The Democrats, however, are continuing to preach the green rhetoric, pushing for a reduction in gas emissions in an attempt to prevent further global warming. The middle ground, if there can ever truly be one, is a compromise that finds domestic offshore exploration being exchanged for Republican backing of future climate policy.
And while this party back-scratching is taking place, oil is being spilled at a rate of up to 210,000 gallons a day — a total of 1.6 million since the explosion first took place. BP executives warned that up to 2.5 million gallons a day could spill if the leaks worsen.
President Obama visited Louisiana on May 2 for a look at the response effort, calling the catastrophe a “potentially unprecedented environmental disaster.” But this event is far from unprecedented. We saw it in 1969 when 4.2 million gallons spilled along the Santa Barbara coastline. And again in 1989 with the Exxon Valdez disaster that dumped 257,000 barrels of oil into the sensitive waters of Alaska’s Prince William Sound. And the delayed reactions now impart a sense of post-Katrina déja-vu.
What this comes down to — what it has always been about — is a stronger and more sustainable restriction on offshore drilling, to both understand the risks and decide once and for all how many more “unmediated disasters” it will take to come to a concrete decision on foreign oil relations.
As of now, there is too much we do not know: the cause of the blowout or the fire, why the valves that are supposed to shut off the oil flow in an emergency did not work, and whether there were other steps that BP could have taken in an attempt to prevent the explosion in the first place. But a reassessment of not just how we prevent disasters such as these, but also how quick we react, is a necessity.
Most of the largest oil discoveries lie deep beneath the world’s oceans, including in the Gulf of Mexico. For the companies with their dollars invested, these reserves are worth hundreds of billions in rewards and represent the industry’s ability to move forward. Until we reach a point where questions of how to act are secondary to questions of why we’re even still taking these risks, priority should be made to make sure that every disaster doesn’t leave both questions and concerns.