Evangeline, the Oil Spill and Highway 61

Evangeline, by George Rodrigue

I was 18, skinny, out of money and in New Orleans for the first time after some Appalachian adventures and a visit to Nixon’s D.C. I faked a cocky walk into a French Quarter piano bar and stayed until closing time when the brunette singer in a sequined costume gown took pity on me. We went to an all-night place to eat. She picked up the tab and sent me gently on my way, and I still don’t know who pays the angels.

I headed out of town on Tulane Avenue under a high, gray light filtered through very low sky. At the Broad Street red light a man in a rumpled coat and wrinkled trousers stood in the intersection. He swayed on unsteady legs and waved his arms as blood sprayed from his neck. A cop in his car at a gas station on my right saw the same thing I did, looked at me funny, punched his siren and flashed across the intersection. A road sign I hadn’t noticed before slapped me hard with the Dylan verse: “God said, Abraham kill me a son.” The man’s throat was cut near the end of Highway 61.

I’d had a youthful tour of the Museum of America, from John Prine’s Paradise to Washington’s Marble Presidents, from the Encounter With the Compassionate Stranger to the Diorama of Violent Death. I drove on home to Houston, where everyone said I looked gaunt.

I’m spending a lot of time in New Orleans these days. The town, still recovering from the Storm, is bracing for the economic gut punch of the Spill. If I were Pharaoh of New Orleans, I’d let the people go before the Mississippi turns to blood and frogs fill the Superdome.

Already some LeBlancs and Toussaints have escaped to HBO, not the promised land but a virtual home for a spirited, impressionistic filmsong of New Orleans, Treme. Sandra Bullock’s moved to town and adopted a motherless child, and in the French Quarter a guy in a cop costume tosses you a Saints cap and asks for a twenty-dollar food-drive donation. Hat in hand, the role reversed, you give it up for an angel not forgotten.

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Hey Great Britain, It’s About Lives, Not Politics

So, a British company all but destroys the U.S. Gulf Coast, threatening the lives and livelihoods of many and killing ocean wildlife, and the Brits are worried about their dividends? You might call it the British Callous Upper Lip.

Here’s how some Brits put it in the New York Times:

Investors in Britain were particularly furious about the suggestions that BP should not pay a dividend until it cleaned up the oil spill. BP’s dividend payment accounted for about £1 of every £8 handed out by British companies last year, according to FairPensions, a London-based charity.

“BP has many problems in the U.S.,” Justin Urquhart Stewart, co-founder of Seven Investment Management in London, said. “One of them is that it has the word British in its title.”

That’s right. We’re angrier about the word “British” than we are the oil strangling the Gulf.

Peter Hitchens, a research analyst at Panmure Gordon in London, said most analysts and investors in Britain are “more relaxed” about the future of BP than their American counterparts partly because of the geographic distance. “We don’t have all the press coverage that’s over there and we’re further away from U.S. politics,” he said. “We have a more rational view.”

This is the old Victorian imperial attitude. “Hey, our oil is choking and killing people way over there. Why should we care?” Face it, you old windbag of a country. It’s not that you don’t have the press coverage, it’s that you don’t have crude oil blackening the white cliffs of Dover.”

Fatal Fantasies of Our Technological Omnipotence

Behind the public’s impatience with President Obama and the Gulf Oil spill lie dangerous fantasies of technological American angels that can fly in an fix everything and anything. The same kind of fantasies, of course, lead a company like British Petroleum that they can overcome the unexpected with a combination of public relations savvy and technical know-how.

It’s not optimism. Optimism is reality based and healthy. It’s reality-defying denial. The New York Times had a weekend piece on this all-too-American trait. In it, the late physicist Richard Feynman is quoted:

For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled.

When Frank Rich is speculating that the oil spill will damage Obama, irony spills faster than oil in Gulf waters. George W. Bush was the President from the Oil Patch. Big Oil never had friends in high places like Bush and Dick Cheney. Now Sarah Palin, busy collecting oil company money more efficiently than a boom collects oil slicks, accuses Obama of being in the pocket of Big Oil.

And what do we make of Republicans who want to drown the federal government in a bathtub but shriek for federal assistance when economic, environmental and technological disasters strike near their homes?

When politics becomes dissociated from reality, bad things happen to good people, usually at the hands of bad people happy to exploit the virtual fantasy worlds they’ve helped invent. “Drill Baby Drill,” said Palin. There was never any considered thought given to what a BP-like disaster would do to the Gulf state fishing, shipping and tourist industries. Raising questions about it seemed out of place in the fantasies. Then disaster strikes and we turn into a nation of unruly children, wailing like infants who wail for their pacifiers after they throw them to the floor.

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The Oil Spill and Political Paralysis

bp explosionThe debate surrounding the tragic British Petroleum Gulf rig explosion and economy-wrecking oil spill has already spun off into an ideological wrestling match that’s got nothing to do with protecting us and everything to do with protecting wealth and the will-to-power.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry suggests the explosion was an act of God. He means that no one at British Petroleum should be held accountable and that no additional safety measures with regard to offshore drilling are needed. Tell that to Louisianans and other Gulf Coast (and ultimately, maybe, East Coast residents if the oil gets in the Gulf Stream).

It is really difficult to adequately describe the Right’s belief in a divine order that places them at the top of the Great Chain of Political Being. They are immune from the law. Accountability and responsibility are for those below them. They believe this like you and I believe we are all responsible for the consequences of our actions.

One of the consequences of the extremist takeover of the Republican party is that our state and national political conversations have become thin, morally bankrupt contests of will and little more. Witness the Right’s obstructionism in Washington. Never mind the sick when it comes to health care reform. The only thing on their minds was political exploitation of the issue to enhance their future power.

In the contemporary media age, sad to say, this gives advantage to those who act only out of their will-to-power. They are better at playing to the media’s need to appear “neutral.” It’s far easier to appear neutral if you cover politics as a wrestling match and avoid any mention of the practical or moral stakes. Of course, this leads to paralysis, and paralysis leads to weakened levees that destroy a city or unsafe drilling rigs that take lives and destroy economies.

When no one is accountable, no one is safe. You can conclude that those who avoid accountability at all costs don’t give a tinker’s damn about your safety.

Nobody Knows the Trouble We’ll See

We might be powerless.

The oil flowing out from the seabed in the Gulf of Mexico may be under such great pressure that we do not possess technology to stop the tragedy.  Chances are quite good we have no true sense of the dire nature of the situation.  The facts that have been ascertained, however, lead to a dark scenario.

We know that the blowout preventers did not work but we do not know why.  There are theories, though.  The Deepwater Horizon rig was floating on pontoons about 5000 feet above the floor of the Gulf.  When drillers struck an oil deposit, the bit was reported to be at about 18,000 feet, which is approximately three and a half miles beneath the platform.  Does science even know what kind of pressure can be encountered at that depth, under almost a mile of water and two and half miles of rock?

BP and Transocean, which owns the rig, has said there was a maximum working pressure of 20,000 PSI but the system was able to handle a kickback pressure from gasses of about 60,000 PSI.  The breakdown of the blowout preventers can be interpreted to mean the pressure coming up from the hole exceeded 60,000 PSI.  Generally, various mixtures of mud circulate up and down the drill pipe to act as lubricants and equalize pressures encountered at great depth, and this process was said to be working at the time of the accident.  Does this mean it’s possible, even likely, that the Deepwater Horizon encountered pressures current technology are not equipped to handle?

Although BP and Washington are trying very hard to convince the public that everything possible is being done to stem the flow of crude, there is seemingly little that might be accomplished.  5000 feet below the surface of the water with oil blasting out at tens of thousands of PSI, and wreckage from the giant rig scattered about, fixes are not easy to find.  The latest plan is for a special funnel to be placed over the spout, which will then force the flow into a pumping channel.  But how does a funnel get placed over the top of anything pushing at that kind of pressure?  Consider that story to be an unrealistic solution.

Ixtoc 1 - Spit in the Ocean
Ixtoc 1 - Spit in the Ocean

A well blowout in 1979 offers a bit of context; except the Deepwater Horizon horror show may quickly transcend what happened in the Bay of Campeche off the coast of Mexico.  The Ixtoc 1 rig blew and began to spew crude that flowed uninterrupted for nine months.  Before the well was capped, 3,000,000 barrels of crude had drifted north to Texas and the northern coast of Mexico.  The endangered Kemps-Ridley turtle, which nests along the border beaches, had to be airlifted to safety and has only begun in recent years to recover in population.

The Ixtoc disaster, however, is spit in the ocean compared to the British Petroleum apocalypse.  If estimates are correct and the current blowout is putting 200,000 gallons of crude or 5000 barrels per day into the waters of the Gulf, this sadness is doomed to increase in magnitude.  Ixtoc’s blowout was not capped until two relief wells were drilled and completed at the end of those nine months, and regardless of optimistic scenarios from the federal government or BP, relieving the pressure on the current flow is probably the only way to stop the polluting release of oil. The only way to relieve that pressure is with additional wells. No one is going to honestly say how much time is needed to drill such wells but consider the scope of environmental damage we are confronting if it requires at least as long as Ixtoc?  Nine months of 5000 barrels of crude per day ought to turn the Gulf of Mexico into a lifeless spill pond and set toxins on currents that will carry them to deadly business around the globe.

NOAA apparently believes the situation is on the verge of getting worse. A leaked memo suggests that the tangle of pipes on the ocean floor are covering and constraining two other release points. Pressure is likely to blow those loose and, according to NOAA, the gusher will increase by “orders of magnitude.” In most interpretations, that phrase means a ten-fold rise in the flow, which will replicate the Ixtoc disaster in three days.

Ixtoc 1 fire on the water
Ixtoc 1 fire on the water

And there are no guarantees relief wells are the fix. It is a complicated task to drill two wells to intercept the leaking one and then fill the pipes with mud or concrete to stop the flow.  What do we do, if that doesn’t work?  Humans cannot function at 5000 feet of ocean depth and the mitigation efforts currently are being handled by robotic remotes.  What is left to us as a solution other than an explosive device, which is often what is deployed during above ground blowouts.  Given the pressures reported and the amount of flow, we may need a bunker-buster nuke to be placed over the wellhead.  We can then begin to talk about the water pressures caused by burst at detonation and residual radiation.  Is that a better or worse situation?  Certainly, aquatic life in the Gulf of Mexico is doomed unless there is a reclusive genius to step forward and save us from our great failure.

The attorney general of Texas, Greg Abbot, informed reporters that it appears Texas will escape harm.  Abbot’s visionary powers must exceed his legal skills since there is no way to know when and even if the well will ever be capped.  In fact, if there is no plug placed in the hole, it is not inconceivable that no part of the planet’s oceans will escape harm.  According to the non-profit, non-partisan, Air and Waste Management Association, a quart of crude oil will make 150,000 gallons of water toxic to aquatic life.  BP, which has been marketing itself as an energy company “beyond petroleum,” is setting loose upon the planet what is quickly turning into humankind’s worst environmental disaster.

Tone-deaf politicians, especially from Texas, are trying to manage public fears, which is exactly what the state’s former governor attempted in 1979.  Bill Clements, who was one of the founders of SEDCO and owned the Ixtoc platform, originally described concerns as “much ado about nothing.”  As oil moved toward the pristine beaches of the Padre Island National Seashore, his advice was to “pray for a hurricane.”  I confronted Clements on his lack of concern and he stuck his finger in my chest and told me the state was not hurt.  Thirty years later the tar balls still roll in with shifts of tide and wind and oil was everywhere on the beach for years.

Anyone who thinks this tragedy is not going to result in massive kills of marine life is either blind, ignorant, or in denial.  The one scenario that we all refuse to confront is the possibility that it is beyond our capabilities to stop this undersea blast of oil.  If that is the case, the flow continues until the pressure eases, which might be years.  How much ecological injury will that cause our planet?

Nobody knows.

British Petroleum’s Hands

oil spill 2When I was a young boy growing up in Wharton County, my family would once a year drive to Matagorda Bay and buy shrimp off the boats.  We’d take them back to our family farm, clean them, eat some that night and freeze the rest.  After cleaning pounds and pounds of shrimp, your hands would smell for days no matter how many times you washed them.

There may come a day when no young boy does that with his family because of British Petroleum’s oil slick now covering so much of the Gulf of Mexico.  The Southern Shrimp Alliance says they’ve been nearly devastated by foreign competition and this disaster could put them under completely.

British Petroleum’s explosions and messes have haunted my career as a journalist.

pipelinexplosionIn 2000, I moved to the small town of Bellingham, Washington to become a radio reporter.  It was just one year after the Olympic Pipeline explosion rocked that community and killed three young boys.  They had been playing with a cigarette lighter near a creek that had been filled with 237,000 gallons of gasoline.  The mayor of Bellingham, Mark Asumundson, has called the boys heroes because the creek runs into downtown, but the boys playing with the lighter ignited the fuel before it could reach the city center.

British Petroleum took over operations of the pipeline and almost immediately began running jet fuel and gasoline through it again before there was ever any explanation as to why the fuel had leaked into the creek.  The community was changed forever but BP washed their hands of it and kept rolling right along.  It was later reported that a city crew doing excavation work in a park had scratched the pipe, leading to the leak.

In 2005, I was working at KTRH in Houston when BP’s Texas City plant exploded, killing 15 people and injuring hundreds of others. I was on the scene reporting for days afterward as to why the plant had exploded.  Despite the fact that there is heavy industry all along miles of the Texas coast, the BP Plant seems to be the one we were always reporting from because it often caught fire or exploded.  What struck me the most about it is that right across the street from the great exploding plant there are homes with play sets for children in the yards.

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