BP: A Cork and a Prayer

By Michael I. Niman, ArtVoice (etc.) 7/22/10

At the moment I’m writing this, BP’s Deepwater Horizon well is more or less corked, nearly three months after it began spilling as much as the equivalent of one Exxon Valdez every four days. It took this long to design and fabricate what should have been in the toolbox before any drilling ever began—essentially a giant pipe stopper with a flange. Think about it. Few people chance driving down the highway without a spare tire, sailing a boat without a life jacket, or operating a blowtorch without a nearby fire extinguisher. But we poke three-mile deep holes a mile beneath the ocean, opening up subterranean seas of super-pressurized oil, without so much as a cork to plug the hole.

More outrageous is the ABC News report that the design for the flange didn’t come from BP’s much-touted engineering brain trust, but seemingly from an anonymous plumber, who phoned the design into a university engineer, who passed it on the BP and the government. The “mystery plumber,” apparently, looked at images of BP’s broken pipe, and thought, “Hell, you could probably plug that with a flanged fitting and a thingamajig just like this…” and began to scribble a diagram, which appears to be the blueprint for the thingamajig BP eventually fabricated—and will probably patent.

Get it? There was absolutely no contingency plan for an event that sane people for years have been warning would one day happen. This, of course, leads to a question: Where else are we prodding, poking, spraying, gene-splicing, atom-splitting, forest cutting, smokestack spewing, and so on, also without a contingency plan?

Remember Three Mile Island, the near nuclear meltdown that threatened to Chernobylize a big chunk of the mid-Atlantic? “Run like hell, fast and far,” is not really a proper contingency plan. And a generation later, with talk once again of building even more nuclear power plants, there are still no contingency plans for major meltdowns or terrorist attacks. The closest thing to a contingency plan is a piece of bought-and-paid-for federal legislation limiting the liability of nuclear plant owners in the event they cause a catastrophic failure. Likewise, there are no contingency plans to purify contaminated watersheds after natural gas chemical fracking operations go awry. Again, the same energy conglomerates that assured us of the safety of deep sea drilling are once again rolling the dice and assuring us they’ll always hit double sixes.

We’re also rolling the dice on the chemical plants dotting the region in Louisiana that we now call “Cancer Ally.” There are clusters of slow death throughout that region, and no contingency plan to deal with any Bhopal-scale toxic release—except run. Similarly there are no plans to contain runaway genetic contamination from genetically modified crops mating with and contaminating our major food sources. Nor do we have a contingency plan for agriculture, in general, on a quickly warming planet. Hell, real estate developers are still building condos on land that will be underwater in most of our lifetimes. No plans there, other than take the money and run to high ground. There are also no plans to contend with human-caused species extinctions, for that matter, and their potentially catastrophic impact on human life. Run like hell doesn’t work when the bees are all dead and our food crops aren’t pollinating.

I can’t really say there are no contingency plans for any of these human-caused catastrophes. There’s always prayer. And in fact, defenders of the death industries often tout prayer and faith when faced with skeptics: Y’all just don’t have faith—things will work themselves out. But it’s the pray-like-hell set that appears to be lacking faith—faith in empiricism and scientific inquiry. They’re bastardizing religion to justify their own reckless self-indulgence in a hyper-consumerist culture and the short-term profits the death industries offer to morally challenged investors. And they’re disrespecting their own gods by fouling their supposed creations. Driving your Tahoe to a house of worship won’t really help contain runaway global warming.

Don’t hate me for saying so, but sometimes prayer has limited efficacy. That’s why cops carry guns. At least, I’d argue, prayer should not be the only tool in the tool chest, and certainly not the first one you turn to when you’ve made a big mess. So that brings us back to contingency plans—fire extinguishers and spare tires. And the major toxic industries seem to be lacking any real contingency plans, apart from filing for bankruptcy.

Now, back to BP. The ocean, and the fiscal entity we now know as BP, can both die. The money from BP’s recklessness, however, has already been made. That’s because on Wall Street, the smart money moves daily, like at a casino. Nobody invests long-term on a card game. You play your hand, and you take your winnings or lament your losses, then you play again. BP’s wild and reckless cost-cutting turned huge short-term profits. Investors have since been moving in and out of BP stock, riding the waves up and down, surfing to avoid the breakers. The people who owned BP yesterday might not be the saps holding the stock today, should the ocean floor erupt in an uncorkable environmental cataclysm.

That brings us back to the mystery plumber’s cork. At press time, the Coast Guard is expressing concern that the pressure buildup behind the cork might cause the well to blow open right through the ocean floor. If this happens, the entire sea of oil will enter the ocean, with no relief well or cap able to stop it. At stake with this roll of the dice might be the future of the Atlantic Ocean, and all life that depends on it. Of course, the odds are pretty strong that BP’s cork will hold, and BP’s stock needs such an apparent fix to buoy it—and in the end, that’s what BP’s game is really all about. BP has always played the odds, and played them without a contingency plan for losing. What compulsive gambler goes to Vegas with a Plan B?

So let’s get this straight. BP is a federally convicted criminal enterprise with a track record for lying and making wild bets with our global environment. Their days of calling the shots should be over. Now if only the US government had a contingency plan.

Dr. Michael I. Niman is a professor of journalism and media studies at Buffalo State College. His previous Artvoice columns are available at artvoice.com, archived at www.mediastudy.com, and available globally through syndication.


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