Reflections on the Deepwater Horizon Disaster

The explosion that sank British Petroleum’s Deepwater Horizon oil-drilling vessel/platform in the Gulf of Mexico in April was an unmitigated disaster. The accident killed 11 workers and has caused massive environmental damage, the full extent of which may not become known for months or years.

Here are some thoughts on this horrible event:

1) The deaths of 11 workers drilling for oil—less than three weeks after the deaths of 29 West Virginia coal miners—serve as a vivid reminder of the dangers faced by those who toil to supply the raw energy upon which our society depends. Most of us take for granted these vital contributors to our economic life. As one who never knew his father due to an oil-field accident long ago, I tend to view these folks as unrecognized heroes. Thank you to all who are doing this essential, dangerous work; may God comfort all who have lost loved ones in this endeavor.

2) The technologies that have been developed to extract fossil fuels from the earth are engineering marvels. Some drilling vessels in the Gulf are nearly the size of World War II-era aircraft carriers. There have been over 14,000 wells drilled in at least 700 feet of water with a superb overall safety record, including no oil spills in the Gulf despite the merciless battering inflicted by Hurricane Katrina. (Whether drilling these wells is safe enough to be permitted is a separate question that will be revisited below.) Drilling for oil in oceans five miles deep, into deposits where the temperature can reach 900 degrees and the pressure 20,000 pounds per square inch, is a colossal engineering achievement.

3) We must never forget the power of nature. Humans have devised myriad ways of fending off nature’s destructive power, but there will always be times when nature will simply overpower and overwhelm our best efforts. The explosive force that erupted through the ocean floor and destroyed Deepwater Horizon is one emphatic reminder of that awesome might.

4) Was the disaster avoidable? This is the key question. It is very tempting to jump to conclusions, but first we need more fact-finding.

There have been reports that workers saw considerable physical evidence that key parts of the built-in safety mechanisms on Deepwater Horizon had disintegrated. A preliminary congressional memo containing admissions of “mistakes” by BP reinforces the impression that the disaster might have resulted from a faulty decision-making process. If so, then this horrible tragedy will enter business-school literature as perhaps the definitive case of a dysfunctional managerial chain-of-command.

One of the oldest lessons in the book is to avoid being penny-wise and pound-foolish. How tragic and foolish it would be if it turns out that a decision was made to ignore a safety shutdown that would have cost millions, thereby resulting in an accident that surely will cost BP and related corporations billions.

There has been an unconfirmed report that government regulators gave Deepwater Horizon a pass. If so, why?

5) Finally, should we stop drilling for hydrocarbons in such deep waters? The central problem we deal with in environmental economics is whether the costs of an activity outweigh the benefits or vice versa. It isn’t always possible to accurately tabulate costs and benefits, but without a doubt, the environmental and humans costs of the Deepwater Horizon disaster are gargantuan.

I certainly can’t say whether deep-sea oil development should continue. With 20 percent of the oil consumed in the United States coming from the Gulf of Mexico, a complete cessation of drilling there appears to be out of the question. Certainly, though, there will be a re-examination of where drilling will be allowed.

Many people are asking why there is drilling in such deep waters. This is a complex issue with multiple factors to consider, but ironically, environmentalists may be partly responsible.

For decades, environmentalists have striven to thwart the development of domestic supplies of energy. They have blocked oil exploration and development in vast tracts of Alaska, the Rocky Mountain states, and the outer continental shelf under relatively shallow waters along our coasts. Furthermore, environmentalists succeeded in preventing increased usage of another energy source that is economically competitive and ecologically and operationally the safest energy source readily and abundantly available to us—namely, nuclear energy.

If these sources of energy had not been choked off in the name of environmental protection, would energy companies be currently drilling as many higher-cost wells in deep water? Is it not possible that zealous environmentalists have unwittingly driven energy companies to drill for oil in places where perhaps they have no business drilling? Should environmentalists rethink their positions and make their peace with sources of energy that pose less of a threat to the environment than deep-water drilling?

These are important questions for environmentalists, policymakers, and indeed, all of us, to consider.

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  • Nature-worshipers are actually hostile to human survival. Until their fellow-travelers and useful idiots recognize that and repudiate them, they will continue to do everything in their power to make life more dangerous and miserable, especially for the poor.

  • North Dakota is now the fourth-largest oil producing state thanks to substantial new discoveries west of the Missouri river. As a result North Dakota has a healthy economy, a balanced budget, and a good business climate. (I live a stone’s throw from North Dakota on the east side of the Red River in Minnesota.) I consider my neighbor state’s success to be a blessing from God and even part of His plan for this region. We must not leave God out of the equation; bountiful supplies of energy and consequent economic success are a gift from Him. That’s as true for the nation as it is for one state. We should ask God for all our needs, including the needs of our country.

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  • joanspage

    The conclusion that those who wanted to stop this very thing from happening are at fault makes no sense.

    Oil and coal need to be replaced sooner rather than later. The development of green energy will create jobs and grow our economy.

    Coal kills. Oil kills. Yet we say we can’t have good jobs without them. We can. We must.

  • Incidents like this only point out how much we depend on fossil fuels. Despite all the talk and legislation to produce green energy, how far have we gone?

    At the end of the day we are all dependent of Big Energy or Big Utility to give us our energy needs.

    Mainstream media has failed in informing us of ways of producing green energy at home. Imagine if every home in the US were to produce a large chunk of their home energy needs – how much less will we need to dig from the oceans or even land.

    If you think this is fantasy, then read what’s available currently –

  • Warren Jewell

    joanspage: look at the experience of Spain, in moving prematurely toward energy works that no capital manager would stake a penny on. Two or three jobs, at least, directly lost to basic economy for every barely producing job in ‘new energy’. We’re stuck for probably decades until research makes such new ways technically productive and economical.

    There is not presently enough open space to permit even trying to produce energy at consistently solid levels due to space required for panels and mills. Worse, mills seem currently more dangerous to all life, from birds to humans. Depending on variable adequate winds and variably-cloudy sun makes ‘consistent’ yet questionable.

    Even making batteries for the hybrid and electric cars makes for piles of deadly toxic waste. And, these vehicles are not yet proving to be attractive due to higher costs than the standard combustion-engine vehicle.

    Moreover, new methods for cleaning up after coal, oil and nuclear energy are being developed every year.

    To waste funds trying for what is not possible now reduces research into the future use of the new energy means. Plus, greater energy independence adds to funds available.

    Finally, we cannot afford politicized ‘scientism’ driving things.

  • SK

    Right now the only alternative to fossile fuels is fissile fuels (yes, I did just come up with that). At the rate we’re going, wind, biofuels, and solar panels won’t make a substantial contribution to our energy needs for several years, and probably several decades. To prematurely force it unto society would devestate the economy (which is what Spain has accomplished). So if you’re really against coal, petroleum, etc., and don’t want to see poverty and unemployment rise, start supporting nuclear energy.