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Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Gulf Spill Lies
distributed 6/25/10 - ©2010

For over two months, oil has gushed from the failed deep water oil well in the Gulf of Mexico. Vast oil slicks spread broadly across the sea, and petroleum gunk fouls beaches and wetlands. Far below the ocean surface, plumes of oil and dispersant chemicals wreak a different kind of havoc. As a nation, we are horrified by this continuing calamity.

I am deeply disturbed by ongoing PR campaigns that seek to minimize and normalize this disaster. Self-interested powers -- in the oil and gas industries, in Gulf coast communities so closely tied to those businesses, and in politics -- seek to downplay the crisis, and to reassure us that this is both a unique event and that it is acceptable.

It is essential that we all speak out to rebut the distortions that try to portray the crisis as somehow “OK”. I see two such distortions that need to be addressed: the claim that this spill is unprecedented, and a widely-circulating analogy which implies that this disaster does not call for an extraordinary response.

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On Tuesday, the Denver Post printed a full-page ad, "a message for America's oil and natural gas industry." I presume it also was published in many other papers across the country. It acknowledged that the oil spill “is a terrible tragedy”, and promised that their industry is doing good things. That's fine if they want to put a good spin on their tarnished business.

In the middle of the page was a statement that I find highly objectionable: "Nothing like the Deepwater Horizon spill has ever occurred in more than 60 years of oil and natural gas exploration in U.S. waters of the Gulf of Mexico." Note the important condition within that sentence: "in U.S. waters of the Gulf of Mexico." Those words are necessary because of at least two very similar catastrophes where deepwater rigs had catastrophic blowout events that require relief wells to stop the flow of oil.

In 1979, the Ixtoc I drilling platform in Mexican waters of the Gulf had a strikingly similar failure, and it took 10 months to for relief wells to stop the flow of oil

Just last year, an accident off the coast of Australian, known as the Montara spill, began Aug. 21 with a blowout of high-pressure oil similar to current one in the gulf. The first four attempts at drilling relief wells missed the original well. A fifth attempt finally intersected the original on Nov. 1, and the well was plugged after more than three months.

It is technically accurate, but highly misleading, to suggest that nothing like this has ever occurred. That deceptive statement is only possible though the conditional phrase that hides the two parallel incidents. The implication that offshore drilling is free from failures is dishonest. The fact that two of those events -- the one in Australia and the current one in the US -- have happened within a year is a clear indicator that this form of drilling is flawed and dangerous.

Baseball statistics can get away with those sorts of narrow descriptions -- no left-handed pitcher has ever had a no-hitter in Denver on a Tuesday -- but it is a terrible way to shape public opinion about industrial technology. The lie that "this has never happened" needs to be quickly and clearly rejected whenever it appears.

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The second deceptive message builds on the notion that the current spill in the Gulf is unique, and that there has only been one accident. Somebody created a bizarre analogy that says, "We don't ground all the airlines when one plane crashes. Why stop all drilling when one well fails?"

That analogy has been used often in reaction to the Interior Department's freeze on new deepwater drilling. (The freeze is now being challenged in the courts.) The analogy really is bizarre -- comparing a regional ecological catastrophe to a tragic but localized event -- and it operates at an emotional level, not a rational one. It can, and must, be attacked on at least two points of fact.

First, as noted above, the problem is not that one well has failed, but that there is a pattern of uncontrollable consequences in the several examples of deepwater well failures. We've seen this happen several times, and it always turns out badly.

Secondly, there is a history of dramatic interventions in the presence of extreme risks. The US military, as a prime example, frequently grounds a whole class of aircraft when a recurring pattern of failures occur.

According to an August, 1999, press release, "The Army said Monday it had grounded its 466 CH-47 Chinook troop helicopters made by Boeing Company and advised other militaries to halt flights worldwide after a crack was found in a transmission gear of a British CH-47." In this case, no crashes had occurred from the transmission problem -- this was a preventative grounding of the helicopters.

So, yes, the Army does take actions quite parallel to the proposed 6-month freeze on deepwater drilling. Such a stand-down is "prudent" (in the Army's language) when a pattern of failures is evident. The contrasting approach, to continue new drilling in the face of evidence about unacceptable problems, must be seen as "reckless."

I have written before in Notes about a famous piece of psychological research by Stanley Milgram. His study, which was trying to explain how basically decent Germans could participate in Nazi abuses, says that people will accept horrible realities if those in power assure them that "this is the way it has to be." I see those dynamics at work around this oil spill crisis.

When big industries hand us deceptive statements that "nothing like this has ever occurred", we're being told that it is OK to continue. When an inappropriate analogy to plane crashes tells us that continuing with behaviors that have tragic consequences is normal, we're being tricked into discounting our own logic, ethics and emotions.

Milgram's research suggests that the coercive message that "it is OK, you must continue" can be short-circuited by another authoritative voice which says it is not OK. In the face of the distorted and misleading messages about the Gulf oil spill, religious and community leaders must be vocal and public in resisting and rejecting the deceptive messages.

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A brief footnote: the best analogy to the current oil spill is not airplane crashes. Might a more revealing parallel be found in the explosion of the Hindenburg? On May 6, 1937, in the process of docking in Lakehurst, New Jersey, one of the world's largest airships burst into flames in a spectacular crash. (Remarkably, only 35 of the 97 people on board were killed.)

That tragedy was not seen as an acceptable "accident." Rather, it quickly brought the end of an era. Our family's 1990 World Book Encyclopedia (remember those?) says: "Construction and operation of rigid airships in Germany came to a swift end following the destruction of the Hindenburg. ... The Hindenburg disaster marked the end of the use of airships for regular passenger service." The evolution of the airplane provided an option for both military and civilian air transportation. The dramatic explosion of an inherently unsafe craft was a tipping point that turned toward a different technology.

If we see the Deepwater Horizon and Australian spills as analogous to the Hindenburg, we'll be inclined to look for different, safer and more economically reasonable ways to address our energy needs. We'll turn toward conservation and renewable energy, and reject the many dangers of fossil fuels -- oil, coal and natural gas.

The Hindenburg marked the end of the airships. Maybe the current crisis will be seen as a turning point at the end of the oil age.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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