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Our Deepwater Titanic: A lesson we must learn

By Staff | Jun 9, 2010

On April 15, 1912, four days into its maiden voyage, the RMS Titanic struck an iceberg in the north Atlantic and sank to the bottom of the sea in less than three hours. Designed by the most experienced engineers of the era and employing the cutting edge technology of the age, the Titanic was deemed unsinkable by its arrogant owners and accomplished builders.

Owned by the Cunard Line and registered out of Liverpool, England, the Titanic did not carry enough lifeboats for all of the 2,223 passengers on board. Because the ship was unsinkable, having enough lifeboats was not required. In the freezing water of the north Atlantic, in the dark of that dreadful night, 1,517 of the Titanic’s passengers died. Many drowned, but most, including the rich and famous, perished from hypothermia. The lesson learned from this tragedy is simple—no ship is unsinkable.

Ninety-eight years later, on April 22, 2010, after a catastrophic oil well blowout that occurred two days beforehand, the Deepwater Horizon oil drilling platform collapsed and sank to the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico. Built by Hyundai Heavy Industries in South Korea and owned by Transocean Ltd. of Vernier, Switzerland, the well itself was owned and operated by British Petroleum (BP), headquartered in London, England. April 22, 2010, was, ironically, International Earth Day. Eleven people died during the initial explosion, while another 17 were taken to trauma centers in Alabama and Louisiana.

In 2003, at the persuasion of BP, the Minerals Management Service (MMS) had ruled that the well did not require an acoustically-activated blowout preventer because the chances of such a major blowout was all but impossible. The U.S. Department of the Interior conveniently exempted BP from producing a detailed environmental impact study that would have helped contain the oil spill beca  use a massive oil spill was unlikely.

The similarities of these two catastrophes are uncanny. Both point to an overwhelming sense of hubris by corporations that feel they can exist above the powerful forces of nature. They cannot. Whether those forces are unseen icebergs or unexpected bubbles of methane rushing toward the surface, nature will always prevail over the industries of mankind.

The coverup and spin from the corporations involved began only hours after the incident. At first we were told the well was leaking 1,000 barrels a day (42,000 gallons). That number was soon increased to 5,000 barrels (210,000 gallons). In their documents submitted to drill the well, BP estimated the "worst case scenario" flow at 162,000 barrels a day (6,800,000 gallons). Estimates of the actual flow, based on the live video feed, range from a low of 12,000 barrels (500,000 gallons) to as much as 100,000 barrels a day (4,200,000 gallons). The well itself, according to British Petroleum’s own estimates, may contain 50 million barrels of oil (2,100,000,000 gallons).

The arithmetic of this disaster is nothing short of astonishing. If the well remains uncapped and the relief wells (being completed at the height of hurricane season) fail, the well could continue to pump crude oil, methane and natural gas into the Gulf of Mexico for 11.5 years if the average outflow is indeed 12 ,000 barrels a day.

The crowds that chanted "Drill, Baby, Drill," during the past few years have grown eerily silent. Despite the debacle, oil industry representatives have been comparing the Deepwater Horizon oil spill to little more than a airplane crash in hopes of diffusing the political impact of this mega-disaster. If a single airplane crashes, they argue, do you then shut down the entire airline industry?

The answer is yes. If corporations were operating airplanes that were so lethal that a single crash could result in an oil slick the size of Delaware and Rhode Island combined, a crash that endangered the livelihoods of millions of people in the seafood, tourist and real estate industries for generations to come, no sane government in the world would allow those toxic airplanes to fly. The risk would not equal the reward.

The oil-covered wetlands of Louisiana will now be followed by destroyed estuaries in Alabama, Mississippi, Florida, then possibly Texas and beyond. The dead porpoises, tarred birds and stinking beaches will proliferate. The oil will spew forth from this well drilled straight into hell for months, if not years to come.

This is the lesson we must take from the Deepwater Titanic. The only safe oil drilling platform in the ocean, anywhere on this earth, is the one that is never deployed. These are not oil wells, they are nuclear bombs in their ability to wreak widespread devastation. For decade after decade, America has been talking about energy independence while doing little to move in that direction. Enough sunshine falls on the earth in one hour to meet the entire energy needs of all humanity for one year.

On May 25, 1961 John F. Kennedy announced that we were going to put a man on the moon by the end of that decade. On July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong stepped on the surface of the moon saying, "One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind." We need an energy program equivalent to the Apollo Program and we’ve needed it for the past half century.

It is time we learn something from these two abject lessons in humility. We do not have enough life boats on board our planet to allow for any more deepwater oil drilling. We must pull all the deepwater drilling permits immediately, impose stiff carbon taxes on the petroleum, natural gas and coal industries, including increased taxes on all of us who are addicted to gasoline, natural gas and fuel oil and reinvest those billions of dollars into clean, non-greenhouse gas producing industries such as wind, tidal, geothermal and solar energy systems.

We must abandon oil, coal and gas while there is still time. Burning fossil fuels at our current level is helping to trap greenhouse gases such as CO2, which in turn are increasing hurricane strengths and melting the polar ice caps, both of which are even larger issues than the death of the Gulf of Mexico.

Like nuclear proliferation in the 1950s, our addiction to oil is fast becoming our own version of MAD — mutual assured destruction, only this time it’s our entire biosphere that’s at risk. The questions you have to ask yourself, and your children, are these: Are we willing to kill our planet for cheap oil? Are we all just unwitting passengers on our own Titanic Earth?

(Charles Sobczak is a Florida author who lives and writes on Sanibel. His works include the novel "Six Mornings on Sanibel" and "LIVING SANIBEL – A Nature Guide to Sanibel & Captiva Islands." For additional information about Sobczak, visit www.indigopress.net.)