A Titanic Challenge

Week in Review / by Lee Billings /

What might a glut of hydrocarbons in the Gulf of Mexico—and a dearth of them on Saturn's moon, Titan—imply about humanity's long-term prospects?

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Credit: International Bird Rescue Research Center

As a boy growing up in the southeastern US, I was fortunate to visit the shoreline of the Gulf of Mexico multiple times. On most of those trips, if I rose early enough, the same beautiful spectacle greeted me on the beach: Brown Pelicans with wings outstretched in the cool salt-tinged air, silently gliding in aerodynamic V-formations above the surf in search of fish. Once they found their prey, the pelicans would begin “working” the surface, soaring high in the air to clasp their wings to their bodies before dive-bombing the schooling fish below.

Skippers of charter fishing boats often followed the pelicans, throwing nets over the side to haul aboard bait of mullet and menhaden before heading offshore to trawl near sandbars and shrimp boats for shark, tarpon, and amberjack. The fishermen had learned that the pelicans knew before anything or anyone else where the day’s catch was. They had grown to respect and rely on the birds in a way that, though depriving the pelicans some portion of sustenance, seemed sustainable. To see even this imperfect stability emerging for the pelicans was heartening, since they were still recovering from heavy damages inflicted by DDT and other pesticides in prior decades.

Recently I’ve found myself thinking again and again of those pelicans, and of something the late physicist Richard Feynman once wrote: “For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for Nature cannot be fooled.” Feynman was writing about the 1986 Challenger disaster, in which a faulty rubber “O-ring” seal on a rocket booster led to the mid-flight destruction of a space shuttle and the deaths of 7 astronauts. The Challenger’s highly publicized launch had taken place on a morning too cold for the rocket-booster seals to function optimally; NASA personnel had known that low temperatures compromised O-ring performance. High-profile pressure to deliver results on schedule had doomed Challenger and its crew.

Feynman’s words apply equally well if not better to the present situation in the Gulf of Mexico, where the Macondo well, a vast oil reservoir, has been leaking untold thousands of barrels of oil each day since the April 20th malfunction of the Deepwater Horizon, an offshore oilrig leased by British Petroleum (BP). Like a space shuttle, a deepwater drilling platform is a marvel of engineering built to operate in extreme environments, a complex system with multiple vulnerabilities and potentially disastrous failure modes. In both accidents a questionable seal played a role, though the Deepwater Horizon’s was of cement rather than rubber. And like NASA years ago, despite clear and present dangers BP apparently chose to forge ahead in pursuit of short-term payoff rather than taking the costly but safer route of postponing operations.

It’s now clear that Feynman’s statement, famous as it is, has nonetheless gone largely unheeded. The slipshod and slow responses of BP and the US government suggest that oil executives and federal regulators foolishly approved the use of technology to drill a hole in the world that could not be readily plugged. Now all that can really be done is minimize the repercussions.

But the torrent of bad news—and of leaking oil—shows few signs of stopping. The Department of Justice has launched civil and criminal inquiries into the Gulf spill. Tentative reports have surfaced of additional leaks and structural instability in the Macondo well, which could greatly complicate BP’s fallback strategy of drilling “relief wells” to stanch the oil flow. The existence of huge underwater oil plumes has been confirmed, accompanied by hordes of bacteria that could spawn huge anoxic oceanic “dead zones” through their oil-devouring gluttony.

Worst of all for BP, a reckoning of the environmental costs has finally found its way into the public consciousness via heartbreaking photos of dying Brown Pelicans and other birds covered in oil. About six months ago, the species was declared no longer endangered, but it seems likely to return to that status soon. Even after laborious rescue and cleaning, an oiled bird’s chances for survival are vanishingly slim. Still, such birds may gain indirect revenge: Their documented suffering can only exacerbate the ongoing plunge in BP’s stock value. The company is fast becoming a ripe target for hostile takeover attempts from its chief competitors.

For oil-drenched regions, no one can yet say when Gulf pelicans will wheel and dive again over waters rich with fish, much less when fishermen will rely on the birds for guidance, or when beach-goers will again marvel at their beauty. A fragile stability has been shattered. Yet the greatest sadness in all this may be that, while anyone can feel pity and outrage upon seeing a single dying bird, nearly everyone stands mute before the spill’s most insidious effects. They are simply too large, too widely distributed in space and time, for easy comprehension by a human mind.

Some of these effects are playing out in the Gulf beneath the waves or in disrupted coastal communities, but much of the disaster’s noxiousness has migrated to Washington, DC. There, the worst oil spill in the nation’s history has somehow become an excuse to stifle action on combating climate change and to delay the transition to an economy less dependent on fossil fuels—despite evidence that most Americans support such reforms. It seems the only thing harder to quantify than the obscene amount of crude jetting from Macondo is the depth of folly enabled by our present sociopolitical systems.

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