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July 28, 2015


My followers know that I usually write about the intersection of economics with government, but that I sometimes depart from that menu. This is one such departure. This essay will discuss the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico as five years have now come and gone, an anniversary most lament and some may secretly cheer, i.e., those who profit from cleanups from disasters. I number among the lamenter group.

It so happens that I have an unusually sharp interest in this horrid event via happenstance. My older daughter was serving on staff at a Midwestern university when a call came from Washington offering her a “special expert” designation to serve as federal liaison to the states’ disaster authorities that were affected by the spill. The appointment was for 18 months and her salary and expenses did not cost you and me as taxpayers a penny. The president insisted that BP pay for all such costs – and they did. She took a leave of absence from the university and visited and worked with the affected states’ disaster authorities to coordinate their respective responses to the tragedy.

Disaster authorities in one such state were nonplussed that not only a Yankee was sent from Washington to help them coordinate their responses – but a woman! My daughter ended that antebellum thinking with an announcement that she was there for a disaster effort and that politics and disaster relief do not mix. She was and is right. Catastrophes are not subject to the vote.

Upon completion of her 18-months’ stint, she went back to her university position, but received another call from Washington, this time from an admiral who wanted her to work in his agency. She returned, and moved up to his chief of staff several months ago. She is what is called a “disaster relief expert,” whatever that is. It may have something to do with her experiences prior to her first call to Washington. She was present at the Oklahoma City disaster (an explosion engineered by a Christian veteran – not a Muslim); she was present at Katrina in New Orleans etc. She has since been present at several tornados and most recently worked on an HIV outbreak in Scott County, Indiana. I darkly joked with her that I had been in a war (WW II) and that she had seen more dead bodies than I have.

The foregoing explains my special interest in the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, though I had and have an abiding interest in any disaster, especially ones that didn’t need to happen. The BP Deepwater Horizon rig blew due to negligence and penny-pinching on safety measures that could have been taken so that the event would never have occurred. The blown rig killed eleven men and for the next 87 days dumped hundreds of millions of gallons of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico. It is, in my estimation, unforgiveable and I, for one, have boycotted BP products ever since, just as I have Exxon with their drunk captain who fouled Prince William Sound in Alaska over 25 years ago, a disaster from which the herring population has still not recovered and whose long-term effects are yet unknown.

We all remember the symbol of the BP catastrophe – the oil drenched brown pelican – as David Gessner so vividly describes it in the current edition of Audubon Magazine. What we don’t hear much about is the white pelican, which migrates to Minnesota and North Dakota and even to the prairie provinces of Canada. Brown pelicans do not migrate. It appears that the Gulf states were not the only venues adversely affected by BP’s gross negligence and befuddled attempts to stop the flow for 87 days; add Minnesota, North Dakota and even Canada to the mix.

Studies being conducted by biologists from North Dakota State University and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources on white pelicans (where 12,000 to 14,000 pairs nest in May and June 1,400 miles from the Gulf of Mexico) indicate the far-reaching consequences of the BP disaster. The researchers are looking at eggs and the odd-looking bill knobs, which are shed after mating season. They are finding evidence that the white pelicans’ eggs have been adversely affected by not only the oil spill but also the dispersants that BP threw at the oil spill. Thus not only the affected Gulf states have claims against any ultimate settlement with BP, but even some of our northern states and even Canada may have claims on such a fund as well. I understand that BP has finally settled all claims recently, but there is no way mere money can ever bring back what was, or (since we don’t yet know its ultimate effects) what will be.

We are talking about much more than birds, shrimp and fish. We are talking human beings who cannot know what will be. Obviously long term studies of where humans and their environment stand cannot be conducted to give us valid results. For instance (and this doesn’t grab the headlines), not all of the oil leaks in the Gulf belong to BP. BP and its competing oil drillers in the Gulf dump oil in the Gulf from slow leaks and spills as matters of routine in their operations. The beat goes on, and on. The degradation continues in fits and spurts, and finally – Deepwater!

Experts note that we continue to condone and allow ever-riskier deepwater exploration with newer and inherently riskier technology. They also won’t say it out loud, but another major Gulf spill is en route. It has to happen. Gessner philosophizes that, having “fallen hard for this doomed and dying place” (the Gulf), he sees “a living embodiment of the clash between our need to consume and our love of beauty,” but that other than that, he is certain of nothing.

Perhaps there is no good reason to think that the Gulf can survive given the fact of leaking oil and rising seas and sinking land. I disagree; I think it can survive. The oil industry, like the buggy industry with the advent of the horseless carriage, will have to take a hit in the interests of progress and perhaps even our survival. We can clean up our environmental act in burning fossil fuel, massively invest in alternative and non-polluting energy sources and treat our groaning planet as the living organism it is. If we do that (and the sooner the better), we will have removed opportunities (read oil derricks in the Gulf) for disaster while acting rationally for the benefit of all who inhabit this swirling, tilting third rock from the sun.

We can consume and have beauty. It matters what we consume, which is a matter of choice. I come down on the side of choosing systems of energy production that do not maim the planet’s air and water as science provides us with options to not only survive, but comfortably so.  GERALD    E

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