The elegant blonde lady who appears in all the Exxon commercials on TV should now appear with scorched hair, blackened face and wet clothes. It’s the least she could do after years of assuring us that, among other things, to worry about the safety of offshore oil drilling is soooo 1990. With our technology and expertise, the industry murmurs daily, nothing can go wrongongongongong.
It’s been interesting to watch the progression of industry statements during the unfolding catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico, where an explosion aboard an offshore oil rig on April 20 killed 11 people and set the rig ablaze. Industry says: Unfortunate accident, one-in-a-million kind of thing, not to worry, we’ll put the fire out and carry on. We have the technology. What caused the explosion? We don’t have the foggiest, sorry.
Then the oil rig sank, in 5,000 feet of water, on top of the wellhead. Industry says: Unfortunate, one-in-a-million kind of thing, but not to worry, we have the technology in place that shuts off the wellhead should something like this happen, and there will be no significant leakage of oil into the Gulf. Is it in fact leaking now? We don’t have the foggiest, sorry.
Then a leakage of 1,000 barrels of oil a day was discovered. And it was revealed that the shutoff valve on the wellhead, which lies a mile deep, remember, did not have a remote control as other, similar valves do. Which means that robot submarines, the very latest technological sneeze, have to go down and turn the spigot. And this after all is BP, the Beyond Petroleum folks who have recently blown up one of their refineries in Texas, sprung a leak in one of their uninspected, undermaintained pipelines in Alaska, and found themselves unable to finish building another offshore rig, thank goodness.
Industry says: Not to worry, these things happen, we know how to handle this, we have the technology; some floating thingies to surround the slick, some toxic chemicals to dump on it, everything is under control. We’re sending a sub down to turn off the oil and all will soon be well. Anyway, it’s so far off shore that the spilled oil won’t damage the Louisiana coast.
[It’s interesting to note that the news stories of a few days ago, and I’m talking NPR here, not Fox, kept stressing that “environmentalists” were concerned that the oil spill might affect the coast. Curious assumptions: that millions of gallons of crude oil in the waters of the Gulf do no damage until they are on shore; and the only people worried about it are card-carrying, clog-wearing, tree-hugging environmentalists, not real people, like fishermen and shrimpers and oystermen and workers at food processing plants and tourist attractions.]
So today we learn that the oil has been leaking at a rate of 5,000 barrels, nearly a quarter million gallons, per day, five times the previous, reluctant industry estimate. The surface slick now measures 100 miles by 45 miles, and there are not enough floating thingies on the planet to surround it. Nor are there enough to protect the Louisiana coast, which is expected to see the first crude wash ashore tomorrow, there are only enough to protect “the most sensitive areas” of the coast, never mind the now-threatened shores of Mississippi, Alabama and Florida. Please point out on a map, BP, the areas of the coast that unlike the “most sensitive areas” are immune to a coating of crude oil. Ask the people of the south coast of Alaska, if you need assistance.
Now BP, like the Exxon lady, is well aware that in today’s Orwellian, Newspeaking world it is far more important to appear to be doing something than to be doing something. So they and the Coast Guard put on quite a show yesterday, corraling a few thousands of gallons of oil (a tiny fragment of the spill so far) on the surface and setting it afire. What would be left, they said proudly, would not pose a threat to the marine environment. And the plumes of black smoke the size of a small country, what were they, ecologically speaking? Bird feed?
When the Cuyahoga River caught fire in Cleveland in 1964, the sight of a river on fire spurred the nation into a paroxysm of environmental protection. The sight of the Gulf of Mexico burning was staged to reassure us. How far we have come.
So as Bill Maher says, New Rules: this Sunday during a break in Meet the Press, the Exxon lady has to stagger out in blackface, her clothes and hair smoking and reeking of oil, to stare blankly at the camera and say, “I don’t know what the *%&*@* happened.”