Today marks the 50th day oil has been spewing into the Gulf of Mexico. Thought the rate of flow and total amount are still unknown, it’s been largely agreed upon that this is the largest oil release ever in U.S. territorial waters, eclipsing the 1989 Exxon Valdez incident. As the event is still ongoing and difficult to estimate accurately, it is unclear where this event will rank when the oil finally stops gushing.
The environmental and economic effect on the area, and perhaps the world, is still largely unknown. The damage is already vast, and it’s unclear when the leak will end. The ecosystem of the Gulf region will be altered for generations to come, if not forever. A negative economic impact has already been felt by those who fish in affected waters, and the effect on tourism is likely to worsen as the slick grows and the summer begins.
It thus comes as good reason that, since the oil started flowing on April 20, people have been looking for someone, individually or collectively, to blame. Much talk has fallen on the corporations involved in the operation of the oil rig that exploded (British Petroleum, TransOcean, and Halliburton) that led to the current state of affairs. Others have cried out that the government regulators from the Minerals Management Service failed to do enough to prevent this occurrence. Some have said the blame then falls on others within the government, including the president, and others have even pushed blame to environmentalists, saying the need to drill in the Gulf would have been avoided by drilling in Alaska.
However, as I’ve reflected on what appears to be the new reality for the Gulf of Mexico, I think blaming the people and entities listed above is a bit shortsighted. If we’re going to truly answer the questions, “Why did this happen? Who can we blame?” we need to move beyond the specific and look at the bigger picture. When we do this, the answer to the question of blame hits much closer to home.
Who is to blame? You and me.
The reason we all are to blame stems from the answer to the other question, Why did this happen? BP didn’t just decide to poke a hole in the earth, in a place where sunlight doesn’t even reach, because they were bored and thought it would be fun. It wasn’t part of some scientific mission either, or an attempt to “go where no man (or woman) has gone before.” No, it’s because we asked them to.
“Well I certainly didn’t ask them to,” you may be saying. You may not have written them a letter, no, but the high demand for oil, and especially the stated U.S. desire to lessen dependence on “foreign” oil, gave BP economic incentives to search for oil anywhere they could find it. One such place they decided to search happened to be 50 miles off the coast of Louisiana, 5000 feet under the water’s surface.
Every time you put gasoline in your car, purchase an airplane ticket, or use any other oil byproduct, you’re telling the oil providers to “keep it coming.” While the U.S. does not rank #1 in per capita oil use, a 2008 estimate put the U.S. total use of oil at #1, approximately 33% more oil than the entire European Union, and 2 1/2 times the amount used in China. In addition to the massive amounts of oil we demand, we also crave cheap oil, which can only be sustained by continued high production levels across the world.
While many would argue this specific event could have been avoided, as Jeff Potent noted in a May 16 Letter to the Editor of the International Herald Tribune, such events are a “predictable outcome” of the current oil economy. Until we collectively alter the system, “accidents” will happen, oil will flow, and we all will have to deal with the consequences.
Our oil-dependent society needs to practice some preventative medicine, and perhaps the current events happening in the Gulf of Mexico will be the heart attack that helps us all realize that little bit of truth.
I’m not so confident it will happen, but I can hope.