Reflections on the Fifth Anniversary of One of the Biggest Oil Spills in History
In memory of Gabriel García Márquez, March 6, 1927-April 17, 2014.
In September of 2009, the BP corporation dug the deepest oil well in history. The 35,055-foot deep Tiber prospect, 300 miles off the Texas coast, promised six billion barrels: one of the largest oil fields ever discovered in the country. So of course, they kept looking for more: They moved their massive drilling rig named Deepwater Horizon fifty miles south of the Louisiana coastline, to a prospect called Macondo, named after the setting of the famous book 100 Years of Solitude, by Gabriel García Márquez.
On April 20, 2010, as they began to seal the well, something went wrong: a mix of oil and gas escaped, rushing up through earth and water, blowing up the Deepwater Horizon, and killing eleven workers, whose bodies were never recovered. Over the next eighty seven days, the whole world watched as over 200 million gallons of oil erupted from the ocean floor into the Gulf of Mexico.
It was the largest oil spill in history – more than ten times the size of the Exxon Valdez disaster in Alaska. The images of animals covered in oil began to haunt our screens again, and the scale of death was so great it still seems impossible to quantify – estimates of the number of birds killed within the first hundred days ranges between 100,000 and one million. But the real nightmare was offshore, as riptides and hired hands collected thousands of animal carcasses into “death gyres”. Riki Ott explains:
“Hurricane Creekkeeper John Wathen managed to get the only footage of what I came to call the ‘death gyres.’ the rip currents that collected dead animals offshore. The Incident Command – BP and the US Coast Guard – kept the media 1,500 feet up in the air so the press couldn’t really capture the situation there. The animal carcasses were corralled, taken out to sea, and dumped at night, according to fishermen who were involved with so-called ‘Night-time Operations.’ Offshore workers reported ‘thousands of dolphins, birds too numerous to count, sea turtles too numerous to count,’ and even whales in the death gyres.” (Earth at Risk, Building a Resistance Movement to Save the Planet, edited by Derrick Jensen and Lierre Keith, p. 49)
Five years later, what can we say? If hindsight is 20-20 then presumably we can learn from our mistakes. How did it happen? Was it BP’s fault? Or is there a bigger picture to blame? Five years later, the common sense of this tragedy has yet to dawn, as if the oil has clogged our hearts and minds along with our oceans and beaches. Like the pioneers of Márquez’s Macondo, searching for a way through the swamp, we seem lost, desperately hacking our way through nature and through our own nature. And the past, like the path, seems to always be disappearing behind us.
“…and the cries of the birds and the uproar of the monkeys became more and more remote, and the world became eternally sad. The men on the expedition felt overwhelmed by their most ancient memories in that paradise of dampness and silence, going back to before original sin, as their boots sank into pools of steaming oil and their machetes destroyed bloody lilies and golden salamanders. . . . They could not return because the strip that they were opening as they went along would soon close up with a new vegetation that almost seemed to grow before their eyes.” (Márquez, p. 11-12)
How did it Happen?
“The main thing is not to lose our bearings.” (Márquez, p. 12)
Whodunit? What was the crime scene, and who are the criminals? What murder weapon spawned gyres of death? Five years later, we must look through the tangled jungle of events which have grown up behind us, and remember how we got here. Michael Klare’s insightful blow-by-blow of the events leading up to the accident is worth revisiting.
“When BP first deployed the rig at the Macondo prospect in January 2010, it set a target date of March 7 for completion of that well. However, due to a series of geological obstacles and technical mishaps, drilling was not completed until April 19, producing a cost overrun on the project of approximately $58 million. It is not surprising, then, that BP’s site managers felt particular pressure to seal the well and move the Deepwater Horizon, to its next scheduled location. In their rush, the site managers made several last-minute decisions. . . . When preparing for the final cementing that would prevent natural gas from leaking into the wellbore, for instance, they decided to use only six “centralizers” to position the well’s steel casing, whereas the original design had called for twenty-one centralizers. They also went ahead with the sealing of the well even though several ‘negative-pressure’ tests suggested a dangerous buildup of gas in the wellbore. . . . the desire to complete the job swiftly and move the expensive drillship to its next assignment certainly contributed to the disaster.” (The Race for What’s Left, The global scramble for the world’s last resources, Klare, p. 47-8)
One way to solve this crime is to blame the workers – the crime scene is the workplace, and the murder weapon is the botched job. They failed to follow industry regulations; using less than half of the recommended number of centralizers, and ignoring the test results indicating a dangerous buildup of gas. But this explanation is not sufficient, and hides another suspect. If the workers pulled the trigger, who gave the order?
As Klare explains, the workers were in a rush. It was the BP site managers – their cost overrun, their “pressure to seal the well and move,” and the “desire to complete the job swiftly,” which created the conditions in which the oil workers made their fateful decisions. So is BP the murderer? Is the crime scene the BP board room?
At the dawn of the 21st century, BP had a tabloid affair with alternative energy. John Browne, its CEO from 1995 to 2007 re-branded the company, from “British Petroleum” to “Beyond Petroleum”, and urged its shareholders and broader public “to look beyond oil and gas to fuels which can be produced locally and which do not threaten the sustainability of the world’s climate.” In 2008, Browne was replaced by Tony Hayward, whose more sober vision re-branded the company simply “BP”, and clarified that “the energy of the future will be more than oil, but oil will still be a major part of it.” In 2010 he closed BP’s “alternative energy office.” (Klare, p. 41)
Perhaps the public relations team from that office had all been moved to the Gulf Coast, where it has been working overtime since 2010. This has included classroom visits with “hands-on” experiments, substituting cocoa for oil and dish soap for chemical dispersant, to win young hearts and minds to the efficacy of BP’s cleanup efforts. According to the company, the case is closed. A recently released report from BP concluded: “BP has seen no data to suggest a significant long-term population-level impact to any species.” In fact, “BP is claiming that wildlife in the Gulf is thriving and more abundant since the disaster.” (Jensen and Keith, p. 61) In a recent press conference, BP’s executive vice president for response and environmental restoration in the region Laura Folse said “I personally have no concern about oil washing in from the offshore to the shoreline.”
BP is preparing for the punchline, because currently pending in court is the case which will decide how much money BP has to pay in damages for the disaster. While BP is a giant – listed by Fortune magazine as the fourth largest publicly held company in the world – some on Wall Street have expressed fear that the court’s decision could kill the company. This panic began almost immediately after the spill, and BP began to sell off assets all over the world, in Colombia, Egypt, the US, Canada and Argentina. (Klare, p. 215, 216)
But according to forensic accounting expert Ian Ratner who testified recently on the case, BP “actually, has a better balance sheet today than it had before the spill.” Despite around $40 billion in oil spill liabilities, the company is financially better off than before the disaster. What’s more, they are back at the scene of the crime: “We expect to be back and actively drilling during the second half of the year,” said BP Chief Financial Offcer Byron Grote in April 2011. And he kept his promise: like Colonel Buendía in Márquez’s novel, BP gives orders for execution but is isolated and naive about to the results: “Lost in the solitude of his immense power, he began to lose direction.” (Márquez, p. 171) BP seems both all-powerful and powerless, returning to the scene of the crime like a dog unto its vomit, at the mercy of some god or godlessness which demands more drilling.
There is more than meets the eye in this case. Is BP the only culprit on trial? If the workers pulled the trigger, and BP gave the order, who put the gun in its hand? And who made the gun? There is an African saying that “if you want to get at the root of the murder, you have to look for the blacksmith who made the machete.” (Anthills of the Savannah, Chinua Achebe, p. 159)
The World System
“That was perhaps the only mystery that was never cleared up in Macondo. . . . A trickle of blood came out under the door, crossed the living room, went out into the street, continued on in a straight line across the uneven terraces, went down steps and climbed over curbs, passed along the Street of the Turks, turned a corner to the right and another to the left, made a right angle at the Buendía house, went in under the closed door, crossed through the parlor, hugging the walls so as not to stain the rugs, went on to the other living room, made a wide curve to avoid the dining-room table, went along the porch with the begonias, and passed without being seen under Amaranta’s chair as she gave an arithmetic lesson to Aureliano José, and went through the pantry and came out in the kitchen, where Úrsula was getting ready to crack thirty-six eggs to make bread.” (Márquez, p. 135)
What was the blacksmith that built and blew the Deepwater Horizon? Like the mystery of Macondo in Márquez’s story, the trail of blood climbs and descends, turns corners and crosses paths, taking us from the work place, to the board room, to the stock exchange, and from there it seems to flow into the ocean of normal every-day modern life. As Lamar McKay, chairman and president of BP America said, “the deepwater is indispensable to the world’s energy future.” (Klare, p. 69) The trail doesn’t go cold, it goes everywhere. Like the war of Colonel Buendía, our search for justice in the death gyres seems to get stuck in a stalemate of business as usual: “’Everything normal, Colonel.’ And normality was precisely the most fearful part of that infinite war.” (Márquez, p. 171)
In the early 2000s, the deep sea drilling industry boomed. All the big oil corporations competed to dig the deepest wells, at depths and conditions that boggle the imagination – deeper than Mt. Everest is tall, under thousands of feet of water (and pressure). These projects out-compete space exploration in the audacity of their engineering and in their cost: Shell built a rig called Mars that was three times more expensive than the Mars Pathfinder mission, with arguably more complex technology. (Klare, p. 44) While their locations are industry secrets – no one knows how many or where they all are – they are everywhere, from the Falkland Islands to the Arctic Circle, from South America to West Africa.
A 2010 report by energy expert Michael Smith estimated that big oil would spend $387 billion on offshore drilling between 2010 and 2014 – 33% more than over the previous five years – building 20,000 offshore wells in ever deeper waters. (Klare, p. 44-45) The Deepwater Horizon explosion, which came nineteen days after President Obama announced plans for more offshore drilling, did little or nothing to change the plan. Three days after the explosion, with Macondo still gushing, a White House spokesperson assured that increase in offshore drilling would continue, promising that it would be done “safely, securely, and without harm to the environment.” (Klare, p. 51)
Before Deepwater Horizon, regulations on the industry had been lax. In the United States, the Interior Department’s Mineral Management Service (MMS) took a hands-off approach to the industry, never, for instance, setting any criteria for minimum-pressure tests, which had such fateful consequences in the Gulf. (Klare, p. 50) After a six month moratorium on drilling in the Gulf after the disaster, oil companies began to lobby the courts to being reissuing permits. A new set of safety rules was established, and by April 2011, one year after the disaster, deep drilling in the Gulf, by BP and others, was back online. (Klare, p. 52) Everything normal, Colonel.
This is the normalcy of the infinite war on mother earth: While the fallout of the disaster continues to inflict irreparable damage to the Gulf, the industry which created the crisis is allowed to resume the activity which created it. And the same agencies that failed to regulate the industry before are being trusted to do it right this time. How can this be?
The answer can be found by following the money, like the trickle of blood in Macondo, from the scene of the crime, and out into the world-system. In an energy analysis report from several years ago, it was predicted that due to declining reserves of conventional oil, offshore oil output would contribute 35 percent of global supplies by 2020. By 2015, the report continued, deep-offshore fields would be “the only source of growth to power the world’s expanding economy. . . . Any energy firm that intends to continue being involved in the production of hydrocarbons must, therefore, establish a significant presence in the major deepwater drilling zones.” (Klare, p. 45)
In other words, the industry is too big to fail – even if does fail. Big oil cannot be too strictly regulated or restricted – or punished. Their alibi is the world-system; the modern way of life. This logic was recently re-asserted by Justice Department attorney Steve O’Rourke in the buildup to the court case that will decide BP’s punishment, who said that the penalty “has to be high enough that companies of this size won’t let a spill like this ever happen again. But, again, not so high as to be ruinous to their operation.” In the great state of Louisiana, individuals who murder get capital punishment, but corporations who murder get rehabilitation. Questioned about whether the company would attempt to drill at Macondo again, BP senior vice president Kent Wells responded that “there is a good reservoir there,” and there was no reason to rule it out, because if BP didn’t, someone else would. (Klare, p. 52)
And so BP and the Gulf and all of us have come full circle, back to the scene of the crime. As death approaches for Márquez’s Ursula Buendía, so does the realization for all of us: “time was not passing. . . . it was turning in a circle.” (Márquez, p409) As big oil races ever faster and ever deeper, time somehow seems to stand still. The rush put on the workers is the rush put on the managers, is the rush put on the CEOs, is the rush put on the shareholders, is the same rush put again upon the workers. And in this “race for what’s left,” as Michael Klare calls it, we are left standing still, watching death approaching, as the drilling rigs, like monster space-age vultures, circle Macondo once again.
We must ask again, and answer again, to keep our bearings, and to clear a path to the truth: Is the crime scene the workplace, or is it the board room? The stock exchange, or the gas station down the street? Like the trickle of blood weaving through the town of Macondo, the evidence leads everywhere; back to normal modern life. The crime scene is everywhere. The murder weapon is the world-system. The criminal and the culprit is deepwater capitalism.
Deepwater capitalism is a terminal stage in the global metastasis of a social cancer we call the economy. Capitalism has gone to deep water, as it has gone to the hearts of mountains and into the depths of the earth. Offshore oil drilling is but one horseman, in a world-wide apocalypse of extreme resource extraction. The others are fracking, tar sands, and mountaintop removal. If imperialism is the highest stage of capitalism, then today’s resource extraction apocalypse reveals the highest stage of imperialism – genocide and extinction.
Captain Ahab from Moby Dick, the insane captain of a whaling ship – distant ancestors of today’s offshore oil rigs – speaks for the system: “all my means are sane, my object and my motive mad.” (Melville, p. 177) With sane means and mad motives, Captain Ahab is both a model and a metaphor for today’s economy, whose command will sink civilization. It is the immense power without direction, the normal infinite war, the gravity at the center of a world-wide death gyre.
At the beginning of the road into the swamp they put up a sign that said ‘Macondo’ and another larger one on the main street that said ‘God exists’.” (Márquez, p. 49)
Five years later we owe it to ourselves and to the world to come to some conclusions. It may take millions of years for the ecosystems of the Gulf to recover, but in the meantime we must recover our hearts and our minds from a modernity in which such disasters are normal aspects of every-day life. We must come to some conclusions about this world-system, and about the generations of people who will live and die on the front lines of an infinite struggle against an infinite war.
Regardless of the severity of the punishment BP receives, the fact that it is back at the scene of the crime, drilling, gives us an indication of the real scale of the problem. If BP is a psychopathic recidivist criminal, it is not alone. The global economy which depends on this kind of extreme resource extraction, which gives corporations like BP orders and alibis, and which bends executive, legislative and judicial power to its needs, is on the move, and it will strike again. Bhopal, Macondo, Fukushima – the beat will go on until we pull the emergency break. Michael Klare writes in conclusion to his comprehensive global survey of our doomsday terrain: “As the race for what’s left gains momentum, this sort of predatory behavior will become more frequent and more brutal. . . . Only if we abandon the race altogether . . . . can we hope to avoid calamity on a global scale.” (Klare, p. 218 and 210)
To abandon the race: This is the conclusion to which we must come. It will, however, require much more of us than the reformist measures Klare proposes – increasing efficiency, developing alternative energies, and supporting “green” versus “brown” capital. These will only buy Captain Ahab more time. It’s time for mutiny. It’s time for the emergency break. It’s time for revolution.
Conclusions on the local level in the Gulf are more difficult. Big picture political conclusions will not bring back the fish and the birds, will not restore livelihoods and dreams swept away by poisoned waters. In a region that the federal government has all but abandoned, the future is wholly in the hands of the common people of the Gulf coast. It is an immense burden for any people, let alone those who are still recovering, ten years later, from Hurricane Katrina, and who live trapped between “cancer alley” and rising ocean levels, with the ground literally sinking under their feet. Thus the struggles of the people of the Gulf symbolize for the entire world a last stand for meaning, in a civilization on the brink of oblivion: “It was the last that remained of a past whose annihilation had not taken place because it was still in a process of annihilation, consuming itself from within, ending at every moment but never ending its ending.” (Márquez, p409) After them, the flood.
Like children, many of us are afraid of the dark. We hide from the creeping annihilation even as it seeps ever closer to home. We close off our hearts to the horror, and mute our minds before the madness, even as it consumes us and enlists our complicity. As John W. Tunnell, witness for BP, recently testified, “The images of those dead birds that were oiled, like pelicans, stick in people’s minds more, and so it’s easy to get emotionally involved in those things. . . . you have to step back and critically and unemotionally, objectively to look at what’s going on.”
While BP’s witnesses, as personifications of capital, would have us immerse ourselves in the infamous “icy waters of egotistical calculation,” some people in the Gulf prefigure a different path to the truth. A documentary titled My Louisiana Love chronicles the story of Monique Verdin, a young Native American woman in search of love and life amidst death and indifference: “I want to keep living on our land, but I’m inheriting a dying delta.” She sets out fearlessly into a landscape of annihilation with an open heart, an open mind, and open hands, and in her story there is a universal story.
It is a story of salvation blossoming next to damnation, a story which promises like Holderin that “where danger threatens, that which saves from it also grows.” Like jewelweed growing next to poison ivy, like women’s liberation in Rojava alongside to the patriarchal crusade of ISIS, like God next to Macondo: There is hope here, perhaps the only kind of hope that is real in a world where everything is at least partly toxic, where dioxin swirls in breast milk, and death gyres spiral in the oceanic cradle of life. It is a story that slumbers in a world consumed with cynicism, a world awash in the icy waters of ego. But like the people of Macondo, we await only the right magnet to re-ignite our wonder. As the gypsy proclaimed, “things have a life of their own. . . . It’s simply a matter of waking up their souls.” (Márquez, p. 2)
Quincy Saul is the author of Truth and Dare: A Comic Book Curriculum for the End and the Beginning of the World, and the co-editor of Maroon the Implacable: The Collected Writings of Russell Maroon Shoatz. He is a musician and a co-founder of Ecosocialist Horizons.
100 Years of Solitude, by Gabriel García Márquez, Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2006
The Race for What’s Left, The global scramble for the world’s last resources, by Michael T. Klare, Metopolitan Books, Henry Holt and Company, NY, 2012
Earth at Risk, Building a Resistance Movement to Save the Planet, edited by Derrick Jensen and Lierre Keith, Flashpoint Press, 2012
Anthills of the Savannah, by Chinua Achebe, Anchor Book, 1998
Moby Dick, by Herman Melville, St. Botolph Society, 1892
“Suffering a Sea Change,” by Joel Kovel, Capitalism Nature Socialism, Volume 21, Issue 3, September 2010
 “NOAA and BP teamed up to visit eighth-grade classrooms in the Gulf to show children how to safely clean up an oil spill. They spilled cocoa powder in a little aquarium to mimic an oil spill – cocoa powder, right? Yummy. They sprinkled in Dawn dish soap to ‘disperse’ the oil. ‘See children? Dispersant works to clean up the oil, and we’re going to save the world. It’s OK.’ (Riki Ott, in Jensen and Keith, p52) Chemical dispersants can best be described with the poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins, “where we, even where we mean to mend her, we end her”: the toxicity of chemical dispersants – arguably more dangerous than the oil they purport to clean up – has been analyzed and documented by many organizations.
 “It really is all up to us. In the Gulf, it didn’t take people twenty years like with the Exxon Valdez spill to realize the federal government was not in control of the situation; it took them two months.” -Riki Ott (Jensen and Keith, p52)