A higher power than British Petroleum is getting the blame for the oil gushing from the bottom of the ocean off the Gulf Coast. At a US Chamber of Commerce sponsored conference on Monday aptly named “Free Enterprise,” Texas Governor Rick Perry was willing to speculate that the recent spate of safety failures at coal mines and on oil rigs may be due to “…acts of God that cannot be prevented.”
Using Governor Perry’s logic, failure to provide proper ventilation of methane gas and to properly shore up mine tunnels is God’s fault. And if the federal government tries to better regulate the energy industry in order to protect workers and the public, it’s going against the will of God?
Nice to know that God wants balls-out energy development with little or no safety regulations.
A Roughneck Legacy
When members of my extended family heard about the explosion and fire on the rig in the Gulf, we knew exactly what happened.
There are five generations in our family who worked in the exploration and production of oil and all of us started out as “roughnecks” working rig floors. Our great-grandparents and grandparents had oil production on their Indian allotments in Oklahoma and when those were lost to corruption and destruction of the lands due to oil production and spills, we went to work on the rigs.
My grandfather and his brothers followed the rigs out of Oklahoma into Kansas and I, along with my dad, my brother, and uncles and cousins, followed them offshore in California and the Gulf. My brother cannot count the number of back operations he has endured, and one of my most vivid memories of working offshore in California is seeing a good friend nearly cut in half when we were forced to “hurry up” and offload equipment from the platform (Platform A, by the way, the same one that blew out in the Santa Barbara Channel in 1969).
We know that oil exploration and production is more dangerous than coal mining and can be as environmentally destructive as any kind of energy development this side of nuclear power.
My great-grandfather’s allotment of 80 acres in Oklahoma had nine wells drilled on it. They produced over four million barrels of oil and for that windfall he received 22,000 dollars over thirty years and died on public assistance while four wells still pumped. To this day, seventy years after the first well was drilled, his land cannot grow a decent crop of corn.
My dad’s generation, after living through the Great Depression and the sacrifices of World War II, gave life and limb to the dangers of oil drilling. As those wells went dry, they were supposed to be cemented hundreds of feet down the casing to prevent oil and chemicals from leaching into the soil and ground water.
But all around Oklahoma, Texas, and Kansas, oil company executives instead ordered their workers to hammer fence posts down into open oil wells. Stream beds and ground water have been poisoned by those failures to follow even the most rudimentary of environmental regulations. Kansas and Oklahoma legislatures seem to be more interested in posturing about a woman’s right to choose than the possibility that generations of newborns might be nursing those oilfield toxins from their own mother’s breasts.
Holy, Holy Oil
Somehow lost in the stories of the ongoing Gulf oil disaster is the fact that eleven oil rig employees lost their lives; were blown off the rig or burned alive because of failures that have become routine in energy production.
Unlike the mine disaster in West Virginia last month, there will be no presidential eulogy at the funerals of these oilfield roughnecks.
Because coal is bad but can be “cleaned” up for continued use. But oil, well, it is holy, holy oil, used to anoint the forehead of our American standard of living which increasingly demands wars and lives by the hundreds of thousands to be sacrificed for that lifestyle.
From the Gulf of Mexico to the Persian Gulf, from oilfield roughnecks to oil-soaked wildlife, each time we fill up our gas tanks, each of us shares responsibility for endangering every living and breathing organism on the earth.
All of America will cry for British Petroleum to pay for the cleanup, but already gas at the pump has jumped ten percent across the country. We fool ourselves that BP energy execs will feel the pain of the cleanup. Make no mistake, every consumer of gas will pay for the cleanup in the Gulf, and BP will continue to post record profits, and oil company execs will posture and be somber and take home more next year than they received this year.
It is too early to tell exactly the mechanism that allowed the exploratory well to blow out and burn in the Gulf, but any oilfield roughneck who has worked any length of time on any oil drilling rig can tell you two things.
It is likely that some oilfield “suits” in a hurry to cement the well and the safety equipment—the two blowout preventers on that rig—failed to properly engage. Bad management led to a failure to properly circulate the residual gas and oil from the casing before starting the cement job which would seal the flow from the well. When the residual gas blew the bad cement plug up the thousands of feet of casing, the blowout preventer on the ocean floor and the one on the rig floor both failed to close.
A 2007 study by the Minerals Management Service found that half of all blowouts in the Gulf happened during the process of cementing the well. The MMS is also charged with oversight of the collection of royalties due the American taxpayer; a conflict of interest that also plagues many government agencies which are supposed to regulate America’s domestic energy production.
The blowout of this well and the beginning of the unprecedented cleanup came just a few days after President Obama angered much of his base by announcing a policy of expanded offshore drilling.
Our experience with the oil industry tells us the solution, one that we also know will never happen.
In 2007 the American Indian president of Venezuela nationalized the last of the oil fields in the Orinoco River Basin with the words that “petroleum now belongs to all Venezuelans.” More than five hundred years before that announcement Christopher Columbus saw the mud from the Orinoco in the water of the Caribbean and imagined that he’d discovered the Garden of Eden.
If I could be so bold as to fathom the mind of God, I think he wants us to nationalize the oil industry.