In the year since the Deepwater Horizon sunk, killing 11 people and pumping untold millions of barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, much has been revealed about the causes and effects of this disaster: the chain of events leading up to the explosion, the response (or lack of response) from BP and the US government, the impact of sealife and coastal fisheries. In his most recent book, A Sea in Flames, Carl Safina lays out the timeline of the disaster, the factors the lead to such an egregious lapse in safety, the role that several corporate and government entities played, and the anger. Above all else, this book is about the rage one man feels about a situation that is almost impossible to comprehend.
February 2005 – A giant in the oil industry sets out to drill what is, at the time, the deepest oil well in the world, a staggering 32,000 feet below the sea bed. The oil field, just 28 miles from the Louisiana coast, is estimated to contain up to a billion barrels of oil. The success of this well could launch a new era of offshore drilling and revolutionize an industry. And then, after 18 months and $180 million dollars, just 2,000 feet from their target, ExxonMobil halts their drill, declares Blackbeard West unsafe, and walks away.
Barely 5 years later, a similar well, deep and deeply unsafe, would suffer a catastrophic blowout, pumping millions of barrels of crude into the Gulf of Mexico. The resulting investigation revealed a history of unacceptable risk and a blasé attitude towards safety on the part of BP. While the BP blowout at the Macondo well was a disaster on a global scale, Blackbeard West was a disaster deferred. How could these two incidents, both created by nearly the same conditions, have had such dramatically different consequences? What can we learn about the culture of oil exploration and the true cost of a crude economy from Blackbeard West?
“In 2002, ocean explorer Gale Mead was the first person to see and film the profusion of life 200 feet down on Salt Dome Seamount — just 16 miles from where the BP oil well is now gushing out of control. Mead (daughter of oceanographer Sylvia Earle) describes the corals and fish she saw and the devastation that the oil is likely causing in a place that no other human has ever been.”
A few weeks ago, I attended a public hearing about offshore oil drilling here in Charleston. I filmed the public comment period, and several participants agreed to be interviewed after the hearing ended. I have over 3 hours of footage if anyone is curious about what didn’t make the final cut. Interestingly, only a few participants lived in South Carolina. Oil companies and conservation NGO’s sent people from their Washington, DC headquarters. Most of the people who spoke were affiliated with a conservation NGO or an oil company or conservation NGO, but the unaffiliated individuals (residents of South Carolina) who spoke were all opposed to offshore drilling.