Mechanical Band-Aids

Press wrestles with techno-optimism while BP seeks to stop oil spill

Thank God or whomever. The nuclear option has never been, and never will be, on the table amongst other options to shutdown the ongoing oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, The New York Times reported on its front page on Thursday.

As BP, scientists and engineers from around the world, and thousands of amateurs who have posted suggestions on the Web site of the Unified Command overseeing the disaster mull over possible solutions for stopping the flow of oil, reporters are starting to be more cautious about promises of what technology can deliver. That caution is overdue. As the criminal and civil investigations of BP gear up, legislators are exploring the possibility that the company made false and misleading statements in a drilling plan it submitted to the federal Minerals Management Service in 2009, stating that had “proven equipment and technology” to contain an unanticipated blowout and oil spill.

In a nationally televised address on May 27, President Obama defended his plan, announced months earlier, to expand offshore drilling. “Where I was wrong,” he added, “was in my belief that the oil companies had their act together when it came to worst-case scenarios.” On Wednesday, the Financial Times finally got BP’s artful dodger of a chief executive, Tony Hayward, to admit the same:

“What is undoubtedly true is that we did not have the tools you would want in your tool-kit,” Mr. Hayward said. He accepted it was “an entirely fair criticism” to say the company had not been fully prepared for a deep-water oil leak.

Federal regulators were not the only ones to gullibly accept industry promises that it was prepared for a worst-case scenario, however. Take the coverage of the 2008 presidential campaign, when John McCain re-opened the question of offshore drilling by calling for an end to the long-time moratorium on exploration along the outer continental shelf. There are quite a few instances of the press running unchallenged statements that advanced technology had made the process safe.

For example, on June 20 of that year, The Christian Science Monitor published an editorial expressing the paper’s support for offshore drilling, which stated:

[C]ertainly, the risk of an oil rig fouling shorelines and killing wildlife has been greatly reduced by highly advanced platform technology since the 1969 rig disaster off Santa Barbara, California.

Many environmentalists now recognize these advances and work with oil firms to find a middle ground in allowing new exploration in existing fields. Look at how the existing rigs in the Gulf survived the 2005 hurricanes Katrina and Rita with minimal spills. Most of the danger from ocean oil spills lies in transport of imported crude.

But any ecoconcerns are minor compared with the big picture on energy.

Likewise, on June 29, the Minneapolis Star Tribune ran an editorial, which argued that:

Much has changed since the 1982 moratorium. Though some environmental advocates dispute this, drilling technology has advanced over the past quarter-century. Oil companies can drill more efficiently in deeper water with significantly less risk to the environment. “Compared to worldwide tanker spill rates, outer continental shelf operations are more than five times safer,” according to the Department of Interior’s Minerals Management Service.

On August 12, The Washington Post published an editorial “debunking three ‘truths’ about offshore drilling,” including the nutty idea that “drilling is environmentally dangerous.” (How absurd!)

Unfortunately, news holes weren’t much better than the opinion pages. On July 20, a front-page article in the Houston Chronicle headlined, “Offshore drilling safer, but small spills routine,” reported that:

Downhole safety valves proved their worth during Katrina and Rita in 2005, when no significant spills from undersea wells were reported. The spills that occurred mostly involved pipelines, or equipment at or near the surface.

Evaluations of drilling programs by regulators also are more vigorous. Government and industry officials conduct spill response exercises to try to help ensure they can handle a disaster when it occurs.

“Environment is in people’s minds as much as safety is in people’s minds,” said Ian Hudson, corporate environmental manager for Transocean, a Houston-based offshore drilling company.

Fortunately, a few reporters were not so complacent. An article in late June 2008 by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Don Hopey balanced statements about advanced technologies with a no-bones-about-it explanation that “offshore drilling accidents can [still] be devastating.” Similarly, a few weeks later, USA Today’s Rick Jervis, William Welch, and Richard Wolf had a long and detailed analysis of whether or not offshore drilling was “worth the risk,” whose headline stressed, “doubts persist despite oil industry’s advances.” Yet even that article, with all its cautionary language, offered readers the takeaway message that:

Government officials and industry specialists say improved technology and government oversight have made routine drilling safe.…

Today’s technology, such as automatic shutoff valves on the seabed floor and mechanical devices that can prevent blowouts caused by uncontrolled buildups of pressure, has greatly reduced risk of oil spill.

That the number and volume of oil spills has, in fact, decreased over recent decades is the likely explanation for the complacency evident in the 2008 coverage (and beyond). The statistics seemed to distract reporters from asking that all-important question: “But what if…?” Few seemed to recognize—as The New Times only recently observed—that while drilling technologies had improved, cleanup technologies had not.

Moving forward, that concern needs to be front and center in journalists’ minds, especially given that BP is not the only oil company currently operating under potentially overstated promises of “proven” technologies. An excellent analysis that Greenwire published on Wednesday pointed out that:

Most of the three dozen or so companies that kept drilling in deep water in the Gulf after the Deepwater Horizon rig sank got their regulatory approvals based on documents stating they could easily mop up spills, even gushers many times the stated size of the BP spill. But there’s no indication they have any better method than BP.

Indeed, if this disaster has taught reporters anything, it is that we can no longer allow ourselves to be deceived by exaggerated promises that technology can save the day.

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Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.