John Holbrook, Fall 2010
The explosion and subsequent spill of the BP Deepwater Horizon dominated the news this summer. Most of us in GCSSEPM have direct ties to exploration and production in the Gulf and for us this is not an event from which we are detached. Certainly, this spill is not the press we wanted for the Gulf Coast petroleum industry, and regardless of the distance and culpability of each of us from this breach individually we are all now a little tarred in the public eye. The cost in clean-up, lost revenue, life disruptions, etc. has proven quite profound and will no doubt have a long coda in memory and reality well after the recent crescendo. The hole is finally plugged, however, and I feel a great relief knowing what is hailed as the "worst spill in history" is no longer getting yet worse, and its harm to the people of the Gulf shores now begins to abate. My heart goes out to everyone who lost in this entire affair, beginning with the loved ones of the 11 workers who died with the initial explosion, and continuing through those who still struggle against this added life pressure during already hard times.
In the months and years to come, this will necessarily move into the analysis phase. Residents, industry, science, law makers, and society at large will evaluate and debate the societal benefits vs. the environmental risks of offshore drilling in the Gulf States. We can expect to hear some strong opinions. We have seen this debate mature in differing ways. Public opinion swayed in favor of reducing environmental risk in the 80s as events like the Santa Barbara spill led to a moratorium on offshore drilling along most of our coastline. This ban only showed signs of lifting prior to the spill this summer, and its continued fate is now in question. Likewise, we saw construction of the last U.S. nuclear power plant to date in the 80s around the time of the failure at the Three-Mile Island facility. On the other hand, oil still flows from Alaska long after the spill of the Exxon Valdez. The residents of the Gulf Coast will rightly have much to say about the outcome of this debate. Livelihood will no doubt figure prominently in their efforts to balance their risk. While the financial losses to industries like tourism and fisheries are current and real, the economic benefits of an engaged petroleum industry ever seeking new prospects are very real as well. On a national level, the potential environmental impacts of present and future spills will weigh against the need for domestic energy. Some balance will be struck. One would hope that logic trumps emotion as these matters move forward but history provides us no guaranties that this will in fact be the case on any side. What does seem evident is that three variables will prevail. These are the final tally for documentable environmental destruction, success level of industry efforts to assure such a spill will not be revisited upon our shores, and real economic pressures exerted on the nation by the need for handy petroleum supplies. Only the second is directly in industry hands.
I close simply by noting that for anyone who has forgotten how important, risky, and consequential be our chosen profession, there is this summer to remind.
University of Texas at Arlington