Environmental disaster from space

By Phil Plait | May 6, 2010 1:30 pm

The leaking oil pipeline in the Gulf of Mexico is gearing up to be the worst environmental disaster in American history. It’s still second to the Exxon Valdez incident, but at this rate it will pass the Alaska spill soon. Reading about this is breaking my heart, and angering me a lot. It’s difficult to express in words how truly awful this is… so maybe a picture will help.

aqua_oilleak

This image, taken by NASA’s Aqua satellite, shows the slick as it was on May 4 — well over 50 km (30 miles) long and growing. An earlier image shows the slick when it was half that size, just three days earlier. "Alarming" is a terribly understated word to say the least. Against the natural browns and greens of the land, and the steely blue of the Gulf waters, the gray of the oil is threatening, menacing, sick. It reminds me of The Black Thing from A Wrinkle In Time.

Efforts are underway to mitigate the leak — more on that in a later post — but I want to point out that these satellite images are useful to those on the ground, so to speak, to track the growth and spread of the oil. The efficacy of space exploration may not spring to mind when contemplating environmental disasters, but it’s there nonetheless.

I have one more thing to add, which is somewhat contrary to my point above. There is an irony here: Some images of the leak from space almost make this disaster look less impacting. Here is a shot taken by astronaut Soichi Noguchi, as the space station flew past the Gulf on May 5:

soichi_oilleak

This picture is actually lovely, which is such a disturbing dichotomy from reality! It’s difficult to see how truly apocalyptic 200,000 gallons a day of crude oil gushing up from the sea floor is when looking at this — and it may get far worse.

I am not implying any deeper meanings to this second image, though you may feel free to take away whatever metaphor you wish. But pictures themselves are only telling us a story. It’s up to us to interpret them, and to extract what useful information we can.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: NASA, Piece of mind, Pretty pictures

Comments (57)

  1. Andrew

    My father-in-law is captain pilots a crew ship in the gulf that takes workers and supply to the rigs. He’s seen the thing first hand. He’s scheduled to come in next week. He’ll have pictures and I’ll post any if I can get them.

    All this got me wondering of something I’ve never considered: if an oil leak has ever happened naturally in Earth’s history. It seems a major earthquake or other geologic activity happening in the right spot could rupture an oil deposit on land or under water. I don’t see how any evidence would remain after a few million years, but it would be interesting to investigate.

  2. cisko

    Off topic, but: what are we going to do when Noguchi comes home? He’s a wonderful photographer and his photos are timely, informative, and beautiful.

  3. I suppose JAXA have other astronauts? When is another one scheduled to go up?

  4. I wonder what Sarah “Drill, Baby, Drill” Palin’s opinion is on this.

    Oh wait, it was because the Brits couldn’t be trusted.

  5. JoeSmithCA

    Wow, that’s a pretty slick picture.

  6. @Andrew:

    Actually, yes, oil regularly leaks from deposits in the ocean. *But*, as it seeps up, it’s slowly filtered, so that the heaviest stuff never makes it into the water. Meanwhile, the flow rate is so slow in any given area that, while the overall aggregate is fairly high (I’ve seen numbers as high as 500k barrels a year in natural seepage), it doesn’t have any major, localized environmental impact.

  7. Wasn’t the leak due to safety devices (which are required in other countries) no longer being required, due to deregulation and elimination of bureaucracy? Phil, own up to the fact that libertarianism is ruining not just lives (“libertarianism opposes mandatory vaccinations”) but also the environment (“libertarianism opposes regulations which strangle industry”).

  8. Phillip Helbig (#7): “Own up”? Do you think I’m a libertarian on issues of government regulation of industry? If so, I’d be very curious to see your evidence.

  9. Ross

    In answer to #1′s question:
    “Natural Petroleum Seeps Release Equivalent Of Up To 80 Exxon Valdez Oil Spills”
    http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/05/090513130944.htm

    This week on Nova was an episode on Mt St Helens, describing how the biological recovery in the area of the 1980 eruption progressed far more quickly than scientists had expected. I don’t recall seeing any similar data on recovery from major oil spills. Do we know how the natural recovery process work well enough to help it along, or at least not hinder or make things worse?

  10. TTS

    Hi, Andrew (#1) you can ask your father-in-law to contact Capt. of Joe Griffin (Demi Shaffer?) to check their Automatic Identification System data. It claims that Joe Griffin length is 24m and beam 18m, in reality it’s like L: 85m and B: 20m… I hope BP and Edison Chouest Offshore use better Imperial to Metric conversions elsewhere…

  11. Sili

    Looks like a horsie.

  12. timebinder

    Wait, A Wrinkle in Time is worth reading? I tried reading it once, but my efforts petered out when it turned into a space opra about Christians In Spaaaaaaaaaaace.

  13. Mike

    @Phillip

    I think the majority of libertarians today don’t support corporate personhood.

  14. Kurt_eh

    Andrew, (#1)
    “All this got me wondering of something I’ve never considered: if an oil leak has ever happened naturally in Earth’s history.”

    Yes. In fact, there are natural oil and/or gas seeps all over the world!

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Petroleum_seep

  15. Sir Craig

    I agree with Brett from Canada and his answer about naturally occuring leaks, but what makes me wonder so much about this one is why is it still gushing out?

    I thought to get oil to come out, sea water had to be pumped into the oil reserve in order to force it out. I understand that, along with oil comes explosive gases (which I believe is what caused the explosion in the first place) so it is possible the gases were compressed and the reservoir was acting like a hydraulic accumulator, but wouldn’t the gases be trying to escape from the ruptured pipe before the oil?

  16. @Sir Craig:

    Well, I’ve always assumed that the deposit itself is under natural geologic pressures, simply due to the mass of crust above it, and so when the deposit is initially pierced, there’s a natural, sudden outflow. Pressurizing the well is then only necessary to extract every last bit of crude from the deposit once the easy oil has been extracted.

    But that is, quite frankly, a totally wild guess, so if I’m wrong, someone can feel free to correct me. :)

  17. Chaos

    Phillip Helbig:

    If Phil was Libertarian, he´d have served us a rant about how this was all the government´s fault, because if no safety measures had been required at all, corporations would voluntarily have installed every measure conceivable, blather, blather, blather, and how can be we so sure an oil spill is bad, blather, blather, blather, after all this is just part of the anti-corporate environmentalist agenda, blather, blather, blather… well, you get the idea ;-)

    Notice the difference to what Phil wrote?

  18. Matt Tarditti

    @Sir Craig: And if I may address the “gas escaping before oil” issue, I’m going to guess and say that under the extreme pressures that must be present, the gas may be trapped in solution, similar to what you see with CO2 in a bottle of pop. When the cap is on, the gas stays in solution, and you dont see any bubbles. Release the pressure, and you get bubbles. With the gas and oil situation, the gasses in the oil only come out of solution when out of the reservoir.

  19. Wasn’t the leak due to safety devices (which are required in other countries) no longer being required, due to deregulation and elimination of bureaucracy?

    I don’t know if deregulation was involved in this case, but it’s certainly true that BP was lobbying really hard in the last year against further oversight and government mandated safety measures, claiming that a voluntary code was all that was needed. Given their terrible safety record in the last few years (even before this current crisis) that takes a lot of chutzpah.

  20. Justin

    @ Sir Craig & Brett from Canada:

    Yes, they do pump water to get to the oil out, but they also pump in water to “fill the gap” since if they do not, the ocean floor would collide under all the pressure. The latest I’ve heard, is that they won’t be able to pump water in, and that the gulf will suffer greatly from this.

  21. Justin

    @ Dreamer,

    Lets not forget that Transocean was the company in charge of all safety regulations regarding Deepwater Horizon. BP’s involvement in this mess is the rights that they have on the oil reservoir. It’s like this, suppose that I own a tree, but you decide to cut such tree. I say go ahead, and you start cutting it, and while you are cutting it something goes wrong and the tree falls on top of a house or a car. Am I responsible for the damages to said house or car because of the fact that it was my tree, or are you responsible for the damage since you were the one cutting such tree? BP owns the tree in this analogy, Transocean was cutting it.

    Now there is a law which states that any environmental disaster that results from oil spill is the responsibility of the owner of such reservoir. But when it comes to safety regulations, equipment management and control, and stuff like that, then the company who is operating on such reservoir is responsible.

    But if we are to assign blame, we should assign it to those who deserve it, in this case, it’s Transocean.

    Just sayin.

  22. Kurt_eh

    Andrew, (#1)

    Another example of a natural seep is the La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angles.

  23. “Do you think I’m a libertarian on issues of government regulation of industry? If so, I’d be very curious to see your evidence.”

    I admit that my comment was a bit provocative. I’m still puzzled over your comment where you were questioning mandatory vaccinations, citing that libertarianism speaks against such restriction of liberty. I admire your effort into debunking the antivaxxers, and was rather shocked to read that you even considered letting a general idea (libertarianism) get in the way of scientific evidence. Thus the question arises whether you champion libertarianism with regard to government regulation of industry. That seems to be one of the main causes of this catastrophe (the lack of regulation, that is), so it would be nice to target that, rather than just (justifiably) being saddened by the oil leak.

    Sorry if I was too provocative, but sometimes one needs to shout in order to be heard.

    There is nothing wrong with general principles, but in concrete cases one might have to deviate from them. So, I was a bit surprised when you were hesitating regarding an issue which you had obviously thought much about (vaccination).

  24. Utakata

    Actually wrong, Phillip Helbig @ 24. Phil is not a libertarian and what your claim as being “provocative” is simply poor judgement.

  25. Chaos

    @Dreamer:
    Yeah, quite a lot of chutzpah… but chutzpah is cheap, safety is expensive.

  26. John Paradox

    Death From Below?

    J/P=?

  27. Mitigate is a word which should be laid to rest. “Mitigate” is the check the insurance company offers your mother to compensate for her loss of your dad, and her husband, when a faulty gas tank in the family car blows up and burns him to death.

    Phil treats this subject with the necessary gravity it deserves. This is, after all, planetary science. Earth is the only known planet which has life on it, and we (collectively) are now wrecking it.

    This is not just a problem for the U.S., or the Earth, it is a problem for the entire stellar neighborhood near us, going out 10-20 LY. What if Earth is the only place which has evolved organisms more complex than thermophilic bacteria within 10-20 light years? Do we not have some responsibility to protect it and not destroy it?

    Astronomy, and the recent discovery of exoplanets, makes what is now happening on Earth even more heinous, and our level of responsibility to the greater galactic community even heavier.

    We may be living on the goose who laid the golden egg.

    Thanks Phil.

  28. Brian

    (timebinder: It helps to read them when you’re young enough for all the Christian hoohah to be lightly ignored.)

    So it looks like we’ve finally built something that’s visible from space…..

  29. Woody Tanaka

    @ Justin
    “Lets not forget that Transocean was the company in charge of all safety regulations regarding Deepwater Horizon. BP’s involvement in this mess is the rights that they have on the oil reservoir. It’s like this, suppose that I own a tree, but you decide to cut such tree. I say go ahead, and you start cutting it, and while you are cutting it something goes wrong and the tree falls on top of a house or a car. Am I responsible for the damages to said house or car because of the fact that it was my tree, or are you responsible for the damage since you were the one cutting such tree? BP owns the tree in this analogy, Transocean was cutting it. ”

    “But if we are to assign blame, we should assign it to those who deserve it, in this case, it’s Transocean.”

    BP could have required Transocean, by contract, to comply with any additional safety standard, beyond those mandated by law, which BP wanted. However, BP chose not to require Transocean to take any extra precautions beyond those required by legal mandate, (a mandate which BP and the oil industry, if I recall correctly, worked tirelessly to weaken), even though this type of event was clearly possible and would be clearly catestrophic. BP chose to do nothing of the sort. Therefore, they are as worthy of blame and as culpable as Transocean.

  30. “I’m still puzzled over [Phil's] comment where [he was] questioning mandatory vaccinations, citing that libertarianism speaks against such restriction of liberty.”

    He did, saying that vaccinations should be accepted and taken on merit rather than by force and I’d support that idea as well. The point of having a vaccination isn’t to obey Big Brother, but to protect yourself from disease by training your immune system to make more antibodies. Having people take vaccines at gunpoint isn’t going to help anyone trust vaccinations more, and that’s why it would be a poor policy. It’s a libertarian argument, sure, but not all libertarian arguments are insane and in this case, it does follow good science and PR policies.

    Now what you, and the other commenters who are so down on libertarianism, are probably thinking of are Randians who basically worship the free market as their messiah and are afflicted with permanent Red Scare Syndrome.

    “Thus the question arises whether [Phil] champion[s] libertarianism with regard to government regulation of industry.”

    No, it doesn’t because that’s a non-sequtur. Just because someone expresses his support for something associated with a particular movement, doesn’t mean he buys into everything else it carries. I know some people who are so far right on the economy, military, and many social policies, they’re telling Ann Coulter to move over down the spectrum to make room for them, and yet they constantly make fun of creationists and religious fundamentalists when we talk about science.

    Your comment wasn’t “provocative.” It was just a sweeping assumption.

  31. colorofjanuary

    I’m really excited about the Wrinkle in Time reference. It’s cheezy, but I do love that book! :)

  32. jcm

    The last pic looks more like an abstract painting.

  33. Astrofiend

    The horror…

    Most people just don’t get the magnitude of the badness of this situation. It’s already bad, and it has the potential to get much worse. Not only is this an environmental catastrophe, it is a catastrophe for those men and women whose livelihood depends on these waters.

    As I heard one fisherman saying the other day – the shrimp breed in around the reeds near the shoreline. If that gets gunked up with oil, a major pillar of the food chain in a significant area of the gulf disappears. It could take a long while to return to a semblance or normality – oil by its very nature has a nasty persistence in nature. I was watching a doco the other day about Prince William Sound. The area was supposed to have been cleaned up by Exxon, but the narrator simply walked down the beach flipping over stones, and found little pools of oil under every one. The oil industry should have the f__ regulated out of it.

  34. “Actually wrong, Phillip Helbig @ 24. Phil is not a libertarian and what your claim as being “provocative” is simply poor judgement.”

    First, I don’t claim excellent judgement, and my remark could actually be both. :-)

    He did himself use the word “libertarian” in relation to himself in connection with his qualms about mandatory vaccines.

    “I’m still puzzled over [Phil's] comment where [he was] questioning mandatory vaccinations, citing that libertarianism speaks against such restriction of liberty.”

    He did, saying that vaccinations should be accepted and taken on merit rather than by force and I’d support that idea as well. The point of having a vaccination isn’t to obey Big Brother, but to protect yourself from disease by training your immune system to make more antibodies. Having people take vaccines at gunpoint isn’t going to help anyone trust vaccinations more, and that’s why it would be a poor policy. It’s a libertarian argument, sure, but not all libertarian arguments are insane and in this case, it does follow good science and PR policies.”

    Even I myself am libertarian enough to support the right of people to die whenever they want and however they want. However, this isn’t the issue here. The issue is herd immunity, where people who don’t get vaccinated endanger others, in particular infants who are not old enough to be vaccinated. A person’s liberties have to stop where they restrict other people’s liberties even more. The right to life for an infant is more important than an adult’s right not to get vaccinated.

    “Thus the question arises whether [Phil] champion[s] libertarianism with regard to government regulation of industry.”

    No, it doesn’t because that’s a non-sequtur. Just because someone expresses his support for something associated with a particular movement, doesn’t mean he buys into everything else it carries. ”

    I agree that in general it is a non-sequitur. But when someone who knows about vaccinations, knows about the cost-benefit analysis, recommends them, debunks the anti-vaxxers, is worried about babies dying etc suddenly says “wait a minute, mandatory vaccines aren’t libertarian” in a discussion about herd immunity, I think it is fair to raise the question of whether he was blinded by ideology for a moment.

  35. “The issue is herd immunity, where people who don’t get vaccinated endanger others, in particular infants who are not old enough to be vaccinated. A person’s liberties have to stop where they restrict other people’s liberties even more.”

    True, but the problem is that tracking compliance is difficult and if people are really terrified of vaccinations, they’ll find a way to avoid them. Plus, remember that anti-vaxers thrive on the conspiracy angle and mandatory vaccinations will give them enough ammo for a year of hysteria. Besides, herd immunity requires a roughly 90% compliance for many diseases and with good science could with a forceful dispelling of scaremongering myths, we can get that rate back up to its previous average of around 92% in pockets where it fell to the danger zone of 80% or so.

    “… when someone who knows about vaccinations, … suddenly says ‘wait a minute, mandatory vaccines aren’t libertarian’ in a discussion about herd immunity, I think it is fair to raise the question of whether he was blinded by ideology for a moment.”

    Then why didn’t you ask him in that post since it’s actually related to your question?

  36. kevbo

    I wonder what would be the response if it happened to look like Jeebus?

  37. It’s easy to condemn using oil in any capacity when you see things like this. With that said, oil is a keystone in the global economy. From the big wigs at the top to people like me who just work a regular job. I want alternatives to oil, as a primary energy source, badly. At this time it is just impractical cut back and impossible to stop.

    People don’t usually start moving until you light a fire under them. Will this light a fire under funding more research for alternative energy? I hope so. Remember, we have only 5 years to perfect flying cars (BTTF:II) :)

    While it’s an awful mess down there, lets hope for the best and safety of the people that are working to get it under control.

  38. > True, but the problem is that tracking compliance is difficult and if people are really
    > terrified of vaccinations, they’ll find a way to avoid them.

    Requiring them for all schoolchildren, for all government employees etc would be a start. Yes, this is the case already in many places, but more needs to be done.

    > Plus, remember that anti-vaxers thrive on the conspiracy angle and mandatory
    > vaccinations will give them enough ammo for a year of hysteria.

    As anyone who follows PZ (or even this blog) knows, the world is full of wackiness. If we let the wackos dictate our agenda, we might as well pack it in now.

    > Then why didn’t you ask him in that post since it’s actually related to your question?

    I did, but didn’t get enough response. I now feel that the issue has been noticed. :-)

  39. As a libertarian and reader of Reason, one of the foremost libertarian publications, I can say that we [libertarians] are greatly troubled by this spill. The corporations should, as BP has already stated, pay for the full clean up. They should also be liable for punitive damages and they will be, but the government has capped damages at 75 billion dollars. There are already massive amounts of safety and other regulations, but no matter what accidents can and do happen. BP and Transocean should foot the bill and if those companies go under so be it; of course our government will probably bail them out with tax dollars because they’re “Too Big to Fail” but that’s a whole different topic.

    The sad truth is that our industrial society requires lots and lots of power (for everything from heart and lung machines to plugging in an electric car), and right now oil, coal and natural gas are the easiest and most cost effective ways of creating power. Wind and solar are not steady enough sources (though technology may soon change this) and require too many subsidies to be truly useful. Nuclear is expensive because it requires such a major up-front cost that few are willing to risk the investment given the anti-nuke political climate, and hydro causes environmental problems and is limited in where it can be placed. So really the fossil fuels are our only viable choice. Luckily, peak oil is a myth because as oil gets harder to find the price goes up bringing more people looking for oil. Same goes for coal and natural gas. We will probably see a gradual increase in energy costs, leading to a replay of a few years ago when gas went over $4.00 a gallon. Like then people will move to smaller more fuel efficient cars and modify their lifestyles. But when the government intervenes costs increase and efficiency goes down. So despite spills like this oil is still our best bet unless we want a catastrophic economic collapse.

    Benjamin

    P.S. Phil is right. Despite really disliking anti-vaxxers one of the most important human rights is the right to be stupid. You can’t force people to do the right thing or make healthy choices. The only time to intervene is when they might cause physical harm to others, and parental rights trump this because if they didn’t the state would have the power to take kids away from any parent the felt like…including gays, the unwed or even atheists.

  40. gopher65

    Benjamin: First some definitions, and then I’ll get to the meat of what I wanted to say:

    I’m a centrist libertarian rather than a right-wing libertarian like most of you in the US are. Centrist libertarianism follows the principle not of “freedom” (ie, the right to do whatever you want whenever you want regardless of the consequences), but rather the principle of “maximized non-interference” (you can do whatever you want, even if it hurts yourself, provided that you aren’t interfering with anyone else).

    Freedom is the right to smoke in a daycare, drive drunk, and fly planes into buildings. Anyone who tries to stop you is reducing your freedom, and that is unacceptable if you believe if freedom. Freedom as a concept is absolute: either you have it or you don’t. There is nothing in between.

    On the other hand with maximized non-interference each person, and thus society as a whole, attempts to not interfere with anyone else. If you (“you” in the general sense, meaning”all or any of us”) drive drunk and I try to stop you, I’m interfering with you. If you drive drunk and hit a little 4 year old girl walking home from school, you’re interfering with her in an egregious fashion. Given the fact that drunk driving drastically increases the probability that the above circumstance will happen, it is not outside the realm of reason to attempt to prevent that situation from having the opportunity to occur in the first place. The interference that would be inflicted upon your life by stopping you from driving drunk is less than the interference that would be caused by allowing you to do whatever you wanted.

    Thus, “maximized non-interference”. Anytime two people are in the same room together they’re interfering with each other in some small way. The more people you place in a confine area (ie, a planet;)), the greater the chance that they’ll start bouncing off one another in a way that some of them find unacceptable. The idea is to create a situation that will allow for the least total amount of interference in the life of the *average* individual. Under such a system laws are designed to do exactly that, minimize the friction between the wants and needs of all individuals in society as a whole.

    Anywho, definitions out of the way, I’d like to point out that you just contradicted your own logic. You say “the only time to intervene is when they might cause physical harm to others”. Like drunk driving, yes? Or second hand smoke, yes? Or, say, not getting immunized and decreasing herd immunity, yes? :P If my kid dies because a bunch of nuts that happen to live near us all decided not to get their shots, causing an outbreak, I’d be understandably ticked. Their right to be… “eccentric” (and that is a right:P) doesn’t overwhelm my kid’s right to life. Because of that the principle of maximum non-interference dictates that they’re in the wrong, and they need to be forced to immunize their children.

    Right-wing libertarians have such an odd an illogical viewpoint that it’s hard to take. Instead of logically analyzing each situation to see what should be done, they have an ideological bent against government and socialism, and fight against both of those concepts with religious fervour even when they have no proposed replacement that has a snowflake’s chance in hell of actually working in the real world. It’s distressing to watch from the outside. What’s even worse is the internal conflicts that occur in right-libertarians due to their illogical beliefs. They constantly contradict themselves and can never quite settle on the details of their proposed system due to its inherent flaws, but rather than following the logic and modifying their beliefs to fit reality, they just keep preaching, ever louder.

  41. gopher65

    Oh, and to the above posters who were wondering about natural oil slicks, two things:

    1) They normally leak slower than wells, and
    2) There are several species of bacteria in the oceans that eat raw petroleum. It doesn’t last long… just long enough for a large spill/leak near the shore to get ashore where it can do damage. If it happens in the middle of the pacific all the oil is eaten before anything bad can happen. Once it hits a shoreline it’s a lot harder to get rid of. Most (all?) our offshore rigs are in shallow water fairly close to the shore, so I think you can see where the problem arises.

  42. Will

    Phillip Helbig (#7) – the blowout preventer is part of the whole assembly, and it was present. It isn’t just there for environmental protection, it is there for crew protection and asset protection. When blowouts occur (and they do on rare occasion but so far nothing on this scale offshore), the rig is lost, the crew working closest to the rig is often lost, and the expensive well is typically lost. Within the BOP there are IIRC 3 different independant stages, with the third and final stage able to shear and seal off the entire well. Their BOP failed, for reasons that are still unclear. The ROV wasn’t able to operate it either. Because they probably won’t be able to recover the BOP, the investigation may not have much to go on besides maintenance records.

  43. evinfuilt

    2 quick items.

    1. I love Wrinkle in Time, mainly for a smart kid being so damn important, and math being used to prevent evil.

    2. The Face of Jesus was pretty much already seen in this oil slick. They don’t have to literally see it (I’m sure a few are looking for it), its the idea that this is an act of god, designed to help bring about the end-times. Just listen to Rick Perry, Palin, etcetra. They love this, they want this to be an act of god and not a mistake made by incompetent men.

  44. Mike

    I understand the power of free markets. If that makes me a “free-market worshiper”, then great. One of the fundamental truths of the free market is that it punishes businesses for their mistakes – unless they’re well-connected with government which is even worse. For a company like BP, this would be considered The Mistake of all mistakes. Lost product, cost of clean up, wrecked PR, everything negatively impacting their bottom line, in other words Their Worst Nightmare. BP, and other companies like it, will take steps to prevent this catastrophe from happening again. This will happen without new regulation.

    I also know a fundamental truth about the power of humans in government form. They’ll craft new regulations that may or may not do anything to prevent oil leaks in the future. But that’s not the point. The point is to appear to Take Action. When it comes time for their job review in November, their bullet-points are the laws they wrote. When you’ve got a hammer gripped in your hand, everything suddenly looks like nails. And the power of government is the biggest hammer of them all.

  45. Will

    Mike – I think the one government action I could get behind here is raising or eliminating the liability limits we currently have on the offshore drillers. I don’t know the full history, but I would bet the apparently low liability limit was imposed to encourage drilling, and may have brought on an unhealthy dose of moral hazard.

  46. QuietDesperation

    a right-wing libertarian like most of you in the US are.

    [citation needed]

    Freedom is the right to smoke in a daycare, drive drunk, and fly planes into buildings. Anyone who tries to stop you is reducing your freedom, and that is unacceptable if you believe if freedom. Freedom as a concept is absolute: either you have it or you don’t. There is nothing in between.

    I have yet to hear anyone in any Libertarian camp state that flying a plane into a building is a recognized freedom. Were your strawman to catch fire they’d have to ground all the planes in Europe again. ;-) This is why dictionary definitions of isolated words don’t work well in discussion of legal policy. In fact, most Libertarins I meet tend toward the very “maximized noninterference” you describe.

    Right-wing libertarians have such an odd an illogical viewpoint that it’s hard to take. Instead of logically analyzing each situation to see what should be done, they have an ideological bent against government and socialism

    Jeepers, dude, that’s true of every ideological tribe. You have the folks on the left who go apoplectic at the thought that anyone, anywhere is making a penny of profit, or the religious ideologues who go apoplectic at the thought that anyone, anywhere might be enjoying themselves. It why instead of reasoned debate on, say, the immigration legislation in Arizona, it devolves into one side blabbering “ZOMG! Stop The Invasion” and the other side blithering “ZOMG! Nazi Hitler Zombies!”

    It’s why I abandoned a slavish devotion to any ideology before I got out of high school.

    Come to California for a left wing example of a tribe that has cratered a prosperous state into absolute ruin because their ideology makes them try the same thing over and over and expect a different result – one of the definitions of insanity, BTW. Admittedly a lot of them are just corrupt beyond belief and simply don’t care, but still.

  47. Mike

    gopher65,
    I’m not sure what country you’re from, but libertarians in the US are neither right-wing nor centrist nor left-wing, though they get labeled all three. They stick to the principle of what you refer to as “maximum non-interference”. They know exactly the role of government- to protect the lives and property of it’s citizens. I would say they’re fervent supporters of government in that role. Some even support a public-option healthcare system because of it.

  48. Mike

    Will- low liability might be a factor for lax safety standards, but I would say the threat of death and environmental catastrophe would be enough motivation for BP to set and adhere to (what they thought were) high safety standards.

  49. Will

    “…worst environmental disaster in American history”

    Not sure that’s correct. The Dust Bowl comes to mind, and research might find others.

  50. My parents were married on October 6, 1956. Their 1st anniversary was two days after the launch of Sputnik 1 and the advent of the space age. Before their 13th anniversary, we had landed men on the moon and safely returned them. Three manned NASA programs – all with this goal in mind – were completed from May 1961 until first success in July of 1969. EIGHT freaking years. That’s all. Because one president said “do it” and two successors kept it rolling.

    Forget the regulation talk – my question is this: where the F is a president with the stones to say “do it” and get us technologically divorced from fossil fuel propulsion systems? if the race to the moon was a matter of “national security”, how is this not so much more so? ARRGGH!

  51. Composer99

    @ 40:

    “Luckily, peak oil is a myth because as oil gets harder to find the price goes up bringing more people looking for oil. Same goes for coal and natural gas.”

    Evidence, please, on the mythological status of peak oil.

    Fossil fuels replenish at geological timescales (as should be obvious from their name). We are using them up at very human timescales.

    Just because more people are out there looking (would that actually happen? There are rather substantial barriers to entry in the fossil fuel extraction market, barriers which would rise as the sources of fossil fuels grow increasingly remote) doesn’t mean there is an enormous quantity left to be found, or that it could be extracted in a timely and cost-effective manner, even with a substantially higher cost to incentivize increased production.

    @ 45/49:

    I disagree with your conclusion.

    There is little good reason to believe that BP or other companies will magically change their behaviour based on this disaster, or that they would have been motivated in advance to implement the most stringent possible safety measures simply by considering the potential consequences of a disaster.

    That thinking is giving humans too much credit for rationality.

    As an example, consider handwashing by hospital staff. It is, I hope you would agree, rational to conclude that hospital staff should be handwashing at most opportunities.

    One need only search for handwashing statistics on Google to see that campaigns are often afoot to improve handwashing because it is found to be below acceptable levels.

    (Concrete example: a PubMed reference for handwashing at a teaching hospital in Switzerland. – http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10068358)

    I do not know whether the decision makers at BP or Transocean are good or bad people; it doesn’t matter. What does matter is that they are human beings, and subject to all the flaws and foibles of being human.

  52. @ gopher65 – While Mike and QuietDesperation have answered you quiet well I think I’ll too respond. You see I’m having a real problem following your logic on this. It seems that despite thinking yourself a libertarian you would allow the government to intervene in any circumstance in which it believes someone is at risk. Where does this intervention in the name of public safety end? Nearly anything we do can be harmful or fatal. Don’t have a non-slip mat and handrails in your shower…call the police. Like to mountain climb…call the police. Besides forcing the anti-vaxxers to inoculate themselves or their kids will just harden their resistance and reinforce their view that a government conspiracy is involved. The government can’t protect everyone from everything and it shouldn’t try.

    @Dave C – There are huge differences in having the government fund a moon landing and forcing through a centralized “green” energy program. I’m often called a climate change denier because I oppose subsidies on supposed green energy programs. I believe global warming is occurring and lacking other smoking evidence it almost certainly is due to human activities, but I am dubious of the scare mongering catastrophic claims pushed forth by people like Al Gore and Professor Mann. And even more importantly I don’t think having the government mandate and subsidize energy policy is the smart thing to do. First of all having te government intervene lets bureaucrats pick winners and losers and their track record at understanding technology and the free-market is not impressive. Look at Spain, which poured billions into solar power at the estimated cost of $750,000 per “green” job created. The country is now in dire financial straits with this highly subsidized solar jobs drying up faster than a damp sponge in orbit.

    One thing that is not needed is a centralized energy policy. A mixture of consumer demand, private prizes (think X-prize) and realistic government mandated benchmarks (which have done a lot for the diesel engine industry) will do more than enough to produce a sustainable energy program in this country. This is especially true if the price of gas creeps up and new technology makes other energy sources more viable. If the country relies on a bloated top down government program…we will get something akin to the Apollo Program an expensive feat that looks great but has very few long term benefits to show for it.

  53. gopher65

    QuietDesperation and Mike: Yarr, I know. I just get frustrated by the loudmouthed fringes of the libertarian movement (like Penne and Teller for example). It especially bothers me when irrational people like that claim to be skeptics who “question everything”. Hah. Right.

    Benjamin: Ah, but you’ve hit the nail on the head. I would never advocate protecting people from *themselves*. They can drug themselves to death, fall off a mountain, commit suicide, or slip in their Teflon coated shower (heh) — that’s their choice. People can do whatever they want to themselves, regardless of the consequences. It’s when they interfere with others that problems arise.

    Whether we like to admit it or not, we all raise the hackles of other people occasionally, no matter how accommodating we try to be. It happens, and in a free-for-all situation (or anything even close to that) people inevitably get hurt. In my version of an ideal reality laws are created solely for when such disputes erupt between (groups of) people, rather than for moralizing (like many laws today do).

  54. t-storm

    #1, I’ve been wondering lately about the same thing (natural oil spills, etc). I was wondering if there has ever been a case of magma coming into contact with an oil deposit.

    I heard on the radio (unverified) that the Soviets used nukes to plug 3 separate well leaks in the 60s and 70s. Has anyone heard of that?

  55. AR

    The only thing worth getting angry about here is the fact that PEOPLE HAVE DIED in this accident but all you talk about is the environment. You even have the nerve to say that this isn’t yet as bad as the Exxon Valdez spill, despite the fact that nobody was killed by that accident.

    Priorities, Phil!

  56. Sarah Pressman

    I think that, when it comes to my Libertarianism, the freedom to behave like a self centred teenager is paramount. I mean, what do I owe the world?

    As for there being an oil slick, it is all a fake, created by liberals to smear the oil industry.

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