"Blowout in the Gulf: The BP Oil Spill Disaster and the Future of Energy in America"

April 15, 2011



Blowout in the Gulf: The BP Oil Spill Disaster and the Future of Energy in America

By William R. Freudenburg and Robert Gramling
MIT Press, 2010, $18.95


Blowout in the Gulf starts and ends with BP’s oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, but it’s really about something much bigger: America’s unrealistic thinking about oil. In the Gulf and elsewhere, the authors argue, “we have been getting into increasingly dangerous waters without being sufficiently vigilant about the implications of our actions.” They use the BP spill to show how bankrupt that approach is, and to argue for rethinking our national culture of oil consumption.

The late Bill Freudenburg (commemorated here in this issue of SEJournal) and his coauthor, University of Louisiana sociologist Robert Gramling, wrote many books and articles together and separately examining how we think about natural resources, and how those perceptions drive environmental policies. Drawing on the field of risk studies, they point out connections between the BP spill and other disasters. While the Macondo well’s blow-out preventer failed to work, Freudenburg and Gramling point to an even bigger problem: humans who assumed it was fail-safe.

For example, cost-cutting by BP, Transocean and Halliburton reduced safety margins and reduced the number of barriers against a well blowout on the Deepwater Horizon as its crew was closing down the well. The rig's strong safety record convinced company officials that it was a state-of-the-art system, but in practice it was operating with many important safety features disabled. And federal regulators accepted the numbers and assumptions in BP’s spill response plan without asking any questions.

But as the authors see it, the problem is broader. They shift their focus to the history of the U.S. oil industry, noting how policymakers gave it generous subsidies and tax breaks for decades (and charged lower royalties on oil production than almost any other nation). And they recount how presidents from Nixon to Obama have pledged to reduce U.S. dependence on imported oil, even as our dependence on foreign sources has risen to over 66 percent of total U.S. oil use.

“Our expectations for the future continue to be shaped by the exuberance of the past,” they write. “We seem to have become so caught up in the excitement of oil strikes that we’ve started to share the wildcatters’ conviction — surely, there must be even more spectacular finds out there, perhaps just beyond the next horizon.”

That’s especially true in Louisiana, as Freudenburg and Gramling learned when the Interior Department’s Minerals Management Service commissioned them in 1990 to study public risk perceptions of offshore oil development. MMS wanted to understand why some states, like California, strongly opposed broader offshore oil leases. Freudenburg and Gramling concluded that many factors made Louisiana unusually receptive to offshore oil production. The industry developed there in the 1930s and 1940s, well before the first environmental laws were passed, and in parallel with the expansion of the local fishing industry. Few of the state’s residents live near the coast, which is marshy and hard to access by road. The region’s economy was dominated by extractive industries, and average levels of education were relatively low in southern Louisiana, a finding that usually correlated with lower-than-average environmental awareness.

These findings suggested — correctly — that offshore drilling would be a much tougher sell on the east and west coasts than in Louisiana. What’s more, policies initiated during the Reagan administration by Interior Secretary James Watt (so-called “area-wide leasing”) vastly expanded the amount of territory offered for oil exploration. Only the biggest companies could afford to do seismic surveys on massive offshore tracts, so small producers were crowded out of the Gulf, and corporations like BP came to dominate the region.

Putting this all together, Freudenburg and Gramling conclude that federal offshore energy policies have emphasized “the transfer of valuable, resource-rich undersea lands from the general public to a handful of the richest corporations in the history of money.” Given that oil is a finite resource, and that a growing share of what’s left lies in hard-to-reach places (like ultra-deepwater formations), they argue that it’s time to start reducing our oil dependence. They don’t lay out a detailed energy plan, which is beyond the scope of this book, but they do build a powerful case that we need to make better choices.

Freelancer Jennifer Weeks lives and writes in Watertown, Mass.

* From the quarterly newsletter SEJournal, Spring 2011 issue.

SEJ Publication Types: