Oceanographer and nature writer Safina (The View from Lazy Point, 2011, etc.) etches an emotional topography of the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil blowout.
The author begins in an artful, participatory-journalist mode, endeavoring to get his facts straight while unafraid to voice his interpretation of unfolding events. (A fitting hand-in-glove with Safina’s book is John Konrad’s Fire on the Horizon (2011), which presents a veteran deckhand’s view of the events and shares with it many conclusions.) Safina’s writing is jumpy, staccato and portentous as he follows the drilling work on the Deepwater Horizon, an accident-in-waiting with outdated equipment, a multitiered corporate management willing to dangerously cut corners and an absence of emergency preparation. When Halliburton’s cementing job unsurprisingly failed—“Halliburton officials knew weeks before the fatal explosion that its cement formulation had failed multiple tests—but they used the cement anyway”—at the expense of 11 lives, BP was more interested in controlling their public image than the wellhead. Appalled by the recklessness of the causes and the inanity of the response, the author is skeptical of BP’s announcements and cynical as to their motives. Sharing responsibility with BP is an oil-industry–besotted Congress, eager to subsidize their benefactors while cutting back on big-government safety regulations; the Coast Guard, whose over-measured response felt “like a Kabuki dance”; and a legal process that put the criminal in charge of the crime scene (BP security was given control of public space). Safina calls certain environmental organizations on their shrill, not necessarily helpful responses, and President Obama for not seizing the opportunity to bring energy policy before the public’s widened eye. The jury is out regarding environmental consequences: The Gulf appears to have absorbed the 206 million gallons of crude, but long-term effects of the dispersed oil will be tallied over years. Public perception of the devastation, fueled by a hyperventilating media, has wreaked havoc on tourism and fishing industries, which do not show evidence of poisonous degradation.
The blowout was awful, but look at the bigger picture, writes Safina in this illuminating, monitory study: “The real catastrophe is the oil we don’t spill…the oil we burn, the coal we burn, the gas we burn…And as the reefs dissolve and the ocean’s productivity declines, so will go the food security of hundreds of millions of people.”