National Commentary

‘Can’t Plug the Hole, Don’t Dig the Well!

bentonmug“If you can’t plug the hole, don’t dig the well.” That matter-of-fact rule of thumb recited by a U.S. Congressman to oil executives this week could not have been more to the point.

bentonmug“If you can’t plug the hole, don’t dig the well.” That matter-of-fact rule of thumb recited by a U.S. Congressman to oil executives this week could not have been more to the point.

It will be awhile before we can truly assess the damage to the U.S. economy, to the ecology of the oceans and to life itself on this planet the continuing “Deepwater Horizon” oil disaster will have.

The rate at which the oil is furiously and relentless disgorging itself, even after two months, is incredibly unsettling, especially as some TV networks insist, and importantly so, to devote a corner of their broadcasts to live feeds from the mile-deep site of the leak in the Gulf of Mexico.

It is regrettable that even President Obama now appears to have a perceived vested interest in downplaying the full potential catastrophe that the spill will bring, because he is preoccupied with diverting criticism that he didn’t do enough in the early days to address the matter. Those hoping to help out the Gulf Coast tourism industries also feel they have an interest in hushing up the threat.

This all goes to obfuscating the truth of the danger, and to redirect people’s attention to angry finger-pointing (as much as it is deserved) at oil industry leaders.

But in the case of Obama, what was he to do? It is a situation totally unlike the Hurricane Katrina’s devastation of New Orleans, and Hurricane Rita’s devastation of points just west of New Orleans only days later. In that case, there was an enormous amount that a timely response from the Bush Administration could have done to mitigate the loss and tragedy from those events.

In the “Deepwater Horizon” case, however, Obama’s only fault was that he did not act quickly and decisively enough to correct yet another horrible miscarriage by his predecessor, namely, the slackened regulation of the industry caused by cozy relationships between supposed government regulators and the industry.

Let the Libertarians and their ilk, let the devotees of Ayn Rand, take a look at the hell that the “Deepwater Horizon” spill is wreaking on our economy and our planet and still say that there’s no appropriate government role for regulating a highly-shoddy and highly-risky enterprise such as this, and many more like it.

(I am partial to the David Sipress cartoon in a recent New Yorker showing firefighters showing up to put out a raging house fire, only to have the occupant with a bucket of water standing out in front to stop them. “No thanks—I’m a Libertarian,” he says).

The “Deepwater Horizon” spill has an menacing Armaggedon-like feel to it. We enjoy our outlandish stories of the occupation and annihilation of the planet as we know it coming from fiendish aliens from outer space. But now we have a bonafide modern-day version of that classic 1950s sci-fi hit starring Steve McQueen called “The Blob.”

It’s “The Blob” not from outer space, but climbing out of the bowels of the planet, itself, that threatens to doom us all.

I’ve reported this before, and recounted it in my trip to the living coral reef off the southern tip of Florida and Key West last week, that the fragile ecology beneath the sea serves a critical role in maintaining the livability of the planet, of containing the conversion of our oceans into carbonic acid incapable of supporting any life.

The cover story in this week’s Newsweek, “What the Spill Will Kill,” tells same story. By Sharon Begley, Daniel Gross and Jonathan Alter, it confirms that it is the depth of the “Deepwater Horizon” spill that poses the greatest threat, not just its volume. “The deep-sea communities are lynchpins of the global carbon cycle – the ocean’s garbage men and recycling centers,” they write, quoting marine biologist Jeffrey Baguley, “The biggest biological component of the global carbon cycle is in the deep sea.”

It only underscores the pressing reality that this nation must take dead seriously its need to end its addiction to oil. This calamity was the result of having to reach too far and too deep for it, and if that approach continues, the planet could be doomed.

Nicholas Benton may be emailed at