The petro porn vanishes from the boob tube, and attention drifts. Almost three months of oily gushing from BP’s broken well at the bottom of the Gulf ends with a new spire of complex plumbing bolted atop the failed parts and squelching the spout. The submersible robots, which provided the geyser videos, will now be looking for lesser leaks. If any appear in the seafloor around the wellhead, the pipes lining the well are ruptured somewhere deep in the borehole, and oil is urgently searching for fissures it can ream into an eruption. No new plumbing could cork that.
Such seeps would be a signal to relieve the pressure by opening valves on the new cap and letting oil flow directly from the well again. But it wouldn’t squirt promiscuously into the water as before. Some would be piped to tankers on the surface, some would rise loose and be collected by a waiting armada of skimmers and suckers. Drilling would continue on the two relief wells, until they intercept the original well, which they plug with pumped cement, sealing the leak forever. The drama ends and the audience departs.
Unless it doesn’t end. On the evidence to date, success is a prelude to failure. So many promising gambits have faltered that none seems reliable now. And even a plugged well may be a ticking bomb. A survey of old wells in the Gulf, supposedly sealed when depleted or abandoned by the thousands, shows that nobody monitors them closely and that some of them leak. These are mostly in much shallower water and drilled to much less depth than BP’s blown out well. Its deep-earth pressure of many thousands of pounds per square inch would be pushing against a seal whose cement and steel corrode and weaken over time.
But the cameras won’t wait years or decades for that gusher. Unless a volcano of oil and methane erupts soon from cracked seafloor near the well, the cameras will search for sensations elsewhere, and the pall of consequences from BP’s reckless high-stakes gambling will settle on the forgotten locals.
Invisible oil is one of these consequences. Since oil is lighter than water, it rises to the surface and forms a slick—except when it doesn’t. BP’s well spewed an unknown volume of oil, most likely many times the amount dumped in Alaskan waters by the Exxon Valdez. This fountain of unrefined crude was a gumbo of multiple hydrocarbons, fluid and gaseous. Some components rose readily and spread across the surface, where eyes and cameras easily saw them. But some were less buoyant and drifted sideways in the cross currents moving through the mile-deep water at the wellhead. Some dissolved into the water. And all were targets of dispersants.
Millions of gallons of this chemical agent were sprayed, from planes onto surface oil and from a hose directly into the oil escaping the wellhead. As the name suggests, the dispersants sought to divide the oil into small droplets that would diffuse throughout the water. This reduced the sheets of surface oil riding waves into marshes and estuaries and coating shore birds with hideous goo. Thus the number of ghastly photos of defenseless smeared creatures in their death throes was also reduced, which tended to disperse the public along with the oil.
The result is oil everywhere: in surface sheen, slicks, and ribbons; in tarballs and pancakes that wash ashore, melt in the sun, and sink into sand and reeds; in shoals of globs and clusters just below the surface, as reported by various scuba divers; in a stinky, foamy form stirred into some beach breakers; in dilute deep plumes invisible to the eye but apparent to lab assays of water samples taken by research vessels; in microscopic droplets and dissolved solutions spreading along the Gulf coast and into tidal inland waters.
Amateurs striving to understand what’s happening around them struggle to grasp these things. But a lesson learned early is that the experts, too, are beyond their depth. For centuries European maps of the world showed large patches of terra incognita. Yet all oceans could still be labeled aqua incognita. This realm is so alien to air-breathing mammalian bipeds that much of what happens there remains mysterious, even to the most sublime authorities.
So public forums on how to cope with the lingering effects of the obvious and the ghostly oil turn into debates (sometimes quite civil and instructive) between dueling experts whose fund of sure knowledge soon fuzzes into estimates and speculations. Locals who’ve pulled their livelihoods from these waters for generations add the insights of experience, and Exxoned Alaskans arrive bearing advice, which may or may not apply in this place of very different temperatures, species, and traditions.
Nobody really knows. And all the attempts at skimming and sucking and corralling the oil may retrieve or burn off only a small fraction of the crude that poured out. And all the miles of boom and other barriers stretched along the shores and inlets may prove impotent against oil infiltrating subsurface. And the creatures not swaddled in oily muck could survive this initial assault, while their offspring prove sterile or unable to thrive in an environment stunted by dilute but ubiquitous oil. And a few especially susceptible species might dwindle away, breaking the food chains that others rely on. Or the microbes accustomed to dining on the natural seeps of oil from the floor of the Gulf might delight in expanding their numbers to consume this sudden bounty from the well gone rogue, and they will soon cleanse the water. Or the animals and plants from neighboring sectors of the Gulf not afflicted could quickly move in to restore the losses. Or the well could explode again, opening a channel for the presumed billions of barrels of crude still in the reservoir to vomit into the water and finish wrecking everything. Nobody really knows.
The human ecology is much plainer. Many thousands, horrified by the oil avalanche from the well and hoping to protect their communities, signed up to help. Enviro and other groups in the initial slick’s target zones along the coast enrolled far more volunteers than tasks they were prepared to do.
One project in Mobile eventually matched elementary skills to a simple function. Anybody with some stamina, enough literacy to follow a checklist on a clipboard, and familiarity with a GPS unit (or the ability to learn) could do this.
Mobile Bay is a cleft in the coast about ten miles wide and thirty miles from the open Gulf to the city at the north end. Its shoreline—along with many inlets, bayous, and rivers—was divided into segments roughly a mile long. A couple volunteers assigned to each segment were to patrol their stretch, twice a week if possible, looking for arriving oil, distressed wildlife, or any other changes attributable to the blown out well. This info, including GPS coordinates of notable events, goes onto the checklist and into a database back at headquarters.
But the capacity to do these chores wasn’t enough. You also needed a small boat, preferably a canoe or kayak to ply the shallows, hugging the shoreline for close inspection of the conditions there.
It may seem that feet should be equipment enough. The shore is public property, up to the high tide line. So you simply walk along the water’s edge toting your clipboard and GPS gadget.
But how do you get to this narrow public strand? Parcels of private property range shoulder to shoulder along most of the bayshore. Waterfront parks are few and their coastlines skimpy.
Everybody in the area knows this. Prices for property along the shores are way beyond the reach of most folks. And government won’t spend the money to acquire and keep attractive, extensive coastal parcels for public access and use.
So at the mandatory training session (basically, don’t drown and don’t get sunburned) before venturing the first inspection, you pose the question: How are we supposed to get to our assigned stretch? The nearest park were we could launch is miles away.
And the answer contains no hint of any inclination to challenge or alter such arrangements. It is simply: Do your best to figure something out, or paddle all those miles from the park if you must.
That long paddle would be fine if you were training for the Olympics. But short of that, you reflexively do the routine, normal thing. With a pair of kayaks strapped to the roof your little team drives to a private marina much closer to your designated stretch. There, for a fee, you can launch a boat and get onto the public water.
A kayak is a freakish craft at a motorboat marina. When the operators realize you are part of the oil patrol, they waive the launch fee. And besides, you harbor the prospect of entertainment.
Kayaks are tippy in any circumstance, but especially for the unpracticed, and more especially when boarding. If you’re not Inuit, how are you going to get into it, without amusing the spectators at your own splashing expense? And when you reappear baked from your oil patrol, they reward you with a free bottle of cold lemonade.
But returning for a later inspection you paddle around a point from the marina and down the shore a bit toward your assigned mile—and you can’t get there. Several long lines of boom have sprouted, stretching from the land far out toward the center of the bay, perhaps trying to guard some newly restored oyster beds. Your pelican convoy is not stymied. When dive bombing for fish they look as clumsy as a novice kayaker. But airborne again they soar majestically or swoop down in formation on silent glides, the tips of their broad wings exactly at the crest of the bay’s wavelets. Their size and precision aeronautics startle you as they cruise close by, headed straight south where the oil is coming from. Blockaded by the walls of boom, you paddle back to the marina.
You could load up the kayaks and drive along the shore road to your sector, then just knock on doors and ask permission to cross their property to reach the water. The folks at the marina say they would advise against that, considering how things are at the moment, without further explanation.
A detailed catalog of conditions around the shoreline before oil surged into the bay, followed by reports on accumulating damages when oil arrived, might be helpful to property owners suing BP. It would also be useful for whatever rehab programs sought to restore the bay to its pre-oil status. Improving the prospects for lawsuits was not the motive that drew most paddlers to the shoreline. Instead, they came with an urge to do whatever they could to protect and revive a central, elemental aspect of their community—the bay and the life it nurtures.
But the abiding property interests casually and resolutely thwarted that urge.
If the volunteer oil patrol paddlers could find or finagle a way to reach their sections and do their assigned surveys, fine. If not, their communal intentions were stifled. But a more important principle prevailed: the privileges of private ownership must not yield precedence to the claims of community interests. If even the private interests eventually suffer also from such myopia, that doesn’t matter. What matters is the principle.
Only one place around Mobile Bay prominently displays a different ethic. Straight east across the water from the walls of boom and property that baffled the kayak patrol is the town of Fairhope. It has the sole large, pleasant, fee-free public park anywhere along the bayshore. Now a pricey and artsy enclave, the town has a history that accounts for its exceptional waterfront.
Nineteenth century economist and agitator Henry George attempted to fashion a collectivist system without recourse to Marx. He saw speculators and monopolists gathering for themselves the fruits of the labor of others. Through various measures, particularly the structure of taxes on land, he proposed to keep the benefits of work and enterprise in the hand of those who created them, not in the grasp of parasites.
Although George’s books and lectures attracted avid followings in California and the east coast, he also had interior adherents. Midwesterners attuned to his views and tempted by popular visions of utopian communities founded Fairhope. Their experiment survived, even thrived, but its utopianism withered, a familiar fate of radical implants in hostile or indifferent settings.
Still, the marvelous waterfront park, with a long pier for strolling and fishing, endures as a legacy of the founders’ intentions. Also enduring, though generally forgotten, is a monument to George on a bluff overlooking the park. It’s inscribed with extracts from his works, statements such as: labor is the basis for production of all wealth.
That seems cryptic now, but a century ago anyone engaged in the controversies of the time would have understood. It was an assertion about the source of value and substance: work, not financial manipulation, creates the essentials that sustain a community. Also about the right to enjoy those essentials: for the workers, not for the manipulators.
Such views have faded from sight, like the monument on the bluff. Local boy turned supernova star, Jimmy Buffett, gave a free concert on the Gulf beach just south of Fairhope. Parrotheads flocked there by the tens of thousands, an instant Margaritaville on sand scraped clean of tar balls for the occasion. The local potentates of commerce, media, and politics are nearly unanimous in denouncing Obama for his attempted moratorium on deepwater drilling.
The junkie’s ruinous habits must resume. And even if BP’s gusher is securely plugged, its spew remains on the water’s surface, in plumes beneath it, and dissolved throughout it.
The thick black slicks forming directly above the oil geyser changed hue as the most volatile components escaped into the air. The sticky sheets creeping shoreward turned an eerie orange or reddish, almost the color of blood some observers flying over the Gulf thought. This suffocating grime may yet enter the bay on winds and tides.
But at the university up in Tuscaloosa the Crimson Tide that really counts is about to start practices for the football season. In January they thrashed Texas for the national championship. And they are ranked number one heading into this fall’s play.
Roll Tide! All’s well.
DAVID UNDERHILL lives in Mobile, Alabama where he has paddled a kayak along the bayshore looking for oil from BP’s busted well in the Gulf of Mexico and for any distressed walruses that BP’s emergency response plan said might be affected by straying oil (along with mermaids and unicorns, presumably). He can be reached at email@example.com.