Though a bit imprecise, the time, approximately 9:50 p.m. on April 20, 2010, marks the end of knowing much precisely. A floating machinery system roughly the size of a forty-story hotel has for months been drilling into the sea floor in the Gulf of Mexico. Its creators have named the drilling rig “Deepwater Horizon.”

Oil giant BP has contracted Deepwater Horizon’s owner, Transocean, and various companies and crews to drill deep into the sea floor 40-odd miles southeast of the Louisiana coast. The target has also been named: the Macondo formation. Giving it a name helps pull the target into our realm of understanding. But by doing so we risk failing to understand that it is a hot, highly pressurized layer of petroleum hydrocarbons—oil and methane—pent up and packed away undisturbed inside the earth for many millions of years.

Oil from the air near the bleeding well, June 2010- Photo: Carl Safina
Oil from the air near the bleeding well, June 2010- Photo: Carl Safina

Under mile-deep water, the worker crews have struck their target fully three and a half miles from the surface. The target is about to strike back.

A churning drill bit sent from a world of light and warmth and living beings. More than three miles under the sea surface, more than two miles under the sea floor. Eternal darkness. Unimaginable pressure. The drill bit has met a gas pocket. That tiny pinprick. That pressure. Mere bubbles, a mild fizz from deep within. Sudden influx of gas into the well. Rushing up the pipe. Gas expanding like crazy. Through the open gates on the seafloor. One more mile to the sea surface.

The sight was distressing to say the least-Photo: Carl Safina
The sight was distressing to say the least-Photo: Carl Safina

The beings above are experiencing some difficulty managing it. A variety of people face a series of varied decisions. They don’t make all the right ones.

Explosion. Fireball.

Destroyed: eleven men. Created: Nine widows. Twenty-one fatherless kids including one who’ll soon be born. Only the rig rests in peace, one mile down. Only the beginning.

Blowout. Across the whole region the natural systems shudder. Months to control it. Years to get over it. Human lives changed by the hundreds of thousands. Effects that ripple across the country, the hemisphere, the world. Imperfect judgment at sea and in offices in Houston, perhaps forgivable. Inadequate safeguards unforgivable. No amount of money enough. Beyond Payable.

The landscape changes slowly from Louisiana to Mississippi to Alabama to Florida. And so does the light. Green fields. Blue skies. Black cows. Red Barns. A Baptist church advises, “Do Your Work Today As If There Is No Tomorrow.”

Perhaps yes, now’s not a time to wreck your head over tomorrow; too many unknowns. Another church and a bit more to the point: “Forgive Us, Lord.” The oil is coming.

Ruined water - Photo: Carl Safina
Ruined water – Photo: Carl Safina

One of life’s simple pleasures: driving with the radio on: I hear that the wife of one of the eleven killed says BP will never feel the pain the survivors feel. But how could it? It is not a person. Where a heart would be, it has only money. The Supreme Court disagrees with me; they say a corporation is a person. Does a corporation have a belly-button? Not something for courts to trifle with. Not, in Truth, subject to their opinion.

It’s hot. The sun raises for itself an ocean haze. The shorelines are confettied with orange boom, bracing for the oil’s arrival on the tide. The slick is coming. The rigs foreshadow it. The booms await it.

On the corner, the BP station. I still have half a tank.

Various people called this blowout ‘the worst environmental catastrophe in American history.’ Some simply said ‘in history.’

Well, no.

In the blowout, 206 million gallons of oil mixed with the Gulf’s 660 quadrillion gallons of water. That volume of water could greatly dilute the oil. But the carbon dioxide we’re adding to the atmosphere isn’t getting diluted; it’s continually getting more concentrated. Oil getting into the ocean has everyone’s attention. But the real catastrophe is the oil we don’t spill.

It’s the oil we burn, the coal we burn, the gas we burn. The worst spill is the carbon dioxide we spill out of our tailpipes and smokestacks every second of every day, year upon decade.

That spill is changing the atmosphere, changing world climate, altering the heat balance of the whole planet, destroying the world’s polar systems, killing the wildlife of icy seas, killing the tropics’ coral reefs, raising the level of the sea, dissolving shellfish, and turning the oceans acid. And as the reefs dissolve and the ocean’s productivity declines, so will decline the food security of hundreds of millions of coastal peoples.

Multinational corporations are by definition not patriotic; they can’t afford to be. But we can’t afford them not to be. Their interests are not our interests. For the main reason behind America’s decline—in manufacturing, jobs, technological innovation, and moral leadership—we need look no further. They have strangled innovation in its crib. Killed all our first-born ideas and sent the entrepreneurs who could have saved us fleeing to places like China.

Dauphin Island, Alabama, Fourth of July 2010-Photo: Carl Safina
Dauphin Island, Alabama, Fourth of July 2010-Photo: Carl Safina

China understands its moment. Today China is rapidly becoming the world’s leader in wind, solar, electric cars, and high-speed rail. It’s also the world’s greatest lender of money to the U.S.; we have yoked ourselves to interest payments to the world’s biggest totalitarian government, while forking over union jobs, technological leadership, and the American Dream. It’s been said that empires are not destroyed from the outside; they commit suicide.

Many say—and they have a point—that if Americans do not want to hand even more money and clout to the likes of Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Russia (and I don’t), we should drill more at home. I would say America should harness all our domestic sources of energy. We should get on an emergency war-footing crash program for creating the jobs and building the infrastructure to surpass China and northern Europe’s renewable-energy race, summon the determination to lead the world into the eternal-energy economy, and emerge again as the greatest country on Earth. Whoever builds the new energy future will own the future. And the nation that owns the energy future will sell it to everyone else. I’d rather that nation be the United States of America.
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Adapted from the book A Sea In Flames by Carl Safina. Crown, 2011.

A Sea in Flames copy (2)

Changing Planet

Meet the Author
Ecologist Carl Safina is author of seven books, including the best-selling “Beyond Words; What Animals Think and Feel,” and “Song for the Blue Ocean,” which was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. His writing has won a MacArthur “genius” prize; Pew and Guggenheim Fellowships; book awards from Lannan, Orion, and the National Academies; and the John Burroughs, James Beard, and George Rabb medals. His work has been featured in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, National Geographic, CNN.com and elsewhere, and he hosted the 10-part “Saving the Ocean” on PBS. Safina is founding president of The Safina Center at Stony Brook University.