The Sciences

Naming the Unspeakable

Cosmic VarianceBy John ConwayApr 30, 2010 3:20 PM


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Two hundred thousand gallons per day of Gulf crude are leaking from a hole 5000 feet under the water's surface in the wake of the still mysterious destruction of British Petroleum's Deepwater Horizon drilling platform last week . How and when it will be stopped is entirely unknown. The mayonnaise-like oil is being blown ashore into the nursery for shrimp for the whole region and the home of hundreds of the other species. Welcome to what may turn out to be the worst single human-caused environmental disaster ever. (Unless you regard global warming in general as a single event. Semantics.)

This thing is going to need a name. The Exxon Valdez incident was a spill - there was a finite amount of oil aboard the ship. A lot of oil: 11 million gallons (40 million liters). The new one in the Gulf of Mexico could blow past that, depending on whether present efforts to close the valve or drill a relief well work. The fact that we called it the "Exxon Valdez" incident clearly indicates the responsible (if not guilty) party involved. So, though I like the moniker "Spill, Baby, Spill" from a political point of view, it doesn't lay any blame and this thing is not a spill. It's a leak, and BP leased the rig from Transocean LTD, the world's largest offshore drilling contractor. I think the responsibility has yet to be determined. If you rent a car, and wipe out a family in an accident because the steering was faulty, is it your fault or the car manufacturer's? It may take some time, or even never be known, what happened a week ago to cause this tragedy. The name of the rig was the Deepwater Horizon, but that doesn't convey ownership or responsibility. Will this become known as the "BP Deepwater Horizon Spill"? The "Transocean/BP Leak"? The media seem to be stuck on "spill" and so I bet that will be in the name long term...and it will take a very long time to assess responsibility here. My heart goes out to the families of the 11 lost on the rig, and to the thousands of fishermen and others whose livelihoods are in peril. We've suspended new offshore drilling until we have understood this incident better. And no doubt a new debate about offshore drilling will ensue. This has certainly put the lie to those who claim that new modern drilling rigs are far safer than in the past, something even President Obama was saying as recently as April 2. Sigh.

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