Ongoing oil spill destroys the Myth of Competence

Posted: Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Now they're saying August. August.

After a month and a half of "top kill" and "junk shot," of chemical dispersants and high-tech domes, of skimmers and controlled burns, this is what we have to show for it. We are now told it may take another "two months" to stop oil from spewing into Gulf Coast waters. And that's assuming no hurricane sweeps into the Gulf and forces temporary suspension of the effort to dig two relief wells.

The immediate consequences of the April 20th oil rig explosion that started all this have long been manifest. Eleven lives were lost. Oil spilled into our seas, wreaked havoc upon the various forms of fish, fowl and crustaceans for whom the ocean is home or feeding ground. The disaster also struck at the economic lifeblood of a region still trying to find its footing after being ransacked by Hurricane Katrina.

Weeks later, one other consequence becomes jarringly apparent: the Myth of Competence has died.

Meaning the belief that people who engage in high-risk activities - in this case, the ones who drill for oil 5,000 feet under the sea - know what they're doing, that they have every contingency covered, that even their backup plans have backup plans. Surely this is what Sarah Palin was thinking when she chirped, "Drill, baby, drill!" Surely this is what President Barack Obama relied upon when he recently proposed to open new waters to oil exploration.

Anticipating protests from environmentalists, he even promised, that "we'll employ new technologies that reduce the impact of oil exploration. We'll protect areas that are vital to tourism, the environment, and our national security."

Three weeks later, the oil rig exploded. So far, that protection he promised has been nonexistent. That faith in new technologies he mentioned has proved misplaced. And "Drill, baby, drill!" has come to seem tinnier and more childish than ever - energy policy as schoolyard chant.

We have been disabused of the Myth of Competence, shorn of the belief that the people in charge are capable of handling any eventuality.

Instead, we have seen oil company executives passing the blame around like a hot potato. We have seen strategy after strategy announced in great hope, abandoned in grim resignation. We have seen days turn to weeks and weeks to months and now, apparently, months will turn to seasons. And still the oil flows.

Perhaps most damning of all, we have seen reports that the Minerals Management Service, the unit of the Interior Department whose job it is to police the oil companies, performed its duties with a shoddiness and inattention bordering on the criminal. We're talking about allegations that MMS personnel accepted expensive gifts and entered sexual relationships with representatives of companies they were supposed to be regulating. And allowed those officials to fill out their own inspection forms. And ignored warnings from the government's scientists about possible environmental impacts of opening certain areas to drilling.

Why not, after all? What's the worst that could happen?

Nothing, unless you count up to 800,000 gallons of oil a day spilling into the sea.

The other day on CNN, they had one of those viewer participation segments where they asked people for their ideas of how to stem the leak. One individual suggested parking a Navy sub atop the well. I remember thinking it a silly idea, impractical for any number of reasons. Then you look at BP flailing around and you have to reconsider. How is that idea any less likely than the things the "experts" have tried without success?

If you hear a certain bitterness in my voice, well, I confess. I look at that ubiquitous video feed of oil gushing into Gulf waters and realize I took for granted that these people knew what they were doing and that they were being regulated by those who had the nation's best interests at heart.

Obviously, I made a mistake.

• Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald. Readers may write to him via e-mail at lpitts@miamiherald.com.



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