By Kathryn Randazzo
Massive, metallic, smoking oil rigs disrupting the horizon of the world’s oceans is not an uncommon sight for coastal communities. These contraptions are relentlessly altering the ocean floor, changing the dynamic of the environment around them; symbolizing the Anthropocene. Offshore drilling has been a vital concern looming over humanity for the past few decades. After the infamous Deepwater Horizon oil disaster of 2010, people have become increasingly exposed to the detrimental effects of the industry and concern among the public is rising. In 2008, prior to this highly mediatized event, 62% of US citizens favored increasing offshore drilling. However, after the infamous spill, only 46% of Americans support the endeavor. The process of offshore drilling highlights the careless degradation of the planet for profit, highlighted in this essay. Ever since the beginning of offshore drilling in 1896, the ocean floors were destined to never be the same. Offshore drilling is the epitome of capitalist-driven environmental degradation, exploiting not only the ocean and its environment but also the laborers and inevitably leading to irreversible planetary alteration.
Offshore oil drilling first began in 1896 in Summerland, California. This was the first submerged oil well and piers connected the wells to the shore. The industry quickly expanded to the Caspian Sea, the Great Lakes, the Gulf of Mexico, and eventually expanding to nearly all oceans. By the end of the great depression, the first free-standing oil platforms were successfully built, more similar to the platforms and rigs are seen today. As the 20th century continued, so did the expansion of offshore drilling, especially in the Gulf of Mexico. Oil production revenue became the second highest revenue generator after income taxes by the late 20th century. From an industrial revolution perspective, offshore drilling was a thrilling innovation, tapping into an abundance of new resources, benefitting Americans. However, the devastating effects soon became apparent as the industry grew in size and complexity.
In order to comprehend the degree to which offshore drilling has contributed to the Anthropocene, one has to examine each aspect of alteration caused by the process. The extraction process releases excess methane into the environment, as it can escape the well or pipeline freely while the oil is being extracted. The exhaust from the engines driving the process of drilling, the gas flares on the platforms, testing the wells for drilling, and other operations in the process of offshore drilling have been known to release another greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide. These greenhouse gases drive climate change; contributing to rising sea levels and unnatural weather, makes the ocean more acidic, and overall threatens the global. Many measures of greenhouse gases produced by drilling fail to mention the additional emissions released when the oil and gas are burned to be used for energy, which is another major source of pollution. In addition, the cost of devastating oil spills is high, and the Department of Interior finds this event highly likely. When these spills happen, only 10% of the oil spilled ever is cleaned up. Oil spills threaten the entire oceanic ecosystem—even often times making their way to shore and threating beaches, rivers, industry, plants, and people.
The event that truly highlights why offshore drilling is a major factor of the Anthropocene is the Deepwater Horizon oil spill of 2010. This event made the issues of offshore drilling apparent through widespread media coverage and the severity of it. Every aspect of this historic event represents full human alteration of the earth. This accident has been cited by many scholars as the exact turning point where responses and new regulation had to be taken to the next level.
The rig was called the Macondo. On April 20th of 2010, the Macondo offshore oil rig erupted, become the worst environmental catastrophe in United States history, killing eleven workers and injuring dozens more. The Horizon, or the part of the rig that sat above the ocean where the crew worked, blew up, as every one of its defenses failed. Most defenses were damaged by fire and explosions that happened minutes early from the blow out of the rig. The New York Times exposé of the entire event, with testimony from over 100 crew members cites two key reasons for the deadly event: a failure to train for the worst and an overly complex response system. The deck was home to 146 people, with satellite TV, movie theaters, and a housekeeping crew. Transocean, the owner of the rig, basically made a floating, extremely dangerous hotel. The comfort provided by the luxury of the Macondo was nothing but a façade for the truth. The Macondo was made for its owners to make money while they altered the Earth and put the lives of hundreds of people at risk. No regard was given for anything besides income.
The owners of this rig, Transocean and BP oil, cheapened the lives of each employee on that fateful day. As scholars Patel and Moore claim in there book A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things a Guide to Capitalism, Nature, and the Future of the Planet, cheapness refers to a strategy used to manage capitalism. Capitalism cheapens aspects of life, such as labor, in order to keep life in circuits of production and consumption. This ideology is necessary to understand capitalism’s role in the Anthropocene. Transocean needs to make profit; therefore, they disregard the lives and labor of its employees to produce their oil and nature gases. According to testimonies from Macondo workers, the company advised employees to not “overreact” to emergencies. This is the cheapening of lives for capital profit.
BP, one of the oil companies running the Macondo, emailed the crew a vague 24-word long email on how to complete a negative pressure test. The test did not go well, as many crew members claim they were worried that morning. The company told the crew that the test went fine. Investigators into the incident believe that the rig began to leak that evening. After being assured that everything on the rig was going fine, Mr. Holloway of the crew noticed drilling mud “gushing up from the well, just like a water fountain”. Other crew members recall a haze of gas coming up from the pipe, followed by the sounding of the gas alarms. There are countless testimonies of what crew members could have done to save the people on the Macondo, to stop the leakage in the first place, or on how it could have better been constructed, handled and maintained. None of these things happened.
Two explosions later, employee Mr. Sandell recalls the “entire deck blew up”. The crew prepared for the end. Most made it onto the lifeboats, as crew members report carrying severely burnt and punctured crewmates. The surviving members of the Deepwater Horizon incident all said a prayer for their eleven fallen friends.
Not only did this offshore disaster cheapen, physically and mentally scar, and even end the lives of the Transocean BP employees, it also caused one of the great environmental disasters in history. The Deepwater Horizon spill is the largest marine petroleum spill in history. The Journal of Behavioral Health Services and Research cites an abundance of hazards associated with the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. It caused extreme ecological damage: harm to wildlife, vegetation, habitat, and ecosystems, current and future health fears for both humans and animals, and more. This was especially devastating to people who relied on the Gulf Coast for the tourism and coastal industry. The Journal also cites that the long term effect of these chemical hazards are unknown.
To understand how problematic crude oil truly is, it is important to know what chemicals are polluting the ocean with it. According to environmental scientist Tony Gutierrez, the polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) in crude oil are a high-priority pollutant. The chemical is not water soluble, it bioaccumulates, and are overall a significant concern for human and environmental health. In addition, the dispersants used to help break up the oil, are potentially highly toxic, and scientists do not have a real idea of what it could do to the oceanic environment. Overall, there is no conclusive evidence of how the ecosystem is going to be affected by the crude oil and dispersants being released into the ocean after Deepwater Horizon and all oil spills. There is special concern over the effect of oil spills and related chemicals on indigenous microbial communities (the microbials that live on the surface of the ocean), all over the ocean, since most of the chemicals involved with crude oil linger at the surface. Since there is still no evidence on what these PAHs and chemical dispersants are going to do to the ocean and atmosphere long term, it is easy for some to be unconcerned for now. However, the chemical composition of the Gulf of Mexico and in the majority of the ocean will never be the same due to the destruction caused by oil spills.
The overall process of extracting oil and gas from deep ocean wells equates to the cheapening of nature by capitalism. In Raj Patel and Jason Moore’s book, they discuss the cheapening of nature, similar to the cheapening of labor/work. To capitalist, the ocean is viewed as nothing more than storage for profitable oil and gas reserves; lacking value on its own. The full cheapening of nature is represented by capitalism continuing this process despite spills, the scientific fact that it is contributing to greenhouse gas pollution, contributing to climate change, and mounting evidence of how the process contributes to the overall degradation of the ocean and its ecosystems. To capitalists, nature is just a resource to be used and no regards are paid to these effects. This is the tragedy of our times.
On December fifteen of 2010, the United States filed a civil complaint against Transocean Offshore Deepwater Drilling and the associate groups. The cases and settlements involved with the Deepwater Horizon spill dragged on for five years, ending with a 14.9 billion-dollar civil settlement. Upon reading these cases, it’s easy to mindlessly conclude that the EPA won, as billions of dollars were paid to Clean Water Act penalty and to cover natural resource damages. However, one has to consider how capitalism allows the continuation of offshore drilling after this disaster. Billions of dollars are not going to prevent the emissions from causing climate change or stop future spills. Nothing can restore the damages done or bring lives back.
The fact that the offshore drilling industry still exists and is expanding is representative of why humanity has created the Anthropocene. An offshore oil rig represents how humanity, invigorated by capitalism, views the ocean as a resource pool, cheapening it. The continuation of this industry even after the tragic events on the Macondo farther highlights capitalism’s complete hold on the state of the earth. Capitalism has caused disregard for all aspects of life besides profit, destroying everything in its path. There is no end in sight for the offshore drilling industry, so humanity will continue the total alteration of our planet with this reckless activity.
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