What if the oil spill is a symptom of something bigger?

Gordon Stewart
Gordon C. Stewart is a Presbyterian minister.
Submitted photo

A bleeding mole on one's neck sends shivers down the spine. It could be benign. It could be pre-cancerous. It could be pre-cancerous but self-contained. Or it could be evidence of a full-body systemic skin cancer. It takes a dermatologist and a pathology report to diagnose.

We can see the brown pelicans and sea turtles washed up on the Gulf coast, the marshes and the wetlands on which the food chain depends, the angry geyser a mile below the ocean's surface. It is possible, after five long weeks, that progress is being made to plug that geyser. We should not confuse that possible progress with a cure.

Beyond the obvious question of who's responsible, I see bigger questions I don't know how to answer.

Whom do we trust?

Those who are supposed to know such things -- the equivalent of dermatologists and pathologists in the Department of Interior's Minerals Management Services, and the oil companies that drill the wells -- have not earned our trust. They are on public record as having committed malpractice. The head of the MMS has resigned, but one bureaucrat's departure does not change that record.

Does our government have the capability to raise tough questions and to regulate the private corporations on which our petroleum-dependent economy depends?

The Wall Street Journal reported that the regulatory agency, MMS, had once considered requiring a backup shutoff device -- in addition to the primary blowout preventer -- called an acoustic switch. When the industry argued against having to adopt the $500,000 device, MMS backed down and said the device was "not recommended because they tend to be very costly."

The Journal later reported that MMS commissioned a researcher to study the reliability of blowout preventers. In 2002, the researcher recommended that the devices include a second "ram shear" to close off the pipe, in case the first didn't work, but MMS ignored the recommendation.

Had the Minerals Management Service and BP been schooled on the 14th century nursery rhyme "For Want of a Nail" that taught English children to pay attention to first things, the Gulf, the marshes and the wetlands might still be blue.

For want of a nail the shoe was lost. For want of a shoe the horse was lost. For want of a horse the rider was lost. For want of a rider the battle was lost. For want of a battle the kingdom was lost. And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.

The rhyme dates back to 1363, when King Edward III instituted obligatory nationwide archery practice on Sundays and holidays to ensure the nation's security. He seems to have understood that a well-prepared people, not just an army, was the best defense, and it all began with paying attention to the first step in any battle: a nail in the horse's hoof.

We don't have a king. We have a president and a Congress and government agencies responsible for the nation's security and wellbeing. The Interior Department's own inspector general sounded the alarm in 2008 when he reported that Minerals Management Services officials had accepted cocaine, sex and other gifts provided by the oil companies they were responsible for regulating. Thursday's Washington Post confirms that close ties between the regulators and those they were regulating were routine. While we were sending today's versions of horses and riders off to battle in Iraq and Afghanistan, we were losing the bigger battle with ourselves: the battle with greed and with private conglomerates of wealth and power.

The MMS officials have also decried the statute that requires them to respond to oil company applications for off-shore drilling within 30 days. President Obama singled that measure out for scorn in his press conference Thursday. Those who enacted the statute -- the voting members of Congress who depend upon campaign contributions from multinational corporations -- know there is no reasonable way MMS can do its job in 30 days.

What to do?

The licensing government agency and the companies responsible for the disaster cannot answer the larger questions. BP, Transoceanic and Halliburton can quibble over which company made the mistake in this one blow-out, and MMS can point to the statutes that limit its ability to review applications, but they cannot address whether this bleeding mole requires treatment -- whether it is a symptom of a deadly cancer.

For want of a valve, the rig was lost. For want of the rig, the sea was lost. For want of the sea, the kingdom was lost.

Yet if a poisoned sea can turn people's attention to the sickness that produced such horror, perhaps the kingdom will be saved.

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The Rev. Gordon Stewart is pastor of the Shepherd of the Hill Presbyterian Church in Chaska, Minn.

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