If you had been tracking the course of the BP-Deepwater Horizon oil gusher, or listening to media coverage about areas that were potentially threatened by the massive amounts of oil floating in the Gulf, you may have thought that experts knew where it’s likely to hit land. In a general sense, at least.
That was never true.
But it seemed correct. Since the April 20th explosion, the oil slick drifted slowly north and east as it grew.
Here’s a New York Times map of the slick three days after the explosion.
And here it is three days later:
Even jumping four days more, the trend continues:
As recently as Saturday, the best data from NOAA and the US Coast Guard appeared to reinforce the notion that, if nothing else, the oil spill was predictable in its heading:
And then came Sunday:
The spill seemed to have caught even the Times‘ graphics department flat-footed, as the oil slick moved beyond the boundaries of the map. The gulf between the real world and our expectations of it grew again today:
This faith in predictability — in our ability to predict — was evident in an October 22, 2007 determination by the Department of the Interior. The DOI issued a “finding of no new significant impact” for the site, allowing drilling to go ahead without a new environmental impact statement (EIS). Why? Because an earlier EIS had determined that drilling at similar sites was safe, and there was no evidence showing that this one was any different. Regulations were directed in one direction (self-monitoring and reporting by oil companies) while in the real world, hundreds of spills, malfunctions and poor safety records drifted silently off the map, creating the real gulf that is our problem.
A sense that the experts know what they’re doing, that companies can self-regulate because market discipline is sufficient, and that the government needs just to get out of the way — all of these are a beautiful dream.
The only problem is that, inevitably, something wakes us up. In this case, it was an explosion on April 20th . The challenge now is to do something to make sure our laws are changed to match reality, before too many grow tired and go back to sleep and the gulf widens again.