Government & Politics

Likening BP’s blowout to an airline crash still doesn’t fly

Last July, I took issue with a dubious airline analogy promoted by foes of the offshore drilling moratorium during BP’s Macondo deepwater oil gusher of 2011. Big Oil apologists repeated the analogy ad nauseam: “We don’t ground all airplanes after one crash, do we?” They hoped to portray the Obama administration’s response to the blowout and explosion as a wild, unjustified overreaction.

The analogy became a mantra among Big Oil’s favorite politicians and pundits, and they showed lockstep discipline as they made their case in print and on camera.

It didn’t seem to matter to them that the analogy was deeply flawed. It compared the rig explosion to an airplane crash, and the moratorium to grounded airplanes (ok so far) but then, incredibly, it neglected to draw a parallel to the continuing environmental catastrophe: the vast geyser of oil billowing up from the ocean floor.

Mysterious, that. How in hell do you make a pro-drilling argument that pointedly ignores the 200 hundred million-gallon oil “gorilla” that’s stinking up the Gulf?  An entire nation watched the crude spew for months, and  apologists leave the oil out of the equation?

Yep, that’s what they did. I guess the new definition of chutzpah is choking the Gulf Coast with oil and then claiming you’re getting punished unfairly for being an oil industry.

The oil gusher and rampant pollution was the central fact of the Macondo catastrophe; it transformed a tragic industrial accident into a national crisis. If there were no spill, there would’ve been no six-month drilling moratorium. Only the willfully ignorant would pretend otherwise.

NASA's satellite image shows the giant slick coating the Gulf of Mexico about two months after the Macondo blowout.

In my earlier post, I showed how the airplane analogy originally surfaced as a response to the initial 30-day oil drilling moratorium put in place before the full magnitude of the spill was clear. Yet, as the catastrophe worsened exponentially, apologists for Big Oil stuck to the same talking points. No matter how much oil poured out of the sea floor, or how long the industry was unable to stanch the flow, the usual suspects kept repeating the airline analogy, as they were being well paid to do.

Louisiana’s leaders were part of this chorus, joining in unabashedly. In one breath they were telling national media that the state was at “war” against encroaching oil because it threatened our “way of life,” and in the next breath they’d use an anti-moratorium analogy that conveniently ignored the enemy they were fighting.

Unfortunately, it worked. By dint of sheer repetition, Big Oil’s apologists shoehorned the airline analogy into the national discourse. I was reminded of the persistence of this meme when I saw Houston Chronicle writer Lorin Steffy use it as a topic for his April 17 business column. The piece is titled “An analogy that doesn’t really fly” (print edition only), and in it Steffy counters the analogy from a new angle. He argues that the oil industry shouldn’t compare itself to the airline industry until it adopts the same level of independent safety oversight that airlines have.

Steffy explains that whenever an airplane crashes in the U.S., the National Transportation Safety Board controls the investigation into what went wrong. The NTSB is an independent body — neither regulator, regulatee, emergency responder, or enforcer. The nearest corollary to the NTSB in the oil industry is the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation board. And, as Steffy pointed out, when the USCHI attempted to join the Coast Guard (responder) and Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (regulator) in investigating the Deepwater Horizon tragedy, “the companies involved [in the spill] fought it.” Transocean in particular. Steffy observes that, in the years prior to the Macondo blowout there were numerous minor accidents on oil rigs, as well as several serious “near miss” incidents. He suspects that if these incidents had been studied in an unbiased, transparent manner, we might all be better off:

An independent board that reviewed such accidents would not only provide a more detailed cataloging of the mistakes, but by bringing them to light, by studying their causes, it would make offshore rigs safer.

Many rig operators are proud of their safety culture, and that pride is deserved. But safe operators have nothing to fear from independent scrutiny.

It’s not a bad line of argument. However, for me, the most interesting thing about Steffy’s piece was his confirmation that the airplane analogy persists, like a wandering zombie, a year after its creation.  Here’s how Steffy’s column opened (my emphasis):

We don’t ground all airplanes when one crashes.

Rarely a week goes by that someone doesn’t use the analogy in objecting to the drilling moratorium in the Gulf.

I applaud Steffy’s effort, but let’s face it, he’s a bit late to the party. Despite all the disciplined usage and mindless repetition invested in the airplane analogy over the past year, I’ve found indications that a new, updated argument is being test-marketed by Big Oil’s fellow-travelers.

When an automaker recently announced a recall, the Obama administration didn’t force every carmaker to recall its vehicles. Similarly, there’s no rationale for an industry-wide de facto drilling ban after decades of safe exploration and production.”

Take a look at this video at the Offshore Marine Service Association web site. It’s a cute little animated short that’s received nearly 30,000 views since it debuted in March. I’ll dissect some of the absurd claims made in the video in my next post, but for now you can skip to the 6:45 mark to see the unveiling of the new 2011 “de facto moratorium” analogy. It goes like this:

Oh, brother.

This is more of the same, really. Again we get an analogy that substitutes rhetorical force for logical merit. The first thing to point out is that there’s a huge difference between the auto industry taking preventive measures (like recalls) to avert potential widespread problems and an industry arguing against preventive measures in the wake of a massive catastrophe that has already taken place.

Unbelievably, this new “recall” argument compares, by implication, potentially faulty automobile parts to an environmental catastrophe that has already damaged thousands of square miles of America’s most productive coast. If they weren’t doing it with a straight face, I’d applaud their clownish buffoonery.

The implied argument here is basically this: Obama didn’t penalize the entire auto industry for one recall– why is he doing it to the entire oil industry after one, er, unfortunate release of hydrocarbons?  Actually, they don’t even have the stones to say that. They compare the recall to the oil spill, but instead of saying oil spill they say “after decades of safe exploration.”

Automotive recalls are very common, occur every year, and are preventive measures done out of an abundance of caution to reduce risks and avoid problems that might(!) affect or endanger large numbers of drivers over time. Recalls aren’t synonymous with catastrophe, much as the apologists want you to think they are.

To make the airline analogy work, I had to imagine planes with nuclear cargo crashing into cities. To make this auto industry (dis)analogy work, you would need to imagine an automotive catastrophe huge enough to be on par with the oil spill. (.

Try this: Say a computer glitch occurs in the navigation system software in GM cars, and on May 21st all models with GM navigation all go screwy at the same time, and drivers receive wildly incorrect directions to their destinations that day. Thousands of collisions ensue, twenty people die, and billions in damages and lost man hours are incurred. What would the response be to such a colossal accident? Would President Obama treat it like a garden-variety recall? No way! You can bet your bippy that there would be umpteen investigations into the faulty GM models, but also into all the other automakers offering similarly designed navigation systems on their cars and trucks.

The entire industry would be affected and the public would demand a halt in auto production until new navigational models were glitch-proof (at least in terms of being prone to widespread, simultaneous failures affecting hundreds of thousands of people).

Now imagine that Ford, Chrysler made the following complaint:

“Hey, we each have long track records of safety, why should we be penalized with a production stoppage like GM? Sure we use software components that might be similarly flawed, and studies have shown that the risks of a GM-like failure are much higher than previously assumed, but government should only penalize GM, because the other carmakers have a long track record of safety (even though navigation software, like deepwater drilling has only emerged in the last two decades). Let us get back to work, or else competition will suffer and car prices will rise, and tens of thousands of jobs will be lost and the country will become more dependent on foreign manufacturers.”

All right, maybe they wouldn’t say it in exactly those words, but the basic scenario outlined above is still a much truer comparison to the oil spill than the new “recall” analogy made in the OMSA video.
And obviously, the American public wouldn’t buy that argument in a million years.

Who cares about Ford’s and Chrysler’s safety record when new technology is the issue? If the other carmakers were similarly susceptible to widespread malfunction, Americans wouldn’t excuse them by saying that “the chances of another catastrophic accident are very slim.” Yet, that’s the situation we’re currently in. Big Oil wants to “get back to work” (after a year of record production) even though it still relies on TransOcean rigs, Halliburton cement and Cameron blowout preventers, and even though Congress has passed no new laws to hold them more responsible.

So, the new “auto recall” analogy really has the same goal as the old airline one: both cleverly elide the oil spill in order to conjure a false equivalence between Big Oil and other large, familiar industries. It’s a logical sleight-of-hand — more inert talking point than real argument — to portray the oil industry as the victim in all this, and assert that that the de facto moratorium was just as “devastating” as the spill itself. More on that last point in my next post.

The good news is that new well containment system prototypes have been developed in response to the Macondo calamity. And while they are still limited and untested, they appear to hold promise — despite the fact that they should’ve come on line years ago. Hopefully, innovations like these will hasten the death of these idiotic analogies, so I won’t be grumbling about their continued existence a year from now.

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