On March 31, President Barack Obama surprised many when he announced plans to lift oil drilling moratoriums along the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts – a move described at the time as potentially the “biggest expansion of offshore energy exploration in half a century.”

Three weeks later, the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded and a catastrophic oil gusher commenced. Then 10 days after that, on April 30, as the scope of the disaster widened, Obama temporarily shelved his plans to expand new offshore drilling pending a 30 day safety review. Four weeks later, Obama decided to extend the deepwater drilling moratorium six more months, until a presidential commission completed its investigations.

It was late April when I began noticing the following analogy used to counter arguments in favor of a drilling moratorium:

“If an airplane crashes, we don’t ground all airplanes, do we?”

Yes, I know – behold the sublime majesty of this analogy! Savor its brilliance, and wonder: If only philosopher Baruch Spinoza had known such logical elegance, oh what might’ve been!

When this lame airplane analogy first surfaced in comment threads and discussion forums, it was easily ridiculed and shot down. Somehow, though, instead of dying in its crib – like Rush Limbaugh’s suggestion that ecoterrorists blew up the Deepwater Horizon rig – this airline talking point gained momentum and achieved wide use in respectable circles. Not only would you hear it on talk radio and casual conversations, but on cable TV from elected officials and national pundits. It became so widespread I began to think people were being paid to repeat it. Rarely did they ever follow up the analogy with an explanatory argument, though. They’d just toss it out like a showstopper, as if it contained such killer force that further explanation would only dilute its power.

I was amazed, and wondered: Why are so many people repeating this bad analogy? But then I realized how closely this chorus resembled the one during the 2008 presidential campaign, when conservatives all suddenly began reminding everyone about the central lesson of Katrina: That offshore drilling was safe because “not one drop was spilled” after the hurricane passed. It didn’t matter that this was an outright lie repeated 100 times for every instance it was caught and retracted. (Note that the energy lobbyist in that last link says she was “misinformed” – by whom, I wonder?) The reason we kept hearing the “not one drop” falsehood during the summer of 2008 was because it served Big Oil interests. The 2010 airline analogy is merely a sequel to that false talking point, repeated with equal discipline from many of the same sources.

Last month, Facing South website explored the widespread use of the analogy. They cited instances where Fox News, Washington Times, New York Times columnist David Brooks, and even Louisiana’s own Sen. David Vitter all used it in front of a national audience. Recently a widely linked Reason article by Jon Utley echoed the airplane talking point. And even U.S. District Court Judge Martin Feldman weakened his opinion with the analogy, as he overturned the Obama administration’s 6-month deepwater drilling moratorium. Feldman asked,  “Are all airplanes a danger because one was?”

Facing South mistakenly cited disgraced former FEMA head Michael Brown as an originator of the airplane analogy. However, there were several earlier uses, one notable example being Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell’s statement from April 30:

The political fallout from a massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico struck Virginia hard Thursday.

At a public meeting in Norfolk, environmentalists argued that the accident illustrates why drilling off the Virginia coast should be rejected.

“A spill even a fraction of the one in the Gulf would devastate our coastal environment,” said Eileen Levandoski, Hampton Roads director of the Sierra Club, an environmental group.

In Richmond, meanwhile, Gov. Bob McDonnell urged that oil and natural-gas drilling at least 50 miles off Virginia continue moving forward as outlined last month by President Barack Obama.

What you don’t want to do, obviously, is every time you have an incident in a coal mine or if an airplane were to go down, we certainly don’t say, ‘Well, let’s stop flying,’”

I assure you, this airplane analogy didn’t catch on simply because a lot of Big Oil apologists heard it independently, and were all similarly impressed by the sheer ineluctable force of the argument. No way. The analogy was probably circulated by the Petroleum Institute or another like-minded outfit as part of a coordinated PR response to the BP disaster. To them, it seemed like a “common sense” talking point that would help prevent public overreaction against the oil industry.

Facing South attempted to debunk the oil/airlines argument in various ways, but only touched on the reason why the parallel is fatally flawed. Here’s how I would’ve tackled it:

The basic idea of the airplane analogy is this: We don’t ground all airplanes after a single plane crash, therefore we shouldn’t stop all drilling rigs if we have a problem with one of them. Now, if rigs only posed a danger to the workers on them, then the parallel would hold up better. But, as bad as the deaths on the Deepwater Horizon were, it’s the catastrophic risks that oil gushers pose to an entire region that make them so potentially dangerous. This event is so newsworthy because of the resultant oil gusher, not the original rig fire. Everyone understands that, yet this analogy obscures this central, gruesome fact. It equates a fiery rig to a fiery plane crash, and complains that we’re responding to one situation differently than another. But the oil that’s currently polluting five Gulf Coast states complicates things a bit, doesn’t it? Why is the biggest element in this ongoing disaster – namely, the flowing oil – missing from the airplane scenario?

If we were engaging in honest debate, and truly wanted to match the analogy to the situation, we’d need to look for an instance where a plane crash led to a hideous disaster that had catastrophic consequences reaching far beyond the tragic deaths of the plane’s passengers. Perhaps we could think of an instance where a plane crash had catastrophic effects to thousands of others who were not on board, which transfixed an entire nation and led to a temporary shutdown of the airline industry (and to subsequent wars). But where oh where in a post-9/11 world could we possibly find such an historical example of a plane crash leading to catastrophe? And would such an occasion necessitate a flying moratorium?

Think hard – try not to have a failure of imagination.

All right, I don’t want to compare the BP/Macondo disaster to 9/11, but if you are committed to this analogy, as so many apparently are, then the 9/11 comparison is infinitely more accurate than the current version. But the analogy relies on mendacity. Big Oil doesn’t want its advocates saying “Drilling moratorium? Did we halt the airlines industry after those planes crashed back in 2001?”

If we must use an airline analogy, here’s a preferable version: Imagine if passenger airlines also carried a several tons of highly volatile nuclear waste – but it’s OK because air travel makes America great and the nuclear waste is contained in super secure obsidian boxes that almost never break on impact. But on the off chance a plane should crash AND the obsidian box should fail – don’t worry, we’re the experts at cleaning up harmful radioactive spillage. So, imagining this, let’s consider a revised analogy: “Drilling moratorium? Did we ground all the planes after that one crashed and spilled nuclear waste all over metro Atlanta?”

Joe Nocera’s recent New York Times column fleshed out the analogy slightly more than usual:

When an airplane crashes, and several hundred people die, the government doesn’t ground every airplane until it is sure all airplanes are safe. It would be too disruptive to the economy. Shouldn’t the same logic apply here?

No, the same logic shouldn’t necessarily apply because the analogy is flawed.

Oil rig fire is to plane crash as oil gusher is to …what, exactly? Nocera’s comparison ignores the catastrophic risks associated with drilling in order to make a moratorium seem excessive. Isn’t the oil currently poisoning the fisheries, beaches and fragile wetlands that support the “Energy Coast” unacceptably “disruptive” as well?

The airplane analogy is insidious because it ignores the central lesson of this oil disaster: We’ve underestimated the catastrophic risks that accompany offshore drilling. Lethal rig blowouts can result in oil gushers that devastate vast coastal regions before getting plugged months later. And that catastrophic risk is attached to every offshore drilling operation in a way that is different in kind from the risks associated with air crashes. Yet, this shoddy analogy comes from supporters of an industry that supposedly understands risk analysis better than anyone else.

It’s open for debate whether a lengthy drilling moratorium in the wake of the Macondo disaster was a prudent move. I believe that Obama’s moratorium is too draconian, despite the catastrophic risks involved. I don’t see why mandatory relief wells or a “drill but don’t touch the reservoir” policy wouldn’t be a fine compromise. I’ll analyze this further in my next column. But until then, I’ll reiterate that while the moratorium may be comparable to many things, one thing it is not like is an excessive response to an airplane crash.


Mark Moseley

Mark Moseley blogs at Your Right Hand Thief. Until mid 2014, Mark Moseley was The Lens' opinion writer, engagement specialist and coordinator for the Charter Schools Reporting Corps. After Katrina and...