Government & Politics

“We don’t ground all planes” analogy crashes and burns

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.

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About 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 the Federal Flood he helped create the Rising Tide conference, which grew into an annual social media event dedicated to the future of New Orleans.

  • Oh, all the petroleum institutes are crazy about this analogy and the car wreck one. As I said in a post on Day 56:

    Bruce Bullock of the Maguire Energy Institute says to Offshore Engineer magazine: “I don’t think there’s anybody who will argue that a pause in new permitting is not a prudent thing to do. I think the question is going to be: what level of risk, as a society, are we ultimately willing to take? Airplanes crash, but we still fly. Cars crash, but we still drive.”

    A wrong question, one that shows no acknowledgement of an ongoing disaster event and its far-reaching repercussions. Someone want to tell Mr. Bullock that the analogy is more along the lines of the equivalent of multiple airlines crashing into multiple cars for the last 56 days?

  • Maybe you don’t ground all planes, but if the accident is due to a design flaw, it would be idiotic to not ground the type of plane that crashed. Case in point:

    As for what I consider a more salient argument, the economic hit resulting from job losses, I think Hullabaloo suggested a reasonable compromise: require ALL deep water rigs to drill relief wells to guard against accidents. That would provide immediate work to anyone affected by the moratorium. You could use the same work crews presently employed on the deep water rigs.

    Once they drill relief wells in deep water, have them move to the shallows and do the same there. With some 3,000 or so rigs in operation, that could provide large numbers of jobs for a significant time.

  • Mark Moseley

    Thanks for the confirmation about this being a PI talking point, Maitri.

    Michael says:

    “require ALL deep water rigs to drill relief wells to guard against accidents.”

    I agree. A thousand amens.

    “Once they drill relief wells in deep water, have them move to the shallows and do the same there. With some 3,000 or so rigs in operation, that could provide large numbers of jobs for a significant time.”

    It’s very pretty to think so. But at $100 million per relief well, the chances of the industry (or the govt) coughing up $300 billion in the name of extreme environmental safety for existing wells is pure fantasy.

  • Excellent article, Mark, and very well thought out. I think it’s quite ironic that a guy named McDonnell might be the source of the airplane analogy, for wasn’t it not too long ago that American Airlines had to ground all MD-80s until they fixed a particular flaw?

  • Courrèges


    I disagree; although it’s an exaggeration, the analogy still basically works. Just because you can distinguish it in some ways doesn’t mean it doesn’t have explanatory value. You cite the fact that we aren’t just talking about a single plane crash, which is fair enough, but we’re also not talking about a brief let’s-just-step-back-for-a-second type of moratorium (as happened post 9/11). Six months is a long time and is guaranteed to cause long term economic damages. These vessels will leave and they won’t come back for a while. Jobs will be lost, and they won’t return quickly.

    In any case, the analogy is apt because in both cases you have a major catastrophe caused by a certain economic activity, a very small risk of a recurrence of that catastrophe within the near future if the activity is not stopped during that time, and a virtual guarantee of major economic consequences if the activity is stopped during that time. The vision of grounding all planes out of panic following a single disaster for an extended period is as good a way as any to explain the situation. In both cases, the proposed moratorium doesn’t even pass the laugh test, to say nothing of a cost-benefit analysis. When you consider that other, less severe measures can be taken, the idea of an extended moratorium appears downright absurd.

    I think it’s very telling that you spend an entire opinion piece ranting against an analogy, when at the end you agree with its basic premise — your only complaint is that it’s an exaggeration because the implied scope of the risks differs. I must say, this leaves me more than a bit confused. You’re facing down the loss of thousands of jobs in an economically fragile region due to a policy that both liberals and conservatives throughout the state believe to be entirely ill-advised, and yet your reaction is to spend several paragraphs criticizing pundits for using an somewhat overstated analogy to make the case.

    It’s clear to me that you aren’t directing your outrage in the right direction.

  • joejoejoe

    If this deep water drilling spill increases the mortality of the people of the Gulf by 0.015% it will kill more of the 20M people that live in the region total than the 9/11/01 terrorist attacks did. My guess is the spill will do far, far worse than that when you take into account the amount of toxins that get into the water and food supply and the illnesses of people who come into direct contact with oil, byproducts, and dispersant. A small uptick in mortality rate doesn’t grab headlines but it kills you just as dead.

  • When they hit the Twin Towers, all airlines were grounded within a few hours.
    This is That big-a-deal to me, all the rest we must pass over in silence.

  • Thanks, Maitri.
    You put things so much more nicely than I in my mid-evil-on-they-ass way.
    I’ve been spending a good quarter of my time listening to oil-industry geologists on this latest prophylactic extravaganza.

  • Mark Moseley

    Courreges writes: “The vision of grounding all planes out of panic following a single disaster for an extended period is as good a way as any to explain the situation.”

    No it’s not, unless you also envisage a comparable ongoing disaster resulting from the crash that no one knows how to quickly stop and that affects millions of people. The airlines carrying toxic waste scenario is much more “apt”– I thought I went over this at length, but the point seemed to elude you.

    Thousands of jobs might be lost from the moratorium. But thousands of jobs have been lost to the spill– as well as costs to environment, diet, recreation, culture, way of life– and it could happen again during the next drilling procedure. Yes– six months is a “long time” but so is 86 days to plug an oil gusher, and let me know when the oil slick is no longer in the Gulf. There is no comparable airline crash scenario that led to unchecked, ongoing, daily disasters for months on end. But that is part of the reason why it was deliberately chosen– it’s inaccurate. It’s not a matter of SCOPE of risk– the airline industry has no parallel to this– it’s a difference in TYPE of risk.

    I don’t agree with the “premises” of the analogy, though I might agree in part with part of its conclusion. I mentioned in my piece that I will discuss the moratorium in greater depth in my next column, so this is not the totality of the my reaction to it.

  • Courrèges

    Mark writes: “No it’s not, unless you also envisage a comparable ongoing disaster resulting from the crash that no one knows how to quickly stop and that affects millions of people.”

    As I noted, that only goes to the severity of the risk involved. You’re still have the similarities I noted — that there is a disaster, that the risk of recurrence during a moratorium is very small, and that the risk of severe economic consequences is almost certain. The analogy is exaggerated because the risk is smaller with an airplane crash, but it still has explanatory value because it exemplifies those three factors quite well.

    You say that it’s a different “type” of risk, but I don’t see how that’s really relevant; the only logically relevant factor is that the risk is more severe. Of course the nature of the risk differs — it would differ in almost every analogy, including the one you cite (toxic waste on land causes different types of injury from an oil spill, I assure you). While the severity of the risk on either side is indeed important, the fact remains that you’re dealing with a very, very small risk one one side of the scale that can be further mitigated with additional safety precautions. In both cases, you wouldn’t come anywhere near satisfying a cost/benefit analysis, and so the policy is irrational.

    I don’t see what part of this conclusion you disagree with. You seem to concede that the certain risk of major economic loss completely outweighs the risk of another major oil spill during the six month period. That’s the point the analogy tries to make — it’s an imperfect but effective reductio ad absurdum, or reductio ad incommodum.

  • Mark,

    Let’s use the 9/11 analogy. PLEASE!

    Based on this duly accepted analogy, what sort’ve timeframe are we looking at before we allow flights over the US again/drilling to be recommenced?

    I have seen the statistics of what’s going to happen to Louisiana, economically speaking. We aren’t talking about folks who make $36K/year getting into serious employment/financial/economic hardships here.

    STARTING salaries for roughnecks being hired for offshore work is $40K/year. That’s with health, retirement, & not including your Safety Bonus. That’s with ZERO WORK EXPERIENCE. Gotta valid license, steel toed boots, & can you pass a physical & a drug screen? You can make $40K/year offshore.

    That’s again a STARTING salary. Folks are making WAY more than that in the Gulf. $272 a week in Unemployment Insurance Benefits isn’t going to pay their housenotes, their grocery bills, keep their lights on, etc.

    This is going to have a trickle down effect on a host of businesses, both large & small, from self-employed house-cleaners to car dealerships, up & down the line.

    You’re not thinking with your dipstick, & you obviously didn’t think out the 9/11 comparison & how quickly airline flights were allowed to “take flight” again.

    If I’m not mistaken, the relief well theory was floated by a certain someone with an aversion to links on your old blog.

    Who was that? Hmm…I wonder…Hmm…

  • Due credit for relief well idea, which we both agree on. But as for this…

    “You’re not thinking with your dipstick, & you obviously didn’t think out the 9/11 comparison & how quickly airline flights were allowed to “take flight” again.

    I detailed my preferred analogy, and my argument is well thought out. The reason Big Oil wouldn’t use the 9/11 analogy is that it concedes that a moratorium (on 33 new wells, not thousands of existing wells) is appropriate, and now the only discussion is over the length of moratorium. The analogy began during a 30 day moratorium, which they thought was excessive.

    I’d be happy to discuss the issue of appropriate length of moratoriums, but that’s a different issue than whether or not ANY moratorium OF ANY LENGTH is appropriate. Obviously that wasn’t the argument that they were trying to make when this analogy/talking point was introduced.