Fire boat response crews battle the blazing remnants of the offshore oil rig Deepwater Horizon on April 21, 2010. A Coast Guard MH-65C dolphin rescue helicopter and crew document the fire while searching for survivors. Multiple Coast Guard helicopters, planes and cutters responded to rescue the Deepwater Horizon's 126 person crew. Photo from U.S. Coast Guard

Macondo was a snakebit well; the “well from hell” was the phrase the media loved. Lost circulation. Stuck pipe. It was the full complement of pain in the ass. 

Every foot of that well seemed to have a steep price, but that was before we understood what the final price would be. 

My partner Gordon Jones and I worked 12-hour shifts opposite each other. On April 20, 2010, the day of the blowout, he had come on three hours early to help; I worked three hours over so Gordon wouldn’t have to do the displacement himself. I wanted to see it done. 

As the evening wore on, he looked at me with a grin, put his hand on my shoulder and said, “What the fuck are you still doing up? Go to bed. I got this.”  

His little joke saved my life. Before I knocked off, I went down to the mud room to check the pits and say goodbye to Roy Kemp, the derrick man, who had just been promoted to assistant driller. “A” Crew was leaving the next day so I probably wouldn’t see him for another month. When there was time, Roy would come to the drilling fluid office, or “mud shack,” and talk, often about God. We had, not a few days prior, talked about the apparent capriciousness of God. We really can’t hope to apply human logic to God, to “understand” Him — the finite can’t encompass the infinite.

An hour and a half later, when the final displacement of drilling fluid came back, the damned well blew out in our faces and Gordon and Roy and nine other of our brothers were gone. The Macondo blowout would burn down the Deepwater Horizon and spew 4.9 million barrels of crude into the Gulf. 

Gordon has two sons: Stafford and little Max, who was on the way at the time — he’d not meet his father. Roy has two girls, very small at the time: Kaylee and Clara. That well tore a man-sized hole in 11 families. There is no accounting for the price of that well.

Afterwards I thought the public discourse about the blowout had a hole in it, too. There is a special kind of blindness that corporations, governments, and media employ to explain such a disaster. 

There were three variations on a theme:

  • to BP it was an unfortunate accident, but certainly something stemming from an aberrant break down in an otherwise benign, blameless managerial system;
  • to the media it was a one-off accident perhaps engendered by misfortune, perhaps by BP’s negligence and its particular adoration of the bottom line;
  • and to US Attorney Michael Underhill, who some years later led the government’s civil suit against BP, it was a singular example of a corporation callously putting “profits before people, profits before safety and profits before the environment.”  

But it is wrong to see the problem as compartmentalized, applying to this case only. There is a common strain that runs through the BP disaster that runs through any number of industrial catastrophes.

The more useful question to ask is what corporation doesn’t put “profits before people”?  The clothing industry doesn’t employ sweatshops because they’re sopping with the milk of human kindness. Black lung is not a generous retirement perk for coal miners. And meat packing workers don’t cut off fingers because of a general, heartfelt belief that ten digits are just too cumbersome.  It’s not a matter of occasion or chance or unfortunate decisions; it’s also a matter of policy because often risky policies prove profitable.

Upon the death of the famous economist Milton Friedman, the Wall Street Journal wrote that, while his “advocacy of free markets over government intervention” was treated as a fringe notion by many economists, eventually “his views had helped to reshape modern capitalism.”  While Friedman didn’t invent greed, he went a long way in making it fashionable. 

It’s a bit too generous to say Friedman had views, per se. Rather, I believe he had a singular view, from which radiated a corona of inflamed arguments. He thought that the only social responsibility business has is to make profit. I know that may seem a reductive conclusion, but it’s the only conclusion I can draw after reading Friedman’s essay, The Social Responsibility of Business Is to Increase Its Profits

For Friedman, anyone who thought corporations should work toward “providing employment, eliminating discrimination, avoiding pollution” is promoting “unadulterated socialism.”

It is true that, in order to save time, BP pushed the Horizon to inordinate limits resulting in the rig displacing a live well, but claiming that BP put “profits before people” doesn’t make much of a distinction. 

I’ll readily admit my former industry is gleefully generating an energy source that, when used, brings us closer to environmental collapse. But they and all for-profit corporations are following Friedman’s venal commandment. If Amazon refined oil, they would be just as gleeful to ship barrels of crude for home delivery.

So, on this 10th anniversary, while we remember the environmental damage to the Gulf and the 11 lives lost in the Macondo blowout, we should keep in mind that a lot of our misery is caused by the hunt for profit. That mindset is constantly grinding forward in our economy. 

It’s not just evident in the collapse of the Hard Rock Hotel under construction in New Orleans, but thriving in the petrochemical industry in Reserve, Louisiana, whose residents suffer the highest cancer rate in the nation. It’s a value system that leads to children digging for “artisanal cobalt” in the Democratic Republic of Congo for our phones, and Foxconn employees in China, where they are assembled, jumping to their deaths out of despair. 

It’s chugging along in our healthcare system, which could, according to a recent study by The Lancet, save nearly 70,000 more lives a year if the profit motive were curtailed by switching to Medicare for All. It’s present in the pharmaceutical industry’s hawking of opioids to the American population, in their own version of an Opium War. Even now, in the midst of a pandemic, the more mercantile politicians and business leaders are straining to open the country up for business. What are a few people when profit is at stake?  It’s not only on oil rigs where profits come before people.  

Monday, for the first time ever, the value of a barrel of crude sunk into the negative. Ten years to the day, the very thing that got those men killed isn’t worth a thing today. It’s a testament to how fickle the market is, how relative its values are.

We should realize how much death it takes to animate our way of life.

From the author: “Leo Lindner taught English composition for three years at Nicholls State University, until the extravagant riches lavished upon him by the University of Louisiana System weighed on his conscience so heavily it encouraged him to take a position as a “mud engineer” in the oilfield. He worked on the Deepwater Horizon for five years with some of the finest people he will ever know. He is now retired and lives with his excellent wife, Sue.

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