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An American Chernobyl?

by DeAnander Wed Jun 2nd, 2010 at 03:17:54 PM EST

I'm surprised not to see more discussion here of the unfolding catastrophe in the Gulf (of Mexico that is).  For a start I'll LQD the irrepressible Dmitry:

The drawing of parallels between industrial accidents is a dubious armchair sport, but here the parallels are just piling up and are becoming too hard to ignore...

* An explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in 1986 spewed radioactive waste across Europe
* A recent explosion and sinking of BP's Deepwater Horizon oil drilling platform is spewing heavy oil into the Gulf of Mexico

These accidents were both quite spectacular. At Chernobyl, the force of the explosion, caused by superheated steam inside the reactor, tossed the 2500-tonne reactor lid 10-14 meters into the air where it twirled like a tossed penny and came to rest back on the wrecked reactor. The cloud of superheated vapor then separated into a large volume of hydrogen gas, which detonated, demolishing the reactor building and adjoining structures. At Deepwater Horizon, a blowout of a recently completed oil well sent an uncontrolled burst of oil and gas, pressurized to over 10,000 psi by the 25000-foot depth of the well, up to the drilling platform, where it detonated, causing a fire. The rig then sank, and came to rest in a heap of wreckage on top of the oil well, which continues to spew at least 200,000 gallons of oil a day. Left unchecked, this would amount to 1.7 million barrels of oil per year, for an indefinite duration. This amount of oil may be enough to kill off or contaminate all marine life within the Gulf of Mexico, to foul the coastline throughout the Gulf and, thanks to the Gulf Stream, through much of the Eastern Seaboard, at least to Cape Hatteras in North Carolina and possibly beyond. A few tarballs will probably wash up as far north as Greenland.

The Chernobyl disaster was caused more or less directly by political appointeesm: the people in charge of the reactor control room had no background in nuclear reactor operations or nuclear chemistry, having got their jobs through the Communist Party. They attempted a dangerous experiment, executed it incompetently, and the result was an explosion and a meltdown. The Deepwater Horizon disaster will perhaps be found to have similar causes. BP, which leased and operated Deepwater Horizon, is chaired by one Carl-Henric Svanberg—a man with no experience in the oil industry. The people who serve on the boards of directors of large companies tend to see management as a sort of free-floating skill, unrelated to any specific field or industry, rather similarly to how the Soviet Communist party thought of and tried to use the talents of its cadres. Allegations are already circulating that BP drilled to a depth of 25000 feet while being licensed to drill up to 18000 feet, that safety reviews of technical documents had been bypassed, and that key pieces of safety equipment were not installed in order to contain costs. It will be interesting to see whether the Deepwater Horizon disaster, like the Chernobyl disaster before it, turns out to be the direct result of management decisions made by technical incompetents.

More importantly, the two disasters are analogous in the unprecedented technical, administrative, and political challenges posed by their remediation. In the case of Chernobyl, the technical difficulty stemmed from the need to handle high level radioactive waste. Chunks of nuclear reactor fuel lay scattered around the ruin of the reactor building, and workers who picked them up using shovels and placed them in barrels received a lethal radiation dose in just minutes. To douse the fire still burning within the molten reactor core, bags of sand and boron were dropped into it from helicopters, with lethal consequences for the crews. Eventually, a concrete sarcophagus was constructed around the demolished reactor, sealing it off from the environment. In the case of Deepwater Horizon, the technical difficulty lies with stemming a high-pressure flow of oil, most likely mixed with natural gas, gushing from within the burned, tangled wreck of the drilling platform at a depth of 5000 feet. An effort is currently underway to seal the leak by lowering a 100-ton concrete-and-steel "contraption" onto it from a floating crane and using it to capture and pump out the oil as it leaks out. I think "sarcophagus" sounds better.

The administrative challenge, in the case of Chernobyl, lay in evacuating and resettling large urban and rural populations from areas that were contaminated by the radiation, in preventing contaminated food products from being sold, and in dealing with the medical consequences of the accident, which includes a high incidence of cancer, childhood leukemia and birth defects. The effect of the massive oil spill from Deepwater Horizon is likely to cause massive dislocation within coastal communities, depriving them of their livelihoods from fishing, tourism and recreation. Unless the official efforts to aid this population are uncharacteristically prompt and thorough, their problems will bleed into and poison politics.

The political challenges, in both cases, centered on the inability of the political establishment to acquiesce to the fact that a key source of energy (nuclear power or deep-water oil) relied on technology that was unsafe and prone to catastrophic failure. The Chernobyl disaster caused irreparable damage to the reputation of the nuclear industry and foreclosed any further developments in this area. The Deepwater Horizon disaster is likely to do the same for the oil industry, curtailing any possible expansion of drilling in deep water, where much of the remaining oil is to be found, and perhaps even shutting down the projects that have already started. In turn, this is likely to hasten the onset of the terminal global oil shortage, which the US Department of Energy and the Pentagon have forecast for 2012.

Translate "industrial accident" into Russian and back into English, and what you get is "technogenic catastrophe". This term got a lot of use after the Chernobyl disaster. It is rather more descriptive than the rather flaccid English phrase, and it puts the blame where it ultimately comes to rest in any case: with the technology, and the technologists and politicians who push it. Technology that can and sometimes does fail catastrophically, causing unacceptable levels of environmental devastation, is no good, regardless of how economically necessary it happens to be. It must be shut down. In the aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon disaster, we are already hearing that expansion of deep-water drilling is "dead on arrival". This could be the beginning of the end for the huge but dying beast that is the petrochemical industry, or more such accidents may be required for the realization finally to sink in and the cry of "Shut it down!" to be heard.

The energy industry has run out of convenient, high-quality resources to exploit, and is now forced to turn to resources it previously passed over: poor, dirty, difficult, expensive resources such as tar sands, heavy oil, shale, and deep offshore. Under relentless pressure to do more with less, people are likely to try to cut corners wherever possible, and environmental safety is likely to suffer. Before it finally crashes, the huge final effort to wring the last few drops of energy out of a depleted planet will continue to serve up bigger and bigger disasters. Perhaps the gruesome aftermath of this latest accident will cause enough people to proclaim "Enough! Shut it all down!" But if not, there is always the next one.

Further Reading:

Dmitry on the utter failure of "leadership" to address the catastrophe

Ten Things You Need (but don't want!) To Know about the BP Oil Spill

The Culture of Corruption and Lies

This is Not an Isolated Incident:  Apocalypse Again

Was the Gulf Oil Spill an Act of War?  You Betcha

Niger's Agony Dwarfs Gulf Oil Spill  (note:  Shell and other companies "lose" or "spill" as much oil in the Niger delta EVERY YEAR as the BP disaster has released so far -- or even more.)

Weasel Language, PR and Spin (industry spinmeisters keep referring to this as a "spill" -- when it is in fact a catastrophe of unprecedented proportions).

And I would just like to note that the Business Press (as if there were any other left with significant distribution and readership) is responding as we might expect:  here in Canada, articles are appearing boosting the other environmental crime of the century, the Alberta Tar Sands, as the "solution" to the risks of deep water drilling.  DFO suggests cheerily that the NW shrimp fishery will benefit mightily from the utter destruction of the Gulf of Mexico shrimp fishery.  And in conversation among the wealthier gringos I recently heard two affluent middle aged men agreeing with each other that "African oil is the next big investment, we should get in on it now."

One is reminded of Douglas Adams' quip that when human happines is at stake, the "leaders" of the world keep talking and arguing about the welfare of little printed pieces of paper;  but generally, it is not the little printed pieces of paper that are unhappy.

I wrap up this appalling story with beautifully expressed gloom from Tom Engelhardt:

In short, you, graduates of 2010, through no fault of your own are, it seems, living in our 51st state, a state of American denial, in a nation that is being hollowed out (as the paltry governmental response to the BP disaster in the Gulf of Mexico indicates).  As we now know, America's aging infrastructure -- its bridges, dikes, levees, dams, drinking water transport systems, roads, and the like -- is quite literally hollowing out, as well as springing "leaks," and not a mile under the water either.  Little is being done about this.

The hollowing out, however, goes deeper -- right down to the feeling that, with disaster in the air, little can be done and nothing reversed.  The can-do nation of my youth has given way to a can't-do nation with a busted government.

I think I can guarantee you one thing, for instance, about the historic oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.  When the commissions have commished, and Congress has investigated, and the president has re-staffed the Interior Department's Minerals Management Service, and the pundits have pontificated, and everything else that could possibly happen has happened, we will, once again, have learned next to nothing -- other than, perhaps, how to drill for offshore oil at the depth of one mile marginally more safely.  We will not be any closer to an alternative energy future.  We will not have one mile more of high-speed rail.

Anyone want to make book on the probability of any of these practical suggestions being implemented?

  • put BP in receivership
  • bring adequate funding and staffing to a massive coastal cleanup effort -- at BP's expense
  • use least-toxic dispersants with full glasnost
  • ramp down fossil fuel use in general
  • convert to lower and more efficient energy use

Is this a Chernobyl moment? will heads roll and governments fall?
. are you kidding? the U S of Amnesia can forget *anything* (except 9/11) and Just Move On 36%
. the rightwingnuts will find a way to spin it into their anti-government jihad 26%
. with luck it will lead to a ban on deep water drilling and renewed interest in wind/tidal power 36%

Votes: 19
Results | Other Polls
is that there seems to be a strong possibility that much of the oil has congealed in pools at the sea bottom, which means that with the right equipment it could probably be extracted.

If true that means that nature as contain at least part of the spill to this point.  If tankers with the right equipment where brought to the location, they could get a lot of it out of the water.  I bet that BP doesn't want to allow this because they are still in charge.  Obama needs to nationalize the recovery.  Grant salvage rights, and maybe, just maybe a substantial portion of the spill that's at the ocean floor at the moment could be collected before it spreads.

And I'll give my consent to any government that does not deny a man a living wage-Billy Bragg

by ManfromMiddletown (manfrommiddletown at lycos dot com) on Wed Jun 2nd, 2010 at 03:54:22 PM EST
With an accurate measure of the release rate of oil into the Gulf and a reasonable estimate of the damage to the Gulf economy BP could be condemned, shareholders wiped out, likewise bondholders, corporate officers of BP and other companies involved could be prosecuted and the remaining income stream from BP assets could be dedicated to ameliorating the damage to the environment and damaged or destroyed businesses. But that would be in an alternate reality.

In this reality the best we can hope for is that Obama will be ground to dust between the oil and financial industries and be replaced with someone worse. I would like to be wrong, but who else is there that conceivably could get elected and from what party. Both Republicans and Democrats are hopelessly compromised and a substantial portion of the public are like cavefish that have lost the use of their eyes for lack of anything to see.  

"It is not necessary to have hope in order to persevere."

by ARGeezer (ARGeezer a in a circle eurotrib daught com) on Wed Jun 2nd, 2010 at 05:06:03 PM EST
[ Parent ]
"...between the oil and financial industries and a confused but enraged public..." that is.

"It is not necessary to have hope in order to persevere."
by ARGeezer (ARGeezer a in a circle eurotrib daught com) on Wed Jun 2nd, 2010 at 05:07:46 PM EST
[ Parent ]
With an accurate measure of the release rate of oil into the Gulf and a reasonable estimate of the damage to the Gulf economy BP could be condemned, shareholders wiped out, likewise bondholders, corporate officers of BP and other companies involved could be prosecuted and the remaining income stream from BP assets could be dedicated to ameliorating the damage to the environment and damaged or destroyed businesses. But that would be in an alternate reality.

You know this does seem like a teachable moment about how the argument how lassiez faire is bull because the corporation depends on state insurance called limited liability to exist, let alone the way that corporations have become frankensteins that have turned on their creators by demanding to be released from their consequences of their actions.

And I'll give my consent to any government that does not deny a man a living wage-Billy Bragg

by ManfromMiddletown (manfrommiddletown at lycos dot com) on Wed Jun 2nd, 2010 at 05:17:01 PM EST
[ Parent ]
That would require three things:

  1. A presenter who would command respect.

  2. A means of obtaining the attention of a large portion of the electorate and delivering the message.

  3. A receptive audience.

Obama could use an Oval Office Address to satisfy 1. and 2., but were there any likelihood of him doing so, he probably would not have been elected.

I don't honestly know how receptive the audience he could command would be. Certainly the Tea Baggers would be drowning in foam. (Is there a tea based equivalent of a frappachino?) A good question is how best to get this message to those negatively impacted by the spill on the Gulf Coast. I suspect they would be willing to listen. Certainly anyone who attempts to deliver such a message in these circumstances needs to be prepared to be denounced as a "totalitarian socialist" or worse.

"It is not necessary to have hope in order to persevere."

by ARGeezer (ARGeezer a in a circle eurotrib daught com) on Wed Jun 2nd, 2010 at 05:43:38 PM EST
[ Parent ]
If a significant portion of the Gulf Coast population could be peeled away from the "Drill baby, drill!" mentality and brought to an understanding of the mental capture that has brought the USA to this point it could transform local and national politics. I am waiting for a Chicago School economist to declare that the Gulf Coast isn't worth saving as the cost exceeds the value. I wonder how it would play for everyone from Brownsville to Miami to get the same response as New Orleans after Katrina? Only Wall Street is worthy of such a response.

"It is not necessary to have hope in order to persevere."
by ARGeezer (ARGeezer a in a circle eurotrib daught com) on Wed Jun 2nd, 2010 at 05:49:03 PM EST
[ Parent ]
That would require three things:
  1. A presenter who would command respect.
  2. A means of obtaining the attention of a large portion of the electorate and delivering the message.
  3. A receptive audience.
1. Jon Stewart
  • The Daily Show
  • Comedy Channel

    By laying out pros and cons we risk inducing people to join the debate, and losing control of a process that only we fully understand. - Alan Greenspan
  • by Carrie (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Sat Jun 5th, 2010 at 06:46:21 PM EST
    [ Parent ]
    Any sense of or data on what portion of the voting public watch any of the three sources cited? I agree that they can be very effective. Some stuff on South Park has been amazing.

    "It is not necessary to have hope in order to persevere."
    by ARGeezer (ARGeezer a in a circle eurotrib daught com) on Sat Jun 5th, 2010 at 07:40:34 PM EST
    [ Parent ]
    This has over 3 million views on youtube...

    According to wikipedia

    Television ratings show that [The Daily Show] generally has 1.45 to 1.6 million viewers nightly, a high figure for cable television.

    By laying out pros and cons we risk inducing people to join the debate, and losing control of a process that only we fully understand. - Alan Greenspan
    by Carrie (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Sun Jun 6th, 2010 at 05:11:56 AM EST
    [ Parent ]
    If Shell would have blown an oil well in the North sea near (hypothetically) the Netherlands, the Dutch government would have raised a full-scale containment and shut-down effort with or without Shell cooperation, and then charged fully the Shell company for the costs. Or at least, that would had been an expected scenario some 10 years ago.

    It seems (since Valdez and other ancient spills) that the US government has no technological role, expertise and initiative in oil spills. Private companies are supposed to do the preparation and rescue works, but (surprise, surprise) they spend nothing on that. That's rather extreme limited liability (for the government as well) towards public interests.

    by das monde on Wed Jun 2nd, 2010 at 09:58:06 PM EST
    [ Parent ]
    Well, you know, governments just mess things up. This being a case in point. :-)

    "It is not necessary to have hope in order to persevere."
    by ARGeezer (ARGeezer a in a circle eurotrib daught com) on Wed Jun 2nd, 2010 at 11:12:59 PM EST
    [ Parent ]
    Government just act in ways that suit their sponsors. And they are very good at that.
    by das monde on Thu Jun 3rd, 2010 at 09:57:44 PM EST
    [ Parent ]
    I find the analogy strongest in the analysis of the origins of the disasters, and much weaker when I compare the consequences.

    Chernobyl was an order of magnitude more serious than Deepwater Horizon in terms of loss of life and health to humans. On the other hand, Chernobyl was, in terms of ecological impact, not even a footnote to a parenthesis in the history of such things. The jury is still out on the long-term impact of Deepwater Horizon, but it has at least the potential to be a Serious Disaster on par with clear-cutting of tropical forests.

    Additionally, oil spills have been happening with dreary regularity for as long as we've been pumping oil. The number of serious nuclear incidents, on the other hand, can be counted on the fingers of one hand and you'd still have some left over. That increases the shock value of the latter considerably (humans are irrational in that respect - the cause of death that strikes one in a thousand is more socially acceptable than the cause of death that strikes one in a million...).

    These effects combine to likely limit the political fallout from Deepwater Horizon compared to Chernobyl. Well, that and the fact that the American press is spineless and conformist.

    - Jake

    Friends come and go. Enemies accumulate.

    by JakeS (JangoSierra 'at' gmail 'dot' com) on Wed Jun 2nd, 2010 at 08:19:20 PM EST
    There are already discussions on the way, whether the effective means to stop the leakage would be to use a nuclear explosion. The Soviets actually did that to stop a few burning gas fountains (first time it was applied to a 3-year massive leakage in Uzbek desert). Technophile conservatives are already howling "Nuke, baby, nuke". Whatever has a nice call.

    If they could place the nuclear device like the Soviets did (with drilling until about halfway next to the leaking pipeline), I would not be terrified. The radiation would be contained deep in the seabed most likely. (Are there no any other wells nearby?) But if they can only explode it around the surface... cataclysmic scenarios scenarios might happen.

    But all options have risks and challenges, and lowly viable. The oil may continue to go up until Christmas or for years.

    by das monde on Thu Jun 3rd, 2010 at 07:14:23 AM EST
    Good catch over at boomantribune:

    Obama Administration Approved 31 Deepwater Drilling Plans Similar to BP's
    by fflambeau
    Wed Jun 2nd, 2010 at 11:01:08 PM EST

    The McClatchy newspaper chain, which has provided some of the best and most critical commentary on the horrific oil spill, reports that the Obama administration approved 31 deepwater drilling plans similar tho those of BP.  All called major spills and environmental damage "unlikely."  Astonishingly enough, 14 of those 31 plans were approved AFTER the BP spill began!

    To its credit, the Obama administration has plugged this hole in its six-month ban on deepwater drilling and has ordered oil companies to overhaul and resubmit their exploration plans.  Of course, it is still a problem that the administration has not outright banned deep drilling permanently since it is now apparent that we do not possess technology to make this kind of drilling safe.

    . . . McClatchy's excellent article: http://www.mcclatchydc.com/2010/06/02/95246/obama-orders-oil-companies-to.html#ixzz0pkoYWjOy



    by fairleft (fairleftatyahoodotcom) on Thu Jun 3rd, 2010 at 10:58:30 AM EST
    During a conversation with a friend the other day, I pointed out to her that Mother Earth works on the scale of time we call geological time. This oil spill will impact the environment for the rest of my life, in bad ways. But in the scale of time that the Mother operates in, this is small potatoes. She is perfectly willing to let us pop a zit in the hopes that we can learn from it. Sadly, the level of hubris us human beings are demonstrating at this time is off the charts.
    by US Blues on Thu Jun 3rd, 2010 at 11:18:34 AM EST
    In geologic time, humans and all our works are the teeniest passing blip.  A comforting perspective.

    Unfortunately the passing of the blip is not always pleasant for all the nano-events of which it is composed -- you & me and our friends and family and whatnot... not so comforting.

    The difference between theory and practise in practise ...

    by DeAnander (de_at_daclarke_dot_org) on Thu Jun 3rd, 2010 at 12:12:08 PM EST
    [ Parent ]
    there is a legend i heard about native american mothers, who when they lost a son in battle, would cut off one of their own fingers.

    Gaia is doing this, amplifying our desires, good and bad.

    you want my oil, well... enjoy!

    be careful what you want, you might just get it!

    the more the years go by, the more i think there should be a mt rushmore of Fail, and reagan's witless pseudo-affable mug would be right up there in prime position.

    his act of taking off the pv panels from the wh roof was possibly the most intellectually insulting, socially contemptuous, and historically brain-dead symbolic political act in human history.
    it's evil seed sprouted into president cheney's secret energy meetings, the iraq and afghan wars, the insane meddling in the ME, the devolution of america as hope of the downtrodden and afflicted for a 'better way'.

    that city on a hill is built on a foundation of ethnic cleansing in a swamp of greed, and while its shiny walls used to reflect light like the ancient pyramids, just like with them looters have stripped away whatever moral uplift the american experiment stood for, and left something just...... crazy big.

    ronnie's 'marlboro moment' was the hinge when america went from cheating others, to cheating its own, selling its soul for the black gold. seen one redwood, seen 'em all.

    (9/11 was the next)

    gwb's pole-axed squint belongs up there too, right next to His Ronnieness.

    mount rushless... mount thinkmore

    'The history of public debt is full of irony. It rarely follows our ideas of order and justice.' Thomas Piketty

    by melo (melometa4(at)gmail.com) on Fri Jun 4th, 2010 at 01:58:07 AM EST
    [ Parent ]
    BP mouthpiece Randy Prescott:  "Louisiana isn't the only place that has shrimp."

    Little boy who has peed all over the toilet area:  "who cares, our neighbours have a bathroom too!"

    The difference between theory and practise in practise ...

    by DeAnander (de_at_daclarke_dot_org) on Fri Jun 4th, 2010 at 12:16:49 PM EST
    [ Parent ]
    I'm thinking that a fundemental principle emerges here... dangerous technologies -- very dangerous technologies, in fact, WMD by any other name -- should not be deployed in regions with corrupt and unstable governance.  Unfortunately, there is no country on earth where we can really guarantee that government will remain incorruptible and stable.  

    F'rexample, the US is just one big company town at present, politicians bought and paid for, two-party oligopoly fully in place, regulatory agencies staffed by apparatchiks and ready to crucify or at least marginalise any whistleblower who dares to mention feral facts.  Deploying WMD-scale technologies in such an environment is like handing an Uzi to a severely disturbed adolescent with a history of poor impulse control, bullying, and tantrums -- and a sweet tooth such that he can be bribed to do anything with just a couple of chocolate chip cookies.  (After all, the cost of the "safety cap" that BP didn't install was what, half a million bucks?  chump change to BP, but could they resist that little extra sugary money-hit?)

    Much like Captain Renault in Casablanca, the White House is suddenly shocked, shocked to find that oil rigs can explode, destroying ecosystems and livelihoods. The Obama administration has backed away from its offshore oil expansion policy in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe as the long-term environmental and economical consequences unfold in the Gulf States. Headlines are clamoring for the criminal investigations of BP, TransOcean, Halliburton and ultimately, the federal regulator, Mineral Management Services (MMS). Rather paradoxically, President Obama is using the oil spill to call for more nuclear power.

    Yet, with the exception of a handful of insightful political cartoonists, the obvious parallel between the regulatory delinquency of MMS and that of its nuclear equivalent - the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) - and the potential for an equally catastrophic accident in the nuclear sector, has not been drawn. As with the MMS debacle, the NRC is gambling with inevitable disaster with the same spin of the wheel of misfortune and with potentially even higher stakes.

    Investigations have already revealed that MMS had become too friendly and compliant toward the industry it was supposed to regulate. This hands-off approach proved to be a formula for inevitable disaster. Similarly, the NRC consistently puts the financial motives of the nuclear industry it is supposed to regulate ahead of public safety. In instance after instance, the NRC has chosen not to enforce its own regulations even in the face of repeated reactor safety violations, risking a serious reactor accident while leaving often high-risk safety problems to linger unresolved for decades.

    The NRC acknowledges that the greatest hazard to a reactor comes from fire. Yet not one of the 104 currently operating reactors is in full compliance with critical federal fire safety regulations. The NRC has known this since 1992 when the majority of U.S. nuclear plants were found to have installed bogus fire barriers prone to fail in a significant fire. Rather than take prompt action, the NRC spent six years discussing the problem with industry, then issued corrective orders which it later discovered the industry had ignored, substituting them instead with less costly, unapproved and illegal measures [...]

    footnote  (read on for more depressing and familiar history typical of the corporate-friendly "regulatory" sham prevailing in N America -- dysfunctioning merrily everywhere from phood to pharma to phuel and beyond)

    I am starting to think of wind, solar, tidal etc as Appropriately Pessimistic Technologies, i.e. technologies that do not turn into WMD if they fall into the hands of incompetent and corrupt operators.  I figure:   assume the Mafia will end up running everything.  Assume that the inbred, clueless aristos of the court of the  Sun King get appointed to all the plummy jobs.  Assume that all the directorships get handed out according to bribery and machine politics.  Assume that GWB is not an isolated instance.  (I mean, just listen to the BP talking heads.  They can't even come up with plausible lies.)  

    These people should not, repeat not, be allowed to run with scissors.  They can't do too much harm with a wind generator or a solar-Stirling tower;  the worst it can do is fall over and hurt a few people, maybe destroy a building or two.  But jeez, give them a coal fired plant to run, or 9 billion (yes, with a B) gallons of slurry "safely" contained on a steep hillside... and all of a sudden we have to trust them -- a lot.

    Webb's concerns are not unfounded. Ten years ago, millions of gallons of toxic coal sludge broke through a similar impoundment at another Massey operation in eastern Kentucky. The worst environmental catastrophe in the US until the TVA coal ash pond disaster, the Martin County spill at the Massey site dumped over 300 million tons of toxic sludge into 100 miles of streams, contaminating the water supplies for 27,000 people, and wiping out 1.6. million fish.

    Ever notice how "the worst environmental catastrophe" awards are getting closer and closer together in time?  and how, like family size and longevity, the consequences of the last N "worst" disasters are still being felt even as the next N "new worst" disasters occur?  The Exxon Valdez incident is now "so yesterday," yet the bioregion we pissed all over on that occasion still hasn't recovered.

    Kinda like the increasing train wreck incidence in the life of an addict going rapidly downhill:  the new low in "stupidest most self destructive thing I ever did" starts to happen yearly, then monthly, then...

    Anyway I am considering this new theory of appropriate technology.  Appropriate technology is by definition technology that will not have biome-destroying, life-altering, long-term-disastrous-consequences results even if/when applied and administered by slovens, chancers, moral cowards, bandits, etc.  Any technology that absolutely requires people of the highest principle, discipline and intelligence to keep it from wreaking havoc and mass destruction is, well... Doomed(TM).  'Cos humans are neither robots nor angels -- even if one generation of us is relatively upright, responsible and sober, we can't guarantee that our kids won't be fops, wastrels, gamblers and drunkards.  Giving them a collection of Uzis for their 18th birthday doesn't sound like such a great idea to me.

    The difference between theory and practise in practise ...

    by DeAnander (de_at_daclarke_dot_org) on Fri Jun 4th, 2010 at 03:08:04 PM EST
    I am reminded of Asimov's description of the falling galactic empire - falling over centuries, crushed under its own weight.

    There is a scene where a visitor from the up and coming Foundation visits a nuclear plant in the empire and asks the engineer - or rather holder of the semi-holy inherited position as chief engineer - what they would do if this part broke or that part failed. The engineer scolds him for wanting to know trade secrets and throws him out. (Of course, in Asimov's technological cornucopia the answer is always more high tech.)

    I recently read an interview with a production manager at GM that said that the reason GM failed was that they stopped paying attention to the products and only looked at the Money. And what is this focus on money and claim that any managing job really on requires an MBA from a prestigious school and not any knowledge of what the company does, but a motivation for creating a layer of semi-inherited positions as holy watchers of the Money?

    Sweden's finest (and perhaps only) collaborative, leftist e-newspaper Synapze.se

    by A swedish kind of death on Fri Jun 4th, 2010 at 05:03:08 PM EST
    [ Parent ]
    I'm going to add another meme to the toolbox for conceptualising this kind of event:  Slow Violence.

    We are now witnessing in the Gulf of Mexico slow violence. Writer Rob Nixon coined the phrase, which he acknowledges as seemingly oxymoronic, to describe acts whose “lethal repercussions sprawl across space and time.”

    Would anyone argue that the exploits of oil professionals in the Gulf haven’t caused deadly outcomes that continue to sprawl spatially and temporally? If the implications of the words Nixon uses to help us understand his concept were not utterly devastating, I’d relish their richness: “attritional calamities” with “deferred consequences and casualties;” “dispersed repercussions” that “pose formidable imaginative difficulties.” The explosion, fire, and sinking of the Deepwater Horizon was a small spectacle and only the initial phase of a protracted series of events with severe ramifications.

    Slow Violence -- distributed widely, with delayed and diffuse injuries -- is a form of harm and risk that our ideas of justice have a hard time dealing with.  It is not the identifiable individual fist in the identifiable individual face, with witnesses.  It is in fact an eminently deniable violence, and hence very attractive to those who want to reap unreasonable profits by injuring others, yet duck the risks and consequences of banditry (accountability, loss of reputation, possibly reprisals or punishment).

    Environmental crime is slow violence.  The consequences can endure for generations -- in some cases for centuries.  The deployment of DU munitions in the Balkans and Iraq was slow violence.  [Landmines are a shorter-term, half-way version of slow violence: they have delayed consequences but they are still visible and attributable to their source by the victims, even if the aggressor has "moved on" and is now thinking about more important things like the Olympics or the latest celebrity divorce.]

    Anyway, we have difficulty understanding slow violence, genuine difficulty assessing it (it took almost 25 years of epidemiological and actuarial data collection and analysis to produce the most recent estimate of the true cost of the Chernobyl event in premature mortality).  Not only does each act of slow violence have multigenerational impact, but the process of measuring and understanding the impact is likewise delayed, and thus (this is important) so is the attribution of responsibility.

    How can a "limited liability" corporation be permitted to engage in activities which, if they go wrong, can have nearly-incalculable multigenerational costs -- costs whose assessment, if even feasible, may take longer than the remaining lifetimes of those responsible?  Engaging in high stakes gambling with other people's lives (decades' worth of their lives) should carry high stakes for the gambler as well -- not "limited liability".  One strike, you're toast.  If CEOs knew that one major disaster would spell the end of their company, the end of their careers, they might be much more cautious about cutting corners to minimise chump-change expenses.  With risible liability caps and the equivalent of extraterritoriality or dip immunity for all corporate pseudo-persons, what we have established is a grotesque game of "moral hazard" in which suicidally (or murderously) risky behaviour is encouraged and rewarded.

    If more caution were exercised, we'd all have to pay more for certain amenities and commodities whose production involves high-stakes gambling with the lives and fortunes of thousands or millions of innocent bystanders.  But, ummm... isn't that how it should be?

    The difference between theory and practise in practise ...

    by DeAnander (de_at_daclarke_dot_org) on Fri Jun 4th, 2010 at 03:38:30 PM EST
    The UN has hired the consultancy Trucost to estimate the costs dumped on the environment by the world's 3,000 biggest public companies. It doesn't report until October, but earlier this year the Guardian published the interim results. Trucost had estimated the damage these companies inflicted on the environment in 2008 at $2.2 trillion, equivalent to one third of their profits for that year. This too is likely to be an underestimate, as the draft report did not try to value the long-term costs of any issue except climate change. Nor did it count the wider social costs of environmental change.

    Monbiot discusses the concept of "premature profit", or "revenues" being "realised" and handed out before the s*t hits the fan.

    US lawyers are drooling over the prospect of what one of them called "the largest tort we've had in this country". Some financial analysts are predicting the death of BP, as the fines and compensation it will have to pay outweigh its earnings. I don't believe a word of it.

    ExxonMobil was initially fined $5bn for the Exxon Valdez disaster, in 1989. But its record-breaking profits allowed it to pay record-breaking legal fees: after 19 years of argument it got the fine reduced to $507m. That's equivalent to the profit it made every 10 days last year. Yesterday, after 25 years of deliberations, an Indian court triumphantly convicted Union Carbide India Ltd of causing death by negligence through the Bhopal catastrophe. There was just one catch: Union Carbide India Ltd ceased to exist many years ago. It wound itself up to avoid this outcome, and its liabilities vanished in a puff of poisoned gas.

    BP's insurers will take a hit, as will the pension funds which invested so heavily in it; but, though some people are proposing costs of $40bn or even $60bn, I will bet the price of a barrel of crude that the company is still in business 10 years from now. Everything else – the ecosystems it blights, the fishing and tourist industries, a habitable climate – might collapse around it, but BP, like the banks, will be deemed too big to fail. Other people will pick up the costs.

    Socialise the costs, privatise the profits...

    Ya know, when you rent an apartment you have to put down first & last (so you don't skip out w/o paying the last month's rent) and a cleaning deposit (to cover the cost to the landlord if you wreck the place).  Why should we not require corporate entities fielding WMD-class technologies and methods to post a cleaning deposit equal to their projected decommissioning or disaster-recovery costs?

    Oh dear, I hear you cry, the poor, oppressed little corporations couldn't *afford to do such dangerous things if they actually had to bear the burden of risk themselves.


    The difference between theory and practise in practise ...

    by DeAnander (de_at_daclarke_dot_org) on Tue Jun 8th, 2010 at 10:19:15 PM EST
    [ Parent ]
    oh dear, I got bit by asterisk-bolding.  isn't there a way to edit one's comment text?  shoulda previewed, sorry.

    The difference between theory and practise in practise ...
    by DeAnander (de_at_daclarke_dot_org) on Tue Jun 8th, 2010 at 10:20:32 PM EST
    [ Parent ]
    It really has nothing to do with BP in the long run. If they go broke, other companies will buy their equipment, hire their people, take over their leases, and do the same thing. The only solution is to get away from our current energy utilization habits...
    by asdf on Tue Jun 8th, 2010 at 10:56:16 PM EST
    [ Parent ]
    I'm surprised not to see more discussion here of the unfolding catastrophe in the Gulf
    You can discuss an upcoming train wreck, but there's not much to say, really, as the engines blowg each other into pieces. You just stare and gape.

    By laying out pros and cons we risk inducing people to join the debate, and losing control of a process that only we fully understand. - Alan Greenspan
    by Carrie (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Sat Jun 5th, 2010 at 06:48:14 PM EST
    I'm waiting to see Florida's response once it's beaches/economy is screwed.  Ignorant backwaters like Loosianna, Mizzippi, Alabama ...  big deal.  Florida with all of those wealthy snowbirds from NYC ... now that's a different story.

    They tried to assimilate me. They failed.
    by THE Twank (yatta blah blah @ blah.com) on Sat Jun 5th, 2010 at 07:05:05 PM EST
    [ Parent ]

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