As the United States examines the origins of the environmental catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico, one factor that should not be overlooked is media coverage that served to cover up dangers rather than expose them. When President Barack Obama declared a new push for offshore drilling (3/31/10), asserting that "oil rigs today generally don't cause spills" (4/2/10), corporate news outlets echoed such pollyanna sentiments:
--David Gergen, CNN's Situation Room (3/31/10)
Some Americans have an opinion of offshore drilling that was first formed decades ago with those pictures of oil on the beaches in Santa Barbara, California. Others see it differently. They say time and technology have changed things. They say in order to lessen our dependence on foreign oil and keep gas prices low, we've got to bring more of it out of the ground and from under the sea.
--Brian Williams, NBC Nightly News (3/31/10)
The technology of oil drilling has made huge advances.... The time has come for my fellow environmentalists to reassess their stand on offshore oil. It is not clear that the risks of offshore oil drilling still outweigh the benefits. The risk of oil spills in the United States is quite low.
--Eric Smith, Washington Post op-ed (4/2/10)
Some of the most ironic objections come from those who say offshore exploration will destroy beaches and coastlines, citing the devastating 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska as an example. The last serious spill from a drilling accident in U.S. waters was in 1969, off Santa Barbara, California.
--USA Today editorial (4/2/10)
Since the big spill off the coast of California about three decades ago, the big oil companies have really put a lot of time, money and resources into making sure that their drilling is a lot more safe and environmentally sound.
--Monica Crowley, Fox Business Happy Hour (3/31/10)
Drilling could be conducted in an environmentally sensitive manner. We already drill in an environmentally sensitive manner.
--Sean Hannity, Fox News' Hannity (4/1/10)
And even in terms of the environment, we're going to consume oil one way or the other. It's safer for the planet if it's done under our strict controls and high technology in America as opposed to Nigeria.... We've got a ton of drilling happening every day today in the Gulf of Mexico in a hurricane area and it's successful.
--Charles Krauthammer, WJLA's Inside Washington (4/4/10)
We had a hurricane on the Gulf Coast and there was no oil spill. If Katrina didn't cause an oil spill with all those oil wells in the Gulf....
--Dick Morris, Fox News' O'Reilly Factor (3/31/10)
The two main reasons oil and other fossil fuels became environmentally incorrect in the 1970s--air pollution and risk of oil spills--are largely obsolete. Improvements in drilling technology have greatly reduced the risk of the kind of offshore spill that occurred off Santa Barbara in 1969.... To fear oil spills from offshore rigs today is analogous to fearing air travel now because of prop plane crashes.
--Steven F. Hayward, Weekly Standard (4/26/10)
And these messages didn't entirely disappear after the Gulf of Mexico disaster unfolded. In its May 10 issue, Time magazine had a small box headlined, "Offshore-Drilling Disasters: Rare But Deadly," which listed a mere four incidents--the most recent in 1988. But it doesn't take too much research to turn up a slew of other incidents that raise concerns: the Unocal-owned Seacrest drillship that capsized in 1989, killing 91 people; Phillips Petroleum's Alexander Kielland rig that collapsed in 1980, killing 123, and more. The list managed to overlook at least three well disasters in the Gulf of Mexico that resulted in oil spills--two incidents off the Louisiana coast in 1999, and the Usumacinta spill in Mexican waters in 2007.
A previous Time.com story (4/24/10) had noted that the Minerals Management Service, which oversees offshore drilling, reported 39 fires or explosions in the first five months of 2009 alone; though the magazine said the "good news" is that "most of these" did not result in death. The website Oil Rig Disasters tallies 184 incidents, dozens of which involved fatalities--and 73 of which occurred after 1988.
Clearly there are different ways to measure such things, but it's hard not to feel that Time's point was to suggest that drilling disasters are really too rare to worry about.
Since the BP/Deepwater disaster, many news outlets have run investigative pieces detailing the long history of negligent oversight of the offshore drilling industry. But when the New York Times tells readers (5/25/10) about the "enduring laxity of federal regulation of offshore operations," one can't help but wonder why this apparently well-known problem got so little attention before the environmental catastrophe.