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Commentary: FUBAR in the Gulf

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 3, 2010 - As I write these words, crude oil has been pouring into the Gulf of Mexico for 41 days. By the time this column is posted, that number will have increased to 45. With the recent news that British Petroleum's weekend effort to stem the lethal flow--the "Top Kill" plan -- has failed miserably, it's fair to say that the situation in the ecologically fragile gulf is now officially FUBAR. (For readers unfamiliar with that military acronym, it stands for "F** Up Beyond All Recognition.")

Just how much of the killing crude is entering the eco-system is the matter of conjecture. Published estimates range from a low of 5,000 barrels (210,000 U.S. gallons) to a high of 100,000 barrels (4,200,000 U.S. gallons) a day. That's a fudge factor of 20 times the minimum about the severity of the situation.

To put those guesses into some kind of perspective, imagine a police bulletin describing a man wanted for a crime framed within these parameters. The cops would thus be looking for a perpetrator between 18 and 360 years of age, standing 5 to 100 feet tall, weighing between 100 and 2,000 pounds -- in short, utter nonsense and a de facto admission that the experts don't know what the hell they're talking about.

What we have here is a man-made underwater volcano spewing vast plumes of toxicity into the seas from which all life on earth evolved. While news coverage has understandably concentrated upon the impact in the immediate proximity of southern Louisiana, it's probably worth noting that the gulf is not an isolated pond that can be segregated from the larger environment.

Currents that run through it flow around the Florida peninsula, up the eastern seaboard and out into the greater Atlantic. How much oil would it take to turn the oceans toxic? I suppose an honest expert would answer "a lot." Will this happen? "Probably not."

Responding to complaints that his administration has appeared a bit detached in its response to the urgency of this unfolding crisis, President Barack Obama last week paid his second visit to Louisiana since the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig. Interrupting his preparations to host a Paul McCartney concert, he walked along the beach with his hands in his pockets watching thick crude wash onto the previously pristine beaches.

What did you think he would to do? Even the Prince of Tides has his limits. The offending rupture occurred nearly a mile beneath the surface. The pressure at that depth is 2,000 pounds per square inch and the temperature hovers near the freezing mark. Neither the EPA nor the military is equipped to do construction work under those conditions.

Though critics have portrayed the administration as being in bed with BP -- and while there may be some merit to those charges -- at the moment, there's no choice but to cooperate with oily corporate officials because they have the only hardware and engineers capable of operating at the depths required to staunch the flow.

The sole hope of avoiding complete catastrophe requires us to rely on the outfit that caused the catastrophe in the first place. FUBAR.

A few weeks ago, I wrote a column about Michael Lewis' book, "The Big Short." In it, he recounts how financial pirates operating in deregulated markets drove the global banking system to the brink of collapse in 2008. The disaster in the gulf is the geological equivalent of that economic malfeasance.

In each case, government regulators became dangerously reliant on industry experts to explain the facts of the situation. And in each case, regulators missed alarming warning signs that appear glaringly obvious in retrospect.

On Wall Street, financial authorities sought to gauge the value of synthetic collateralized debt obligations while those derivatives were so exotic that the people trading them often didn't fully understand what they were.

In the gulf, regulators from the Interior Department's Mining Management Service relied on BP experts to assess both the dangers posed by a potential deep-level oil spill and the general safety of extracting oil from such extreme depths. In both cases, the umpire had to ask the first base coach whether the runner was safe.

There is a sinister dynamic at play here -- namely, that as the enterprises we call upon politicians to police on behalf of the public trust have become increasingly complex and esoteric, the politicians themselves have become increasingly obtuse. Turns out Dan Quayle was merely ahead of his time.

In "Game Change," authors John Heilemann and Mark Halperin advise that while prepping Sarah Palin for her debate, GOP campaign officials found that they had to explain the basics of -- among other things -- the Korean War and the Federal Reserve System. She was reportedly an attentive, if temperamental, student who later remarked, "I wish I'd paid more attention to this stuff."

Meanwhile, the same authors recount how Joe Biden fondly recalled that when the Wall Street crash of 1929 occurred, President Franklin Roosevelt went on TV to reassure the American people about the crisis. That recollection is somewhat problematic because in 1929, Herbert Hoover was the president and television had yet to visit the public airways.

If your formal education has left you ignorant of the Korean War or of Herbert Hoover's presidency, what are the odds that it acquainted you with the mechanics of deep-water oil exploration or the intricacies of derivatives trading? Inevitably, we become ever more reliant on experts from the private sector to regulate arcane enterprises that determine the quality of our everyday lives.

Q: Where do you find people with this kind of expertise?

A: From the industries that need them.

Hence, we have to recruit industry insiders to keep an eye on their friends and associates within the industry. Throw in the pernicious influence of corporate campaign contributions, and you'll understand why this isn't a particularly good time to take a dip in the gulf.

The situation is FUBAR, plain and simple. The only remedy considered to be sure-fire for the present crisis is drilling a relief well -- a process expected to take until late August to complete. In Canada, the government requires oil companies to drill relief wells alongside exploratory wells in case of a mishap. Here, industry experts convinced regulators recruited from the industry that such expensive precautions were unnecessary.

Justice Department attorneys will ultimately determine whether criminal charges will be filed in regard to the Gulf Coast fiasco. I don't know what they'll decide, but I can state without equivocation that what is occurring in the Gulf of Mexico is a crime.

M.W. Guzy is a retired St. Louis cop who currently works for the city Sheriff's Department. His column appears weekly in the Beacon.

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