Marshall: Why Deep Ocean Drilling is Such a Threat

Since the beginning of the BP oil disaster, industry experts have never failed to speak– usually in reverent terms– about … Continued

Since the beginning of the BP oil disaster, industry experts have never failed to speak– usually in reverent terms– about the science involved in deep ocean drilling. You probably remember hearing this refrain “It rivals what we do in space.”

Actually, space work is easier. And that’s a very, very important point.

Space is easier because we have the technology that allows humans to not only travel there, but also to work in that environment. Sending a shuttle crew up to perform repair jobs on satellites has become almost routine. The sight of an astronaut floating away from the international space station, tools in hand, to solve even a life-threatening problem no longer elicits front page headlines.

We have no such mastery in the deep ocean. We don’t have the technology that will allows us to do hands-on repair work a mile under the surface of the Gulf. We can’t rush a rescue team to fix that broken blowout preventer. We can’t apply human eyes and intelligence on site to stop the gusher BP opened on the floor of the Gulf, a mistake that now threatens precious ecosystems from Louisiana to Florida and beyond.

Our government– the watchdog we depend on the protect the public’s interest and property– was well aware of this when it began permitting these operations. Deep water drilling was– and is– a gamble with a horrendous environmental down side because responding in a timely and effective manner to catastrophic accidents remains beyond our technology.

Here’s an analogy.

We don’t have the technology to send humans to Mars, but we know how to operate robots there. Is that enough assurance to permit an activity on Mars that could result in serious damage to the earth’s environment if there were an accident? Would the nation agree to remote control of such an operation, or would it say: Not until we can get people on the ground?

That’s the danger of deep ocean drilling. We allowed a venture with a significant chance of catastrophic accidents that can endanger billions of dollars in commercial infrastructure as well as the physical health and quality of life of tens of millions of people– because it was only a mile away from the control panels.

But as we now know, it might as well be on Mars.