Lyle Dean Geoffrey Orsak quoted in column examining the BP Oil Spill

By Cheryl Hall

The Gulf of Mexico disaster has sent my emotions into overdrive.

I am outraged that BP has no contingency plan for dealing with a catastrophic event and that the U.S. government never demanded one.

I am frustrated with the oil giant's contention that this is its spill to handle as it chooses, and fed up with the feds' abdication of: "Fine, but we're really mad at you."

Over the weekend, U.S. Coast Guard Commandant Thad Allen vouched for BP's operations, telling CNN: "I've got [BP CEO] Tony Hayward's personal cellphone number. If I have a problem, I call him. ...When I talk to him, I get an answer."

Isn't that special?

I am mystified that after 36 days of oil spewing from a seabed gusher, no solution of consequence has taken hold.

Two letters to the editor in Tuesday's New Orleans Times-Picayune summed it up.

"Watching the oil spill unfold is like watching Katrina all over again: finger-pointing and no help until it is too late." And, "Every time has its heroes and villains. Hurricane Katrina had Gen. Russell Honore. He came, took names and kicked butt. I pray for another Gen. Honore. God knows we need him now."

One of the more plausible clean-up remedies comes from actor Kevin Costner, who got his idea while filming his 1995 post-apocalyptic film, Waterworld.

Wouldn't it be incredible if he turns out to be that hero?

This will be an environmental disaster for generations. Given the vastly conflicting predictions between industry optimists and eco-pessimists, I'm siding with those who think this is really, really bad.

The industry rightly points to its remarkable safety record. But accidents – horrendous ones – do happen. Several BP executives learned this by being on board Deepwater Horizon to celebrate the rig's safety record when the deadly blowout occurred on April 20.

Focusing on value

Major advancements in clean-up techniques since the Valdez disaster two decades ago are few and far between.

A BP cleanup crew picked up oil from a beach Tuesday at Port Fourchon, La. As BP prepares to try to stop the oil leak with a 'top kill' method, the Louisiana coastline is reeling from the effects of the continued gusher.

Federal funding for oil spill research was cut in half between 1993 and 2008, falling to just $7.7 million, according to the Congressional Research Service.

So are we really doing all that we can to ensure that the safety and maintenance practices of the energy industry are keeping up with drilling advancements that allow for drilling oil a mile or more beneath the sea?

Geoffrey Orsak, dean of the Lyle School of Engineering at Southern Methodist University, doesn't think so.

He sits on the National Petroleum Council, which advises the U.S. secretary of energy on oil and natural gas issues. Members include the top guns of major corporations and independents, as well as academics and researchers.

"It really is an amazing feat to be able to drill a well in water at this depth. So why can't the same talent be brought to bear on stopping the leak?" Orsak asks. "My guess: Most of the industry's research investment has been on extracting value, not on the unlikely but catastrophic problems that come about from poor maintenance, human error and random acts."

No plans at all

Twenty-one days into the catastrophe, BP said it was contemplating shooting rubber tire shards, golf balls and other debris to clog the hole and stem the flow.

That's when Orsak realized these people were seriously out of their realm. "If golf balls are your contingency plan, you have not thought this through at all."

Take a look at a government aerial view of nearly 4,000 offshore oil and gas platforms – which give us 30 percent of our domestically produced oil and 11 percent of our natural gas – and you'll see we're lucky that this hasn't happened before.

The view also makes me more than a tad nervous. If another disaster strikes, I doubt that the government or industry will be any better prepared.

It's past time to get serious about disaster planning because deepwater drilling isn't going away, and we live in an increasingly uncertain world.

As of May 19, there were 35 drilling rigs operating at depths of at least 1,000 feet in the gulf, according to the U.S. Department of the Interior. And there are 46 deepwater production facilities.

Do we need them? Approximately 70 percent of the oil produced in federal gulf waters comes from existing deepwater fields.

The government has approved exploration plans for 239 deepwater leases that haven't been put into action yet and is reviewing another 13 plans. It expects five rigs to start work in 2010 and four more in 2011.

We're a nation of energy addicts, and that makes deepwater drilling impossible to live without.

We live in big houses with cranked-down air conditioning, drive fuel-inefficient cars, drink from bottled water and aren't about to undo any of that.

So there's one more emotion that we all should have a little more of: guilt.

Orsak agrees: "We are all culpable. We all want that oil. We don't want to make the personal sacrifices necessary so that we don't have to drill 5,000 feet down. Ultimately it comes back to us, not just BP."