Cancer in the Gulf

The Oil Spill Disaster's Not Really Like a War at All

Brown pelicans covered in oil from the BP oil spill in the Gulf.
© Photos by David Helvarg

Ten years ago when I flew out to a BP deepwater platform in the Gulf of Mexico aboard an oil-industry service Bell 412 helicopter I was amazed there were production rigs as far as I could see. I flew out over the Gulf last week with Tom Hutchings, a SouthWings pilot, to the source. "The source" is what they call the ongoing oil eruption where BP's Deepwater Horizon platform sank in April.

Flying in a small Cessna at 2,000 feet, I saw oil spills as far as the horizon. Also, thick columns of black smoke and orange flames on the water where they're burning off surface oil. We counted 75-100 dolphins and a sperm whale moving slowly through thick rainbow sheets of oil some 30 miles from the nearest clear water.

Like metastasizing cancer, the oil has spread everywhere along the Gulf coast.

The source itself reminded me of the offshore oil terminals I've visited in Iraq guarded by U.S. Navy ships and Coast Guard cutters. Only here in U.S. waters the flare offs and oil collector ship and work boats and petro haze (and odor) and torrents of water aimed at the columns of jetting flame is even more crazy dramatic than that iron belt of warships we maintain around Iraq's oil. It makes it easy to understand why our leaders have chosen the wrong metaphor for their so far unsuccessful efforts to contain, never mind control, this disaster.

With his talk of a battle plan to fight the oil, President Obama has begun to adopt the rhetoric of war. But I'd choose a more appropriate metaphor.

War gives one the illusion of having control over life and death. Cancer strips that illusion away.The metastasizing spill in the Gulf is like cancer and the activity 90 miles offshore at the source like a messy surgery. The millions of gallons of toxic dispersants are like chemo; the burn-offs, radiation.No metaphor is perfect, but when I hear Louisiana's Treasurer repeat a common claim among the locals that they are in a two-front war, against BP's oil in the marshes and the president's moratorium on new deepwater drilling (just overturned by a Louisiana judge) I think about my mother when she discovered she had lung cancer. First, she went around the house tearing up her cigarette packs and cursing Chesterfields. Later she shrugged, went to the store and bought a new pack.

The flare offs and oil collector ship and work boats and petro haze (and odor) and torrents of water aimed at the columns of jetting flame is even more crazy dramatic than that iron belt of warships we maintain around Iraq"s oil.

It's unclear if America is really prepared to kick its addiction to the 16th and 19th century combustibles of coal and oil. They're clearly much more addictive than nicotine.

All I can say for certain is that those dolphins and that whale I saw Monday are probably dead by now and that's no metaphor, that's just what's happening in this ongoing mess BP and the oil industry created that could prove terminal for up to a third of the Gulf of Mexico and its fringing shores.Forty years ago after the Santa Barbara oil spill the cry was, "Get Oil Out!" It's time to revive it.

DAVID HELVARG is the President of the Blue Frontier Campaign and the author of five books: Saved by the Sea, Blue Frontier, The War Against the Greens, 50 Ways to Save the Ocean and Rescue Warriors.