It is a surprise that advocates for offshore oil drilling have not suffered bigger public relations damage from the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig and its spreading slick of toxic crude.
The explosion, which killed eleven of the platform's 126 workers, occurred 40 miles south of Louisiana's Point Fourchon in the Gulf of Mexico last Wednesday. On day one, it was covered more as an industrial accident than an environmental catastrophe. ABC's Jeffrey Kofman (no link) at the time quoted Forbes magazine's assessment that working on a rig "is the worst job in America because of the danger, the low pay and the cramped living conditions." CBS' Kelly Cobiella reassured us that "most of the oil and gas is burning rather than spilling onto the surface of the water" and NBC's Ron Mott calmly assessed that although the rig was burning and listing "they do not expect it to capsize." Most of the day's coverage focused on the Coast Guard's vain helicopter search for the eleven workers unaccounted for.
I expected the disaster to receive maximum coverage on its second day, Thursday, because that happened to be Earth Day and an environmental sidebar on the pros and cons of offshore oil exploration would have been a natural fit. Instead, all three newscasts treated the oil rig story as a human drama not an ecological one. NBC's Mott described the "apocalyptic scene" with flames raging 350 feet in the air before the rig did sink after all. ABC's Kofman told us of the good fortune for most of the workers that a supply ship happened to be tethered to the massive floating rig at the time of the explosion, sending out lifeboats to rescue those thrown into the sea.
Whit Johnson on CBS had an inkling that crude oil could be leaking from the well head on the sea floor yet none of the three newscasts made reference to the spill in their Earth Day features. NBC's Anne Thompson went for cute--how goats can replace lawn mowers in keeping grass tidy in a green way. ABC's Neal Karlinsky was in the Guatemalan village of Granados, where Laura Kutner, a Peace Corps volunteer, encouraged children to recycle plastic bottles to make bricks for their schoolhouse wall. CBS' Seth Doane showed us the coconut harvest in Kerala. ABC anchor Diane Sawyer offered a brief summary sketch of environmental changes since the first Earth Day forty years ago, but her mention of marine ecosystems concerned plastic flotsam digested by whales not slicks of oil.
Friday was good news day for the oil drilling industry. "It is a human tragedy," conceded CBS' Don Teague, "but the environmental catastrophe that could have followed may have been averted. A remotely operated submarine…has found no oil leaking from the well head on the ocean floor." NBC's Thompson reassured us that Barack Obama has "no intention of backing away from his plan to expand offshore oil drilling." ABC saw no reason to file a follow-up from the Gulf of Mexico.
Then the weekend passed and all that positive spin was discredited. ABC's Ryan Owens watched crude oil "turning famously blue water a murky brown." The valve to stop the well head from leaking crude oil had failed. NBC's Thompson warned about Louisiana's Bayou Country, "rich breeding grounds for shrimp, crabs and fish" as she followed the "trajectory of the slick oozing toward the coast."
CBS' Cobiella described the heroic measures being contemplated: "Using underwater vehicles with remote-controled arms, officials are trying to force the blowout preventer, a 450 ton valve, to close, sealing off the well completely. It is a complicated process and there is no guarantee it will succeed. At the same time, they are getting ready to drill two more wells, one-to-two miles from the site, tapping into the original well, then pump a material like concrete to plug it. That could take several months. So as a Hail Mary pass, if they cannot stop the leaks, they will try to cover them with two underwater domes connected to pipes, which will bring the oil to the surface. It has been done before but never in water almost a mile deep."
Yet we are still waiting for any of the three newscasts to revisit the public policy case for drilling for oil in offshore waters that all three White House correspondents covered--ABC's Jake Tapper, CBS' Chip Reid and NBC's Chuck Todd--when the President argued for it at the end of March.
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