Fertilizer runoff down the Mississippi, however, does create a vast dead zone, and for now it qualifies as the worst environmental disaster in the Gulf while history and science sort out the impact of the BP spill. That inconvenient truth is left out of Juhasz's narrative.
Carl Safina offers some promise of casting the cold eye of a scientist on the spill in "A Sea in Flames: the Deepwater Horizon Oil Blowout" (Crown Trade, April 2011), a lyrical and unsparing account of the disaster. "I'm a professional environmentalist and conservationist," Safina writes. "I'm really angry about the recklessness that caused this, and the inanity of the response; I am deeply distressed about the potential damage to wildlife and habitats — but I find myself becoming increasingly uncomfortable with all the catastrophizing" over spill damages."
Safina's cynicism is a welcome relief. He is a fine writer and keen observer. Yet he ultimately squanders an opportunity by lingering in a lightly altered rehash of his daily musings on the disaster. Beyond the first 60 pages that explain the causes of the spill — with Safina's trademark clarity — the narrative crawls along like the disaster did. The reader has to plod through 300 pages before Safina calls for "calmness, clarity, rationality and insight."
For all its sober tone, Safina's work is angry, derisive, sarcastic, jocular and adds little scientific insight. When he finally interviews Incident Commander Thad Allen, the U.S. Coast Guard admiral and veteran of the Katrina disaster who was appointed by Obama to take charge of spill response, Safina admits that he "started to feel an uncomfortable twinge — more than a twinge — that my summer-long simmering mental caricature of him was off-base…. I was surprised to find myself thinking that if a hero is someone who steers events through a national crisis, Allen's as much a national hero as anyone I could think of. Well, that was a startling thought."
Indeed, it startles a reader who has been hit with ample doses of derision toward Allen, dubbed the "Thadmiral."
The best insight Safina has to offer is too obvious to wait 300-plus pages: "The worst environmental disaster in history isn't the oil that got away. The real catastrophe is the oil we don't spill. It's the oil we run through our engines as intended. … The best way to respond to the Gulf disaster? Not cleaning birds, picking up turtles, spraying dispersants, or cleaning beaches. Rather, pulling the subsidies out from under Big Petroleum … and hurry toward better options."
Few would agree more with the lopsided economics of Big Oil than William R. Freudenburg and Robert Gramling, whose "Blowout in the Gulf: The BP Oil Spill Disaster and the Future of Energy in America," (MIT Press, November 2010) falls in the didactic and polemic category. Its prose, at times kitschy with metaphors and overuse of sarcastic asides, betrays its bias early. Once the authors settle down into their well-established expertise — the history and economics of the oil industry, they offer a great primer on the oil industry and its regulation (or lack thereof).
The type of drilling undertaken by BP not only lacked adequate safety analysis, it was damaging to the federal budget, the authors show. A Republican-led move to offer "area-wide" leases in vast zones of federal waters, of which BP was a beneficiary, made the auction process less competitive and led to a decline in per-acre income for the federal government, not the increase that had been touted by those who supported it. "Despite more than a six-fold expansion in the number of leases sold, the total monetary amounts actually went down, not up," the authors note.
When the Newt Gingrich Congress in 1995 suspended royalties and offered steep discounts, ostensibly to encourage deep-water drilling, the result was an economic distortion in which oil and gas pays the equivalent of a 9% marginal tax rate on investment, while the average is 26%, according to the authors.
"Not only do we inhabit a world where our remaining reserves of precious petroleum are disappearing fast, but we receive a lower rate of payment from oil companies for those reserves than almost any other country in the world. Finally, as if that is not enough, we have allowed oil companies to exert such powerful influences over the writing of tax laws that we encourage them to drain America's oil even faster — effectively discouraging investments in other lines of business at the same time. It's quite a deal."
Like Safina, the authors land on a familiar soap box: stop policies that encourage rapid use of oil, stretch our remaining oil, and find substitutes for the goods, services and processes that require it.