Gulf Oil Leak Perspective

Last Sunday's newspaper carried a letter to the editor from a prominent local oilman in which he chastised the news media for continuing to report the volume of the oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico in terms of gallons instead of barrels. He apparently believes that this is yet another attempt by the media to sensationalize the extent of the leak, thereby casting the oil and gas industry in a bad light. I'd link to the letter but for some reason the only letters on the paper's website are from the prior Sunday. Anyway, my recollection is that the writer closed by sarcastically suggesting that the media should report the spill in terms of teaspoons if they really want to sensationalize things.

Normally, I'd be the first to jump on the "media bias" bandwagon, but in this rare instance, I think the writer is wrong. First, there's just no way to sensationalize a disastrous situation like this, unless you try to compare it to the meteor that wiped out the dinosaurs, or Britney Spears's comeback attempts. An oil slick hundreds of miles in area that has the potential of destroying an ecosystem and a generation of people who depend upon it for their livelihood is, by definition, a Very Serious Thing, and it's a useless distraction to argue about the metric by which it's quantified.

But second - and here's my real point - there's no reason to fault the media for describing something in terms that the average reader/viewer/listener can relate to (especially if it's also accurate), and, frankly, nobody knows what a barrel of oil looks like. I worked in the oil business for 25 years and I never saw a barrel of oil, outside of a museum display set up to show what a barrel of oil looks like because no one would know otherwise. I've seen plenty of 55-gallon drums of chemicals and other products, but never a physical 42-gallon barrel, and I'll bet I'm not alone.

The barrel is an abstraction, an arbitrary volume agreed upon back in the early days of the oil industry (before the term "Texas tea" had any meaning whatsoever), according to my extensive research (well, I did read an article from Wikipedia). And while I'm sure that originally there were actual 42-gallon barrels (I'll have to go back and watch There Will Be Blood again), I'm pretty sure that no one alive today actually witnessed that. On the other hand, everyone can relate to a gallon - we've all seen gallons of milk or gasoline or cheap wine - so it's only natural to use that as a way to describe an oil spill or leak.

A rose by any other name smells just as sweet, and a Rhode Island-sized layer of oil on the ocean's surface described in any other terms is just as disastrous. Oops...there I go, sensationalizing again. Besides, who how big is Rhode Island, anyway? I think we have bigger counties in West Texas.


I was listening to an engineer while going to work yesterday who said simply that nothing would stop this oil leak. BP really messed up here and the administration needs to focus on stopping this or the whole coastline will be lost. I doubt this top kill strategy will work but we'll see. It has never been tried at these depths before. They're just experimenting now.

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This page contains a single entry by Eric published on May 12, 2010 6:01 PM.

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