The Chief Operating Officer of BP has just said, “This scares everybody, the fact that we can’t make this well stop flowing, the fact that we haven’t succeeded so far.” What scares me is that the COO of BP is saying this. The main issue seems to be that none of the techniques known to humankind about stopping this kind of oil leak have been tried at depths of 5,000 feet before. We don’t seem to be able to act at a distance, at this particular distance. Although perhaps it’s not so much about distance, but the nature of the medium in which we need to act, the pressure of 5,000 feet of water. After all we can send people to the Moon, operate vehicles on Mars, and send probes to the outer reaches of the solar system. But gravity, the immense pressure of the wall of water and air, and the opposing force of the gushing oil seem to have got the better of us.
So it seems we have overreached ourselves in this case. In our search for more fossil fuel we were willing to take on the risk of not being able to act at these depths, if something were to go wrong. The question is, how can an organisation like BP be allowed to take these kinds of risks in the name of humankind? Is there some sort of moral hazard at work here, not unlike the case of investment bankers who know that they will always be bailed out by the taxpayer in the end? What is the worst thing that can happen to an oil company? Or to its executives? What is the ultimate limit of their liability and responsibility? What if this oil leak is impossible to mend? Would it be any consolation that BP’s shareholders and lenders lose their money and some of its executives end up in jail? That hardly seems to be a fair bargain.