Dennis Hopper died today falling, at the ripe old age of 74, to prostate cancer. Hopper, a protege' of Indiana's own James dean, burst into the public consciousness with this 1969 film Easy Rider, a film about a drug-financed journey across the country, from Los Angeles to New Orleans, to find an America that didn't exist.
1969 was a remarkable year in many ways. It was the year Led Zeppelin's first album, the year of Elvis' comeback, the year of Concorde, the year of the first manned landing on the moon, and a year of oil.
It was the year of the 1969 oil well blowout in the Santa Barbara Channel, just offshore from the Los Angeles departed by Easy Rider's protagonists in their search for a country that didn't exist. It was my first year as a young boy in Southern California.
It was the year that I learned about a remarkable product sold in pharmacy, a commercial turpentine product we applied to our feet after every trip to the beach, to clean the oil off them.
Drill, baby, drill
Today, offshore from New Orleans, the terminus of Hopper's Easy Rider, another oil blowout rages. Hopper's motorcycle journey from the City of Angels to the Big Easy could be measured in days; oil's journey from the beaches of my boyhood to the marshes of Pontchartrain took a few decades longer.
"The blame isn't that of British Petroleum, nor of the Obama or Bush administrations."
The Santa Barbara channel is still home to dozens of oil rigs, many of which can be seen, standing silent sentinel, during a drive up California's Route One. The Santa Barbara blowout was the proximate impetus for what few restrictions on offshore mineral exploration and drilling now exist, but the weakness of those restrictions and the ease of their subterfuge is belied not by the dozens of rigs in the Gulf of Mexico, but by the thousands.
Indeed, there are over 4,000 oil platforms in the United States's Gulf of Mexico waters, connected to 10s of thousands of underwater wells. Drill, baby, drill indeed.
For counter to oft-repeated right-wing agitprop, the United States is a well driller's dream. There are more oil wells, on land and under the ocean, in the United States than in all of the rest of the world's countries combined.
There are more new wells being drilled, in the United States, than all the new wells being drilled in all of the rest of the world's countries combined.
No easy ride
As an oil province, the United States looks like a pincushion. We've been drilling holes in the ground for a long time and, through all those holes, we've pulled out a lot of oil. We were once the world's greatest oil exporter and, though our prodigious thirst for the stuff has eroded our export status, we're still the world's third-largest oil producer.
But the oil is getting harder and harder to get to. The easy stuff, on land or just a few miles offshore in shallow water, is going away. But the American way of life is non-negotiable, and that means that the continuity of oil production, and massive amounts of production, is non-negotiable as well.
"There are over 4,000 oil platforms in the United States's Gulf of Mexico waters, connected to 10s of thousands of underwater wells."
Well, well, well. We have to go further than further into the deep end to maintain that production. It's not easy, and it's not cheap. It's not fun, and it's not safe. But we don't have an alternative.
The hypocrisy of the left
It's fashionable these days, among my friends on the left, to blamestorm the current tragedy in the Gulf of Mexico. The evil and venal oil companies are to blame, aided and abetted by the previous administration's Machiavellian corporate machinations and the current administration's constitutional middle-of-the-road fecklessness.
It's not surprising, or unexpected. I remember the same hand-wringing during the Santa Barbara blowout, during the 1979 Ixtoc blowout (which lends a discomforting groundhog-day cast to the current disaster), and when the Exxon Valdez took a slightly wrong turn and ended up on a rock in Prince William Sound.
And last night I watched Keith Olbermann shaking in feigned outrage against British Petroleum, just before he cut to a Nissan commercial to pay the station's bills, and his salary. The juxtaposition of consumer, producer, commerce and morality was more than I could stand and I turned off the set.
Death unto life
It's a truism that every time you turn on a light switch, something dies. Whether its from the infinitesimal increment to the planet's emission burden that the light switch represents or an acknowledgement that the fuel used to power the switch is itself the physical embodiment of life unto death.
"There are more new wells being drilled, in the United States, than all the new wells being drilled in all of the rest of the world's countries combined."
For coal is nothing more than the compressed remains of trees and ferns that died hundreds of millions of years ago. Oil is the fermented organic remains of an ancient sea whose vitality was laid to rest thousands of generations before the first human walked the planet, so that we didn't have to walk but that we might drive our Nissans.
The blame isn't that of British Petroleum, nor of the Obama or Bush administrations. Indeed, in the four decades since Dennis Hopper took that easy ride from Santa Barbara to New Orleans, we've pumped billions and billions of barrels of oil from the sea, we've drilled thousands and thousands of underwater wells, we've driven countless miles in our Nissans, and we've only had a handful of accidents.
But those that we have had have been, like the current one, horrific and tragic. They represent death and destruction on an unimaginable scale (which is why we largely don't even try to imagine it). And they remain painful reminders that, every time we turn on a light switch or start up the Nissan, something has to die.
And we only have ourselves to blame.
Gregory Travis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.