‘Unprecedented’ Oil Catastrophe Repeats History

Numerous politicians and oil industry officials have claimed the BP oil catastrophe growing in the Gulf of Mexico is “unprecedented.” From BP CEO Tony Hayward, who called his company’s environmental crime an “unprecedented accident,” to Admiral Thad Allen, U.S. Coast Guard, who called it an “unprecedented anomalous event,” officials and pundits have given the impression that the consequences of this catastrophe could not have been predicted. In a Congressional oversight hearing on the apocalyptic disaster on Thursday, Rep. Doc Hastings (R-WA) even argued the country should respond to this “unprecedented” event by making sure “that we continue to produce oil here in the states.”

Watch a compilation prepared by the Wonk Room:

On Thursday, May 27, Rep. George Miller (D-CA) responded to the myth that this catastrophe was unprecedented and thus unforeseeable:

Every time we have a catastrophic event like this involving British Petroleum or other parts of the oil and gas industry, we’re told that this is an unpredictable cascade of unforeseeable errors, that this is unprecedented, that nobody could have foreseen this. This is sort of like the bankers on Wall Street. Nobody could have foreseen the risks that they engineered themselves, so nobody’s responsible. I don’t believe this was some “black swan” or “perfect storm” event. There wasn’t something that could not have been foreseen. And I don’t think this is something you can promise will never happen again.

Like the rest of the oil industry, BP has a long record of tragic, extraordinary environmental disasters, stretching from Alaska to Nigeria. And this particular disaster is not unprecedented in size, in the kind of accident, nor in the methods used to respond. There have been dozens of oil well blowouts in the Gulf of Mexico, including 39 since 2007.

As Rachel Maddow described on her MSNBC show Wednesday, the largest accidental oil spill in history, Ixtoc I, was eerily similar. That 1979 disaster took place off the coast of Mexico in the Gulf of Mexico, a months-long runaway blowout in which the blowout preventer failed. One-hundred-thirty million gallons of oil spilled into the Gulf after cofferdam and top-kill and junk-shot efforts failed, until relief wells were finally drilled. The efforts to limit the catastrophe have not changed either, as booms, dispersants, and burns were used to limit the spread of Ixtoc’s plumes of oil.

Watch the Maddow segment about history repeating itself:

To be fair, the Ixtoc I cofferdam effort was called a “sombrero,” a totally different kind of headgear from BP’s “top hat.”

What makes this catastrophe new is its location in the fertile and fragile ecosystem of the northern Gulf, and the depth at which the well was drilled, increasing the dangers. But this event is yet another tragic reminder of the truth of George Santayana’s dire maxim: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

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