Sometimes Airliners & Oil Rigs Go ‘Kablooie’

Fri, May 28, 2010 — David Evans


Which is worse, a plane crash or a massive oil spill, is a matter of fierce debate. It is also beside the point. The real issue is whether airplane accidents and/or oil spills were preventable. The record from aviation is that for every 100 or so incidents – those events below the dollar value and life value of an accident – a single accident will result from a concatenation of system and human errors.

It is reported that BP had a recent history of some 760 incidents – past performance that should have warranted backup systems and plans in place to prevent event number 761, the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico. As is said in aviation, the key to safety is redundancy, redundancy, redundancy. In the Gulf, it appears that BP was operation from the twin evils of complacency and time pressure.

In any event, New York Times columnist David Brooks argued 26 May that an air crash is worse than an oil spill. Of course, he is making the implicit assumption that animal lives lost don’t count. In addition to the 11 oil workers killed in the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon rig, if we assume the lives of the pelicans, sea turtles, and other wildlife killed by the spill are worth, say, one twentieth that of a single human life, then the blast on the Gulf and resulting deadly ooze killed hundreds or even thousands – easily the equivalent of a B747’s worth of passengers, not to mention the long-term cost of cleaning up the coastal mess (if that’s even possible).

Here is what Brooks argued:

“I don’t really understand why an oil spill brings out a torrent of rage when a plane crash, say, brings out much less. It’s arguable that a plane crash that decimates hundreds of families is much worse than what is happening in the Gulf.”


Well, this assertion generated a torrent of rage from New York Times readers.


The reason … there is a torrent of rage is that BP has assured us that their methods are safe and that they are prepared for the unexpected. At the same time, they have done their best to reduce or avoid the regulatory demands on them.

The reason there is a torrent of rage is that even in the face of this disaster, Rex Tillerson of Exxon has the gall to suggest that the industry has performed well and we need less, not more regulation.

The reason there is a torrent of rage is that the industry wants nothing to do maximizing safety regulations since their position is that this is not viable.

BP’s shameful record in this disaster, from permitting to today, is a perfect illustration of why there is a torrent of rage.


All tragedies are not the same in terms of consequences. A plane crash is indeed a tragedy, but its effects are limited to those few hundred involved. We rely on machines to keep us safe, but we assume the risks for convenience sake. When we contemplate the consequences of deep water offshore drilling, however, who thought it was okay to trust computers and thrusters to keep a floating platform in place? It was not a question of whether there would be a failure, only a question of when. I am seriously tired of hearing BP state, when describing their cleanup plans that “this has never been tried before at this depth.” If they do not know how to handle deep water emergencies, what are they doing in deep water?

China Airlines B737 on fire, 2007.

China Airlines B737 on fire, 2007.

Deepwater Horizon on fire, 2010.

Deepwater Horizon on fire, 2010.


A plane crash that takes hundreds of lives is horrible. But it pales in comparison to the permanent destruction of a large portion of our country’s coast forever. (Let’s recall that decades after Exxon Valdez, the local fisheries are still at about zero, with no recovery in sight.)

As bad as a personal loss is (of a fraction of the human population that’s infinitesimal), destroying the planet on which all humanity and other species stands is much worse.


(Y)our comment that this is like a plane crash is outrageous. It is ignorant, insensitive and indefensible.

A plane crash may kill several hundred people. It obviously affects their loved ones. It has an economic effect on the airline, and possibly the manufacturer. It is a single brief event. It is an incident which is very much confined in its impact.

This blowout could hardly be more different. This continues to unfold after over a month. This damages an incalculable area, affecting at least four states. We are now being told that we can expect oil to continue to appear for years. This decimates a $3 BILLION dollar industry, an industry that is not replaceable, or insurable. The largest industry in coastal Louisiana is seafood. It is an industry of small entrepreneurs, and one of the few economic engines in this region.

What you seem particularly ignorant about is what this means to the future of places like New Orleans. This oil cannot be cleaned from marshes. These marshes, already largely erased by oil exploration, are what protect New Orleans from hurricanes. You express your amazement at peoples’ visceral reaction to oil companies. Examine the Louisiana coastline and you’ll find a clue. These companies have literally erased our land, leaving us vulnerable to storms like Katrina, and taking to money to Houston and London and god knows where else. We live here like colonial subjects.

This is worse for New Orleans than Katrina. Let me say that again, so you can let it sink in: THIS IS WORSE FOR NEW ORLEANS THAN KATRINA.

There is no cleaning or fixing this. This is likely to be the last nail in New Orleans’ coffin.


Brooks’ comparing the effects of an air crash to the threatening environmental disaster posed by the Gulf oil spill are possibly the most fatuous words I’ve heard him utter.


David there is a huge difference between the plane crash and the BP disaster. Those killed on a plane boarded the plane of their own free will. There were alternatives, car, train, bus. The BP disaster has put the eco system of 3 states at risk and potentially more. The residents of those states had very little say as to what BP was doing so hence no choice.


The problem we see is that the companies that do this don’t care about losing a lot of this material from uncontrolled leaks because there’s a lot more to get, at least for now. Their concern it getting the oil, not managing unintended leaks. They must be in compliance with the laws of nations that allow them to drill and will comply to the degree that is needed to maximize their profits and to minimize their losses.

So my conclusion is that the states and the Federal Government need to sent standards concerning tolerable leaks and intolerable leaks and to force drilling companies to prove that they are prepared to keep leaks within allowable limits and for governments to have the means to terminate the drilling and to seal the holes if the businesses don’t comply.


David Brooks: “Life involves risk…Sometimes oil drilling technology goes kablooie.”

A truly asinine comment from David Brooks. He makes it sound like the accident was inevitable . It wasn’t. The accident in the gulf is scandalous for the very reason that it was avoidable. BP said systems were in place that in fact weren’t. They were behind schedule and decided to cut corners and drill on the cheap. And the government let them get away with it!


While it may be still arguable that the oil spill is less terrible in its effects than a plane crash, how much life and activity on the Gulf will be killed and for how long? We don’t know yet if the oil spill is the equivalent of one plane crash or a thousand plane crashes.


As tragic as a plane crash is for the families involved, that is a wacky analogy. This oil spill is going to destroy the livelihoods of thousands of people for a long time (years? decades?), as well as destroying huge amounts of sea life and so forth.

Comparing environmental catastrophes with (admittedly very tragic) accidents that happen and are over is not particularly useful.


Down here in the real world it looks like those idiots could use some oversight. Industry does not want oversight because it interferes with business and that is what it is supposed to do. I wonder if David Brooks what like to fly in a plane with no government oversight?


Difference between an airline crash and a huge destruction of the environment with an oil well blow out?

Two words: Enormous profits on the part of the Oil Company, with or without paying damages. Loss of life cannot be covered by the airline insurance, nor the pain. But, but, how and why are we to compare the deaths of 180 people in a crash with the billions of gallons of oil destroying everything in the Gulf?

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