Tuesday, June 01, 2010

ENVIRONMENT - The Public and the BP Oil Spill

"Oil Leak Drama Draws Public Outrage, Outpouring of Ideas" PBS Newshour Transcript 5/31/2010 (video at link)


MARGARET WARNER (Newshour): Today, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration warned that shifting winds will spread the oil eastward toward Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida. Moreover, the Atlantic hurricane season begins tomorrow.

And, week after week, as the oil spews out of the earth, and plans for stopping it keep -- stopping it coming up short, more than 80 percent of Americans have been telling the Pew Research Center they're following events in the Gulf closely.

We get three perspectives now on what's behind the extraordinary public response to the spill. Bill Nye is an author and science educator trained as a mechanical engineer. He's the former host of the PBS program "Bill Nye the Science Guy." Amy Jaffe is a senior energy adviser at the James Baker Institute at Rice University. And Paul Saffo is a writer and technology forecaster in Silicon Valley. He's also a visiting scholar at Stanford University.

Welcome to you all.

Paul Saffo, beginning with you, the public's fascination with this story, what is driving it? Is this like other disasters, or is there something more at work here?

PAUL SAFFO, visiting scholar, Stanford University: I think this is a new chapter. This is one of those McLuhan moments that would have seemed pure science fiction 10 years ago, watching in real time this spreading horror deep in the ocean below the level anybody can reach. It's part "Titanic" the movie and part 1950s "The Blob."

It's just strangely compelling. I know all sorts of people who just can't stop watching.

MARGARET WARNER: Bill Nye, how do you see it? Do you find this a McLuhan-esque moment, a turning moment?

BILL NYE, former host, "The Science Guy": Well, I hope it's a turning moment. I hope it's a moment that changes the world, in that we would now acknowledge how much time, effort and energy we put into getting oil.

But I think that what really focused it were two things, the Exxon Valdez, which people still make fun of or refer to, and then Katrina. This happened in the same region, almost to the nautical mile, as Katrina. So, the same people are going through a new suffering.

And this is the kind of suffering that could happen to so many of us. Now, there's thousands of -- there's almost a million oil wells around the world. There's a few thousand oil rigs. And this is the kind of disaster that could happen almost anywhere.

MARGARET WARNER: Amy Jaffe, how does it look to you in -- in Houston? What do you think this -- this event is tapping into in the American public?

AMY JAFFE, Rice University: Well, you know, we, in the American public, we are a big believer that there's a science and technology solution to everything -- everything.

So -- and it was really amazing that the industry -- we were sort of running out of oil onshore, and the industry was able to go out to the depths of the earth, under the sea, and keep us driving around in our cars. So, to sit here night after night and watch all these scientists unable to close a simple pipeline, even though it's a very complex engineering problem, as a layperson, when you sit here and watch the oil just spewing out of this pipeline, it is. It's just this horror movie, like we cannot believe that there isn't a technology to close this pipeline.

And we, as Americans, believe there's a technological solution to everything. And the idea that we're going to have to wait until August for the technological solution, I think it's just got people just gripped in terror.

MARGARET WARNER: So, Paul Saffo, do you -- do you agree that it's shaking our faith in technology and in Americans' ability? I mean, usually, we think -- part of our whole ethos is, if there's a problem, Americans can fix it.

PAUL SAFFO: Well, we have had an uneasy accommodation with our faith in technology for the last 10 years. It was shattered first with the popping of the dot-com bubble. And the whole climate debate circles around us right now.

In fact, you see two camps in the climate debate. There are the druids who say we need to turn the clock back because we can't solve it, and the engineers who say we need to accelerate because we can solve this with heroic engineering.

This oil well has done more to discredit heroic engineering than anything that has happened in the last 10 years.


MARGARET WARNER: Let me get this refocused on Amy Jaffe.

So, Amy Jaffe, as someone who has been working in the energy field for a couple of decades at least, has this affected your own attitude, your own confidence in our technological abilities?

AMY JAFFE: You know, I have to tell you, I have found it a sort of a shocking and personally depressing experience, because I watched the industry in the late '80s and early '90s really crack this puzzle of how to get oil from the ocean.

And, in the Gulf of Mexico anyway, we have been very successful at doing it without a major accident. So, when I learned, after this accident, that the industry actually had no blowout technology -- in other words, they didn't have a technological solution to address a blowout -- I was shocked.

Even myself, who has been in the -- watching the industry and writing about industry for 30 years, I just couldn't believe that people would go out there and drill these wells, and they didn't have a backup plan. I mean, I understand they had good prevention systems, but they didn't have a backup plan.

And now we're all watching in horror over the fact that there is no backup plan. And it does raise this question -- I -- I like what our other guests are saying -- I work at a university that's known for its math and science departments and its engineering. And it -- we find it very depressing that a lot of young people who are good in mathematics in this country have chosen to use that to develop financial derivatives that have actually hurt our economy -- and we see it here in Houston with all the people who rushed to work for Enron -- instead of going into concrete science that could be used today to shut this pipeline.

If we had more American children sticking with math and science and going to engineering, there might just be some young bright person out there who could come up with an idea of how to do this in a way that isn't the way we did it on land 50 years ago or 100 years ago.

We really need more science capability in this country.

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