The Progressive


A project of Common Dreams

For Immediate Release
Contact: Steve Rendall,,Tel: 212-633-6700 x13

Drilling Disasters Can't Happen Here

In run-up to BP spill, media touted offshore safety


As the United States examines the
origins of the environmental catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico, one
factor that should not be overlooked is media coverage that served to
cover up dangers rather than expose them. When President Barack Obama
declared a new push for offshore drilling (3/31/10), asserting that
"oil rigs today generally don't cause spills" (4/2/10), corporate news outlets echoed such
pollyanna sentiments:

You know, there are a lot of serious people
looking at, "Are there ways that we can do drilling and we can do
nuclear that are--that are nowhere near as risky as what they were 10 or
15 or 20 years ago?" Offshore drilling today is a lot more safer, in
many ways, environmentally, today than it was 20 years ago.
--David Gergen, CNN's Situation

Some Americans have an opinion of offshore drilling
that was first formed decades ago with those pictures of oil on the
beaches in Santa Barbara, California. Others see it differently. They
say time and technology have changed things. They say in order to
lessen our dependence on foreign oil and keep gas prices low, we've got
to bring more of it out of the ground and from under the sea.
--Brian Williams, NBC Nightly News

The technology of oil drilling has made huge
advances.... The time has come for my fellow environmentalists to
reassess their stand on offshore oil. It is not clear that the risks of
offshore oil drilling still outweigh the benefits. The risk of oil
spills in the United States is quite low.
--Eric Smith, Washington Post
op-ed (4/2/10)

Some of the most ironic objections come from those
who say offshore exploration will destroy beaches and coastlines,
citing the devastating 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska as an
example. The last serious spill from a drilling accident in U.S. waters
was in 1969, off Santa Barbara, California.
--USA Today editorial (4/2/10)

Since the big spill off the coast of California
about three decades ago, the big oil companies have really put a lot of
time, money and resources into making sure that their drilling is a
lot more safe and environmentally sound.
--Monica Crowley, Fox Business Happy Hour

Drilling could be conducted in an environmentally
sensitive manner. We already drill in an environmentally sensitive
--Sean Hannity, Fox News' Hannity

And even in terms of the environment, we're going to
consume oil one way or the other. It's safer for the planet if it's
done under our strict controls and high technology in America as
opposed to Nigeria.... We've got a ton of drilling happening every day
today in the Gulf of Mexico in a hurricane area and it's successful.
--Charles Krauthammer, WJLA's Inside

We had a hurricane on the Gulf Coast and there was
no oil spill. If Katrina didn't cause an oil spill with all those oil
wells in the Gulf....
--Dick Morris, Fox News' O'Reilly

The two main reasons oil and other fossil fuels
became environmentally incorrect in the 1970s--air pollution and risk
of oil spills--are largely obsolete. Improvements in drilling
technology have greatly reduced the risk of the kind of offshore spill
that occurred off Santa Barbara in 1969.... To fear oil spills from
offshore rigs today is analogous to fearing air travel now because of
prop plane crashes.
--Steven F. Hayward, Weekly Standard

And these messages didn't entirely disappear after
the Gulf of Mexico disaster unfolded. In its May 10 issue, Time
magazine had a small box headlined, "Offshore-Drilling Disasters:
Rare But Deadly," which listed a mere four incidents--the most recent
in 1988. But it doesn't take too much research to turn up a slew of
other incidents that raise concerns: the Unocal-owned Seacrest
drillship that capsized in 1989, killing 91 people; Phillips
Petroleum's Alexander Kielland rig that collapsed in 1980, killing 123,
and more. The list managed to overlook at least three well disasters
in the Gulf of Mexico that resulted in oil spills--two incidents off
the Louisiana coast in 1999, and the Usumacinta spill in Mexican waters
in 2007.

A previous story (4/24/10) had noted that the Minerals Management
Service, which oversees offshore drilling, reported 39 fires or
explosions in the first five months of 2009 alone; though the magazine
said the "good news" is that "most of these" did not result in death.
The website Oil Rig Disasters tallies 184 incidents,
dozens of which involved fatalities--and 73 of which occurred after

Clearly there are different ways to measure such
things, but it's hard not to feel that Time's point
was to suggest that drilling disasters are really too rare to worry

Since the BP/Deepwater disaster, many news outlets
have run investigative pieces detailing the long history of negligent
oversight of the offshore drilling industry. But when the New
York Times
tells readers (5/25/10) about the "enduring laxity of federal
regulation of offshore operations," one can't help but wonder why this
apparently well-known problem got so little attention before the
environmental catastrophe.

FAIR, the national media watch group, has been offering well-documented criticism of media bias and censorship since 1986. We work to invigorate the First Amendment by advocating for greater diversity in the press and by scrutinizing media practices that marginalize public interest, minority and dissenting viewpoints.