The Inverted “Gusher”

Andrew Belonsky :: Monday, May 24th, 2010 11:00 am

President Obama has finally started taking more administrative control in the Gulf oil spill by sending three cabinet officials to survey the BP-led cleanup. It’s unclear whether Obama’s action will help stem the criticism flowing his way. In fact, this story, like the oil itself, shows no idea of stopping and, as it continues to spread, “gusher,” a word once upheld as the pinnacle of oil-based success, will come to symbolize disaster, not dollar signs.

Oil’s an almost mythical substance: a naturally occurring fuel that brings life and death, yet still doesn’t mix with the planet’s most prevalent element, water. The slipper substance goes by many names – black gold, Texas tea – and has played an irrefutably important role in our planet’s history. Tar pits created by oil seeps helped undo the dinosaurs, while centuries later the Greek’s used oil to burn water around enemy ships, helping build their historic power.

The Chinese too were key in oil’s inevitable expansion: in 347, they began drilling the world’s first oil wells by using bamboo poles, and other ancient cultures, like the Persians, would go looking for – and find – oil. This human tradition got a reboot in 1859, when Colonel Edwin L. Drake drilled a commercial well in Titusville, Pennsylvania, helping turn oil into a big business that proved integral to the face-paced industrial era and its subsequent excess.

“Gusher” has become the preferred noun for the Deepwater Horizon leak. No less than 10,000 news stories use the “g-word” to describe how much oil continues to leak down South – 5,000-50,000 barrels a day, depending on who you ask. Yes, the Deepwater Horizon leak qualifies as a gusher, all right, and changes the face of the oil industry and the societies it spawned.

Gushers, those uncontrollable spurts of well oil, were once emblems of wealth, power and glamour. Families who made crude fortunes were among the most famous people in America. The Hesses and the Rockefellers were celebrities in an era before movie stars ruled the roost, and the industry has inspired buckets of pop culture: Upton Sinclair’s 1927 novel Oil!, which later became There Will Be Blood; The Beverly Hillbillies enjoyed the good life thanks to Jeb’s fortuitous hunting expedition, and oil provided the backdrop for a slew of 80s-era soaps, like Dallas and Dynasty. It will also be used as the capitalist material for Fox’s forthcoming sudster, Lonestar.

And surely America’s native car culture would never have been had it not been petroleum, which translates from the Greek petros and oluem, or “rock fat.”

Though many people have highlighted the mortal and environmental dangers of big oil, and despite the fact that the business experiences sporadic demonization, like after Exxon Valdez, oil always seems to come out on top and companies like BP were given relative carte blanche. How could they not? We need oil – always have, and for the time being, always will. What are we going to use, wind power? As if!

This spill, this gusher in the Gulf, however, could help spell the end of big oil, or will at least wash away the last vestige of prestige the business once possessed.  More than any other spill in recent memory, the Deepwater Horizon explosion, which killed eleven men, broadcasts the environmental and mortal dangers of oil drilling. Never before have we seen been privy to a continuous stream of such widespread, seemingly endless damage.

This “gusher” effectively flips the script on a long-held oil love. The images of industrial progress and wealth are now ticking time bombs that must be defused, Yet, even as the president tries to flex White House muscle in the Gulf, and has put a moratorium on new offshore wells, oil projects continue to drill, baby, drill. Let’s hope the President and the public see the Gulf gusher as a warning about how gushers, once welcomed, can bring about the same fate that befell the dinosaurs.