Elizabeth Kolbert in The New Yorker:
The news out of the Gulf continues to range from grim to grimmer. Recently, it was revealed that the spill has created an undersea plume of oil ten miles long, and that some of the oil has already entered the loop current and is being carried toward Florida. Then the federal government doubled the area of the Gulf that had been closed to fishing. On Friday, the government increased that area again, to forty-eight thousand square miles. President Barack Obama has called the spill a “massive and potentially unprecedented environmental disaster,” a characterization that, if anything, probably understates the case.
In an immediate sense, the causes of the catastrophe are technical. Apparently, the Deepwater Horizon well was inadequately sealed, and natural gas built up inside it. When workers on the rig tried to activate the well’s blowout preventer, it failed. An attempt to activate the blowout preventer after the fact, using undersea robots, also proved unsuccessful. Another effort to cap the leak, by using what amounted to a hundred-ton steel funnel, flopped as well. Last week, BP finally succeeded in inserting a mile-long tube into the riser leading from the well. The company said that it was capturing a thousand barrels of oil a day, which is what it originally claimed that the well was leaking; nevertheless, crude continued to pour into the Gulf. (In a recent column in the Miami Herald, the author Carl Hiaasen joked that BP’s next move would be to try to seal the well with thousands of tons of instant oatmeal.)
But the real causes of the disaster go, as it were, much deeper.