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Gulf oil spill runs a pipeline to our collective unconscious

On Day 22 of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, shortly after the loop current threatened to whisk the goop around Florida and spread it up the coast to North Carolina, a woman I was having lunch with said something interesting.

"This is what I don't understand," she admitted. "If BP doesn't know how to cut off the well, why are they drilling on the bottom of the ocean in the first place?"

"Don't be ridiculous," another man at the table replied. "It's a mile deep. It's not just a question of shutting off a tap."

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I thought she had a point - one of many on offer from the ravishing spectacle of what is already the worst oil spill in North American history.

Until efforts to "top kill" the leak began to appear to be successful late this week (a tentative clause for a still very tentative solution), the daily stimulation the disaster offered beat anything anywhere, on stage or screen. It continues to be an almost welcome smack to the brain.

There's ground zero itself, the Spillcam footage of the leaking well, provided by unmanned robot cameras a mile below the surface of the now empurpled waters of the gulf. But there's been only one money shot - thousands of gallons of yellow-brown oil and gas, spewing in a boiling cumulonimbus cloud from the ragged pipe.

The picture's boring, yet strangely hypnotic; calm, but terrifying; unchanging, but unstoppably so. A Washington Post writer, Hank Stuever, was moved to review it as a TV show ("the dread of a horror films with the monotony of Andy Warhol's eight-hour silent movie about the Empire State Building").

The more you've watched the spume, the more compelling it becomes. I began to see it as live footage of a rupture in the world's unconscious - our ever-underwater collective fears of what we're doing to the Earth, boiling away regardless of how much we pretend there's nothing to worry about. BP seemed to understand the picture's primal and damaging power, and tried to shut the video feed down. But the U.S. Congress insisted last Tuesday that it keep cameras rolling.

If you weary of Spillcam, however, you can turn your attention to Who Can Top This Pain?, the non-stop debate over how much oil and gas, exactly, has spilled into the youngest ocean on the planet.

BP's original, sunny estimate evaporated as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration jumped the number fivefold to 5,000 barrels a day (about 210,000 gallons in a 24-hour period, or as many gallons of gas as the state of Texas uses in 12 minutes). The U.S. Geological Survey increased it again this week to 19,000 barrels, or nearly 800,000 gallons a day.

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If your garden hose at full bore spilled 10 gallons a minute, and you left it running all day, you'd need 55 hoses to equal one day's spill. Even at the more conservative rate, 19 million gallons have emptied into the gulf, surpassing the Exxon Valdez disaster (11 million).

You can fondle these numbers for hours on end. A Florida State University oceanographer ventured a minimum flow of 1.1 million gallons a day, while a professor at Purdue guessed three million. BP's own worst-case scenario, presented to Congress in private, is 2.5 million gallons a day. That would be an acking 93 million gallons in total.

By that point, of course, a lot of people, eyeing Spillcam, were having the same private, irrational thought: What if it never stops? BP estimates the wellhead's reserve is 50 million barrels. At the most conservative rate of spew, doing nothing, it would run dry in two and a quarter years. Is that an option?

The blame game has been just as entertaining, and is still in full flow.

The U.S. government, led by Barack Obama, blames BP (which appears to have cut corners to save time and costs). BP blames Transocean, the rig operator, for mishandling the rig's blow-out preventer. Transocean runs nearly half the world's deepwater drilling platforms; the deepest offshore well ever punctured is also in the gulf, at 35,000 feet, nearly five miles down, which is possibly why Transocean's corporate motto is, "We're never out of our depth." (I'm not making this up.)

Transocean blames the well's cementing team, which in turn implicates Halliburton, the oil-services giant once run and still closely tied to Dick Cheney, former vice-president to George W. Bush. This week, Karl Rove, Mr. Bush's personal Rottweiler, brought the blame full circle and dubbed the spill "Obama's Katrina" in a Wall Street Journal column.

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If all that weren't enough to satisfy one's disaster lust, there's been the dispersant debate (BP has been spraying solvents over and under the gulf to break up the slick, against the wishes of both local fishermen and the federal Environmental Protection Agency, who aren't sure what the long-term effects will be); Kevin Costner's $24-million personal centrifuges, on loan to the cause, alongside director James Cameron's personal submersibles, also volunteered; and gripping pictures of 65 (and counting) miles of "oiled" Gulf coastline where a third of the country's seafood is fished, forcing BP's Twitter site to offer claims forms in both Spanish and Vietnamese.

Failing all that, the U.S. Minerals Management Service has been good for laughs. The MMS is the conflicted agency that collects $13-billion in offshore licence fees from an industry it is supposed to police. (Its director resigned this week.) Notoriously ineffective and corrupt, MMS officials during the Bush administration were found guilty of taking bribes from, not to mention snorting coke and having sex with, drilling-industry executives.

Drill, baby, drill takes on new depths.The temptation is to pass it all off as American. We ought to remember the oil sands in our own backyard. Their toxic tailing ponds already cover more than 50 square kilometres. They're a stone's throw from the Athabasca River, one of the continent's most delicate watersheds. Let's hope they don't spring a leak.

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