woody_zimmerman_118_2007How Deep is the Ocean…? How High is the Sky…? As a boy, I often heard that song on the radio. [1] As far as I know, the questions were never answered. Most people appreciate that the ocean is big, but not many realize exactly how big. We wade in the ocean, sail on it, or fly over it. This gives us some sense of its size. But the ocean covers 3/4 of the earth’s surface. It is huge beyond comprehension, as we’ll try to show in the following paragraphs.

Understanding the ocean’s true size matters very much to all of us because a deep-water oil well is currently leaking 60,000 barrels of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico each day. The well has been gushing for over two months, and it’s creating a real mess. It’s a bad scene, of course, but the Mainstream Media have made no serious attempt to put things in perspective for a public that has watched endless clips of the well spewing oil at the bottom of the Gulf.

Part of that perspective involves some understanding of how much water is in the ocean. Let’s start first with just a cubic mile of ocean. We know that the sea is a mile deep at the site of the leaking well, so a square 1 mile by 1 mile, and a mile deep, is a cubic mile. How much water is that? It’s more than the average person can grasp. An ordinary water-pail holds 10 quarts, or 2-1/2 gallons; a conventional trash-can holds 20 gallons; and a bathtub, perhaps 40 gallons. A cubit foot = 7.5 gallons. But a cubic mile of ocean contains 5280 x 5280 x 5280 x 7.5 = 1,103,985,000,000 gallons. (That’s 1.104 trillion, if you’re rusty on big numbers.) It’s more water than most of us can comprehend, except by trying to visualize that cube: 1mile by 1 mile by 1 mile.

I give this calculation as counterpoint to the figure of 60,000 barrels of leaked oil, flowing into the gulf each day. The “top hat” collection-device has captured some of that, but let’s assume that it has been leaking that much for the whole 60 days. How much oil would that be? The oil leaked during a single day is 60,000 barrels x 42 gallons/barrel = 2,520,000 gallons. Thus, the total leakage for 60 days would be 151,200,000 gallons (i.e., 151.2 million). That’s a lot of oil, and I wouldn’t try to argue otherwise. But within a cubic mile of seawater it’s just a little more than 136 parts per million.

Of course, the Gulf of Mexico is far more than a cubic mile – in fact, it contains some 597,834 cubic miles, or 660 quadrillion (660,000,000,000,000,000) gallons of water. Across the entire Gulf of Mexico, the 151 million gallons of leaked oil would represent only 229 parts per trillion – or 0.000229 parts per million, contrasted with the 136 parts per million calculated above for a cubic mile.

The oil-leak is bad, but it’s not the end of the world because oil tends to rise to the surface, where it can be swept up by existing equipment. This is not the first time something like this has happened, so the international oil industry was fully prepared with ships and sweeping devices. Oil recovery could have commenced immediately, lessening the impact of the leak considerably. Yet this was not done. Why not?

Some commentators say that the delays in recovering the spilled oil were due to “incompetence” in the Obama government – i.e., a chaotic lack of management and coordination. Perhaps so, but I’m not sure I quite believe government is that incompetent. I have worked with government people. Certainly there is the occasional dud, but I also know that most agencies are staffed with many experienced, knowledgeable professionals who would be able to respond intelligently to an emergency like the oil spill. Such people would summon the needed resources quickly. Whatever you may have read in the papers or heard on TV, the president does not have to give orders, personally, to get things going on a problem like this.

There is a darker possibility, however. Could Mr. Obama have ordered that the oil near the well should not be swept up in a timely way? If so, why would he do that? Short answer: Because he has people who can make the same calculations I have made here about the relatively minimal impact of the oil.

Mr. Obama’s number-crunchers would have realized that if work commenced immediately on sweeping up the oil near to the leak, the visible impact of the spill would be small to nonexistent. The rupture is 50 miles offshore. The immensity of the Gulf of Mexico and the ceaseless churning action of the ocean would dilute any oil missed by the concentrated sweeping effort, leaving little to come ashore as messy tar-balls. That would have meant no oil-covered birds, no befouled wetlands, no ruined shrimp beds, no great TV clips, and no club for beating the BP CEO over the head. In short, a crisis would have been needlessly wasted (c.f., Rahm Emanuel).

Far better to let the oil flow, block the use of foreign ships for sweeping it up, conduct Congressional “show trials,” and hammer BP into setting up a $20 billion slush-fund. In other words, let the spill get bad enough for the oil to reach land, where comely, windbreaker-clad reporters can breathlessly describe the ugly results of offshore drilling. With any luck, the public will be so cranked up by the oily birds and tarry beaches that they will support a stoppage of all ocean drilling. Cap & Trade legislation, which has been stalled for months, might be passed, too. Nothing like a good crisis to push radical stuff through when the public is all primed. (Did I mention that I belong to the Grassy Knoll Conspiracy Society?)

I admit that this is pretty far out there on the conspiracy-fringe. It sounds far less loony to agree that the absurd delays and arguments about permits and jurisdiction and the Jones Act, etc., are the natural results of appointing political hacks to cabinet-secretariats. Some people Mr. Obama has put in those offices clearly don’t know much about their departments’ capabilities and limitations. Worse yet, it looks like they don’t even know that they don’t know. They are fine with photo-ops and press-conferences, but real emergencies, where resources have to be marshaled and applied, are something else entirely. This is the non-conspiratorial explanation for the Obama administration’s turgid response to the oil leak. Hopefully, it is the correct explanation – although I’m not sure if that level of incompetence is really encouraging.

Ronald Reagan liked to say: “Trust, but verify.” These days, that maxim must apply to our own government as much as to any foreign adversary. The Obama administration’s confused, tardy and almost criminally incompetent response to the Deepwater Horizon explosion and oil-leak deserves a thorough congressional investigation – far beyond what it can ever receive from the present Congress. But if the political worm turns in the fall – as we may fervently pray that it will do – there must be hearings to determine why timely actions were not taken to stop the spread of the oil before it reached land.

No one faults the Obama administration for not knowing how to stop an undersea leak. But the failure to call in all possible resources, with all deliberate speed, requires an explanation. Was it really necessary for the oil to reach land from a leaking well 50 miles off-shore? This has all the earmarks of an “enhanced” crisis. If it is found to be so, the disclosure will destroy this administration. Proof that the leaked oil was deliberately not cleaned up for political reasons could actually lead to Mr. Obama’s impeachment.

Where is the inquisitive, adversarial media that uncovered Watergate? We need answers. The public will not countenance purposely manufactured ecological damage.


[1] Enjoy Irving Berlin’s classic song (1932), performed by Seth “Fingers” Flynn Barkan. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uEcR-vyWATU