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When British Petroleum (BP) applied for a permit to build the Deepwater Horizon oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico and begin drilling, it claimed to have the technology and know-how to handle any oil spill.

But in the face of an actual spill, BP is much less confident. “This scares everybody: the fact that we can’t make this well stop flowing, the fact that we haven’t succeeded so far,” BP CEO Doug Suttles said. “Many of the things we’re ­trying have been done on the surface before, but have never been tried at 5,000 ft.”

They’ve never been tried at 5,000 feet. Drilling for oil this deeply under the ocean is a relatively new enterprise for our species. Oil has been drilled offshore in shallow water for more than a century. But deepwater drilling is much more expensive than shallow-water drilling. For a long time drilling in deep water wasn’t tried, because it would have cost more to extract a barrel of oil than a barrel of oil was worth on world markets. It took the spikes in oil prices in recent years to make deepwater drilling profitable.

Politicians and oil executives assured us that offshore oil drilling was safe. Those tree huggers who worry about environmental disasters are nuts, they said. Yes, there have been oil rig disasters in the past, but (big wink) we know what we’re doing now. Trust us.

The laws of physics work differently nearly a mile underwater than they do on land, or shallow water, however. By now, it is obvious BP is still trying to invent a procedure that might stop the oil leak, maybe, if we’re lucky. No one appears to have been ready for the Deepwater Horizon disaster.

Really, this “trust us” business is getting old. How many times have we been told to “trust” some new thing, and then when the dangers surface we find out the “trusted” ones hadn’t told us the whole truth?

In the mid-20th century we humans went into overdrive digging asbestos out of the earth to use in countless structures and products. There is asbestos in navy ships, in shipyards such as Bath Iron Works, asbestos in our homes and schools, asbestos in old car parts, and asbestos in landfills. And eventually, years after medical science had determined asbestos exposure causes terrible disease, industry executives and politicians reluctantly agreed to shut down asbestos production, or at least most of it. And now the cost of asbestos abatement and mesothelioma treatment is an ongoing problem for individuals, taxpayers, and businesses.

And do we want to talk about Vioxx? Tanning beds? And now there are questions being asked about Bisphenol A (BPA), a chemical found in just about every plastic bottle you’ve ever touched. It may be dangerous, it may not. Opinions vary. Just note that the same political and business leaders who deny BPA could be dangerous are the same ones who like to yell “drill, baby, drill.”

 Barbara O’ Brien is the author of this guest post.   She represents maacenter.org, a leading web resource for asbestos exposure and cancer information.

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