Accumulating Insecurity and Manufacturing Risk along the Energy Frontier

Risking Capitalism

ISBN: 978-1-78635-236-1, eISBN: 978-1-78635-235-4

ISSN: 0161-7230

Publication date: 19 October 2016


Using the case of the Deepwater Horizon blowout in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, I argue that the catastrophe was less an example of a low probability-high catastrophe event than an instance of socially produced risks and insecurities associated with deepwater oil and gas production during the neoliberal period after 1980. The disaster exposes the deadly intersection of the aggressive enclosure of a new technologically risky resource frontier (the deepwater continental shelf) with what I call a frontier of neoliberalized risk, a lethal product of cut-throat corporate cost-cutting, the collapse of government oversight and regulatory authority and the deepening financialization and securitization of the oil market. These two local pockets of socially produced risk and wrecklessness have come to exceed the capabilities of what passes as risk management and energy security. In this sense, the Deepwater Horizon disaster was produced by a set of structural conditions, a sort of rogue capitalism, not unlike those which precipitated the financial meltdown of 2008. The forms of accumulation unleashed in the Gulf of Mexico over three decades rendered a high-risk enterprise yet more risky, all the while accumulating insecurities and radical uncertainties which made the likelihood of a Deepwater Horizon type disaster highly overdetermined.




I am grateful to the editor of this special issue and to reviewers for providing critical assessments of earlier drafts. I have benefitted in particular from the suggestions of Jason Moore. Earlier versions of this paper benefitted from seminars held at the University of Copenhagen, and Arizona State. Majia Nadsen’s new book (2016) which appeared recently offers a similar sort of analysis of the Deepwater blowout in terms of the relations between neoliberalism and what she calls the “carbon complex.”


Watts, M. (2016), "Accumulating Insecurity and Manufacturing Risk along the Energy Frontier", Risking Capitalism (Research in Political Economy, Vol. 31), Emerald Group Publishing Limited, pp. 197-236.

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