Milkshakes, metaphors and drainage

Milkshakes, Metaphors and Drainage
A jargon-busting technique

By David Poulson
Knight Center for Environmental Journalism
Michigan State University

Daniel Day-Lewis may owe his 2008 Best Actor Oscar to environmental reporting.

In There Will Be Blood, Day-Lewis plays Daniel Plainview, an oilman who famously uses a metaphor of  a straw and a milkshake to explain to the Rev. Eli Sunday the intricacies of natural resource extraction.

Here is a clip of Plainview forcefully explaining the concept of oil drainage. The metaphor begins at about 1:30 into the clip.

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That’s a good strategy, and not just for browbeating religious hypocrites. Metaphors, similes and analogies are great for explaining difficult concepts. The best simplify and entertain. They are short.

And good writers use them.

After interviewing a pollution expert, journalist Roger Witherspoon decided insect control was the way to explain a plan to render contaminated soil less harmful before the contamination reached groundwater.

“I came back with the notion of the way exterminators treat termites to explain the principles used to block hydrazine from migrating through soil and entering the water table,” Witherspoon said. “Exterminators put poison into the ground so termites never reach the house.”

Science isn’t the only subject ripe for such comparative techniques. Complex legislation, regulation and public policy are often tedious subjects appropriate for such treatment. I once described utility deregulation with an analogy comparing donut shops and  power plants.

Of course, accuracy comes before technique.

“The nuclear industry, for example, uses the term ‘plume’ to describe a leak of contaminated water from the power plant,” said Witherspoon, who writes for an engineering magazine. “To the average person, a plume is a thin stream. But nuke plants which have had leaks lose tens of millions of gallons into literal lakes underneath their plants.

“So whenever the industry or regulators use the term plume, I insist they describe its characteristics – size, depth, volume, gallons or cubic yards, etc. – and then say, ‘Couldn’t that fairly be described as a lake? If so, why are you calling it a plume?”

That brings us back to Daniel Plainview and his milkshake. For as powerfully as that explanation is delivered, it’s a lousy metaphor for explaining oil drainage.

Drainage is when your neighbor’s oil migrates to your property and is produced by your well because you have the only straw in a “milkshake” that you both share. The entire oilfield naturally flows to where it is drained.

But this is Plainview’s metaphor: “If you have a milkshake and I have a milkshake and I have a straw and my straw reaches across the room and starts to drink your milkshake. I drink your milkshake! I drink it up!”

What he is explaining is more like directional drilling, a technique developed long after the early 1900s when the movie is set. It’s when you drill from your property at an angle to reach oil under your neighbor’s property. That way you can stick a long straw from across the room into someone else’s milkshake and “drink it up.”

It’s a challenging concept to explain in a tight news hole. A few years ago Michigan developers wanted to expand directional drilling to reach more oil under the Great Lakes. In this case, the actual drilling would start on dry land near the lakes. Once it was deep enough, the drilling operation would rotate to reach under the lake bottom to get at the oil. The drill would never pass through the actual lake.

The proposal generated a huge controversy and lots of news coverage.

Superficial descriptions conjured in the mind of the public visions of off-shore rigs piercing the sweet water seas and punching through the lake bottoms to reach the oil. The practice was often perceived as a direct threat to water quality.

Geologists and oil experts explained at public hearings that little threat existed – there is no connection between the well and the water.  But public pressure resulted in a ban of the practice.

A good question: Would directional drilling to reach oil under the Great Lakes still be allowed if the proponents had hired the writers of There Will be Blood and asked Daniel Day-Lewis to testify about milkshakes and straws?

Maybe. But he’d have to leave out that slurping sound. Perhaps something like this guy:

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