As this giant oil spill overruns the National Wildlife Refuges in the Louisiana and Mississippi marshes and takes aim at Florida's white Spring Break beaches, the whole situation has been messing with my head, big-time. I've been trying to wrap my mind around this spill, as it is wrapping itself around us.
I. EVOLUTION OF A SPILL
Tuesday night, April 20, the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig blew up, blasting eleven workers to oblivion. On Thursday the burning rig sank and the search for the missing humans was called off. At this point a one-by-five-mile slick was visible on the water, and attention turned to a potential environmental nightmare. Was there a leak flowing down there at the wellhead or was this just the diesel fuel that was onboard the rig when it sank? On Friday BP told the feds that they had sent a remote control sub to look at the wrecked riser and found no leaks. The feds took the good news to the people of America: "It does not appear that oil is emanating from the hole." [Leslie Kaufman, "Search Ends for Missing Oil Rig Workers," NYT, April 22, 2010.]
The next morning it was obvious the slick had grown an enormous amount. Hmmm. That day reports came out that two leaks had been discovered with those remote subs. This is when we started hearing from BP about the alleged 1000-barrels-per-day. The spokesperson for the fed response, Admiral Mary Landry, tried to reassure the public. Noting that the oil was still about 40 miles off-shore, she said "That gives us a lot of time to try to mitigate in response to the spill." [Campbell Robertson, "Oil Leaking Underwater From Well in Rig Blast," NYT, April 24.] A lot of time and a lot of options, that was Saturday April 24. In reality, it was already too late, and good options were nil.
The visible slick didn't cooperate with the 1,000-barrels-per-day happy talk from BP, and grew to the size of Rhode Island. Government officials had to acknowledge that the leak was much larger than BP had said. The official line became an estimated 5,000-barrels-per-day, while industry experts and academics started making noise about a much stronger flow even than that, maybe 25,000 barrels, or roughly one million gallons per day (one barrel = 42 gallons), based on simple observations of the slick and its rate of growth [Ian Talley, "Experts: Oil May be Leaking at Rate of 25,000 Barrels a Day in Gulf," Wall Street Journal, April 30]. To put that in perspective, the previous worst spill in history, Exxon Valdez, dumped about 10 - 40 million gallons (depending on who you ask) total into Prince William Sound and caused an absolute holocaust of birds and marine life. Twenty-one years later the Sound is still contaminated. Commercial fishing has not recovered and isn't expected to. This one seems likely to surpass the Exxon spill in terms of volume and destruction, and quite possibly has already.
II. SQUIRMING AWAY
At some point in there, the White House decided they were going to brand this disaster The BP Spill, and administration talkers started to repeat the phrase at every opportunity. ...The BP Spill...The BP Spill... Since they clearly doth protest too much, it's interesting to look at who they might be trying to protect, other than the obvious (themselves). Turns out that Uncle Halliburton was just finishing cementing the well when the blowout occurred, and bad cementing jobs have caused blowouts in the past. In fact a Halliburton cementing job was implicated in a similar well blowout in Australian waters just last year. [Russel Gold and Ben Casselman, "Drilling Process Attracts Scrutiny in Rig Explosion, WSJ, April 30, 2010.] By insisting on labeling this The BP Spill, the administration may be trying to deflect attention from Halliburton, Anadarko (which has an ownership stake in the operation), other oil companies currently engaged in similarly risky offshore drilling, and the federal government's own reckless malfeasance. This really isn't the BP Spill. It belongs to every one of us. However, the shameful track record of British Petroleum (see sidebar) sure makes it fun and easy to blame that particular company.
As the slick grew from Rhode Island-sized to Puero Rico-sized overnight, BP claimed it was trying to activate the blowout preventer somehow using remote control subs, but was having no luck. Having no contingency plan in place for such a catastrophic blowout, they seemed to be working on a scattershot multi-strategy of building huge makeshift steel boxes to place over the leaks to capture the oil and bring it to the surface (why weren't these boxes already constructed and ready to deploy if they are the last line of defense in such a blowout?), drilling a parallel well through about 15,000 feet of rock to try to plug the gusher with cement, or trying to install a miracle shut-off valve on the gushing pipe. Maybe one of these Moonraker-sounding schemes would work, but the engineers didn't seem too confident. Realistically they're looking at a few weeks to a few months to cap this thing. In that time the oil would push well into the marshes and bayous of the South, of course, but could even reach around Florida to muck the beaches all along the East Coast. Imagine this Gulf blowout riding the Gulf Stream right onto the Jersey Shore or sending a message to Washington with dead oily birds at the mouth of the Potomac. So much for out of sight, out of mind.
How is it possible that a single blown-out well in the Gulf could spoil the waters along most of the nation's shorelines, from Texas to Cape Cod? Talk about not worth it. Pretty amazing really.
There are xxx oil platforms in the Gulf of Mexico. All together, they produce about a million and a half barrels of oil each day [EIA: Gulf of Mexico Federal Offshore Production]. That's way less than 10 percent of this nation's daily oil consumption. It's a significant amount, but does the world need this oil from the Gulf of Mexico? I mean, we use it, or somebody out there uses it anyway, but do we need it. Mmmm, not really. Let's just say it. You've got to consider how much petroleum is burned up in the US with frivolous driving, really short drives that could easily be walked, 16-year-olds' aimless mall cruising and things like that -- more than is produced from the Gulf of Mexico. In fact with the Great Recession of the past few years Americans have reduced their total oil consumption by an amount that is about equal to what is produced from the Gulf, and we barely notice the difference. That's what makes this whole thing so pathetic. There are billions of dollars to be made in the Gulf, if you're an oil company. But destroying the ocean and shoreline habitats for a million or two million barrels a day is a terrible bargain for the rest of us. And of course, an even worse bargain for the birds and what-not. Pathetically, it's a bargain we'll make again and again, spill or no spill.
You know, when the aliens find us, the first thing they're going to do is shake their giant alien heads and laugh with pity. Then they're going to exterminate us without fanfare, because aliens with giant heads know what is best for the universe.
On Sunday May 2 Lamar McKay, head of BP America, went on the ABC morning talk show and tried to blame the whole thing on a single "failed piece of equipment" -- not the piece between his ears but the blowout preventer, manufactured by Cameron, which for some reason didn't stop the flow as designed. [Leslie Kaufman and Joseph Berger, "Oil Options Weighed as Obama Travels to Gulf," NYT, May 2, 2010.] That won't fly, bro. Equipment is known to fail from time to time, especially under five thousand feet of ocean. That's why we take precautions should such a failure occur, right? Or so one might think. Oil companies operating offshore Norway and Brazil, for example, are required by those governments to install acoustic switches which are designed to activate the blowout preventer with sonar signals from a lifeboat, should the two other lines of communication with the device fail [Russel Gold, Ben Casselman and Guy Chazan, "Leaking Oil Well Lacked Safeguard Device," WSJ, April 28, 2010]. But BP and other companies argued that this measure was unnecessarily expensive, overkill. And, since oil companies write their own regulations in Washington, no such system was used on the Deepwater Horizon, or on other platforms in the Gulf.
Who's to say if an acoustic switch would have prevented this disaster. We'll never know. But we're sure going to know all about what happens when the blowout preventer doesn't activate, and there's no backup plan whatsoever.
In the past 14 years, there have been at least 39 blowout events on rigs in the Gulf of Mexico. [Russel Gold and Ben Casselman, "Drilling Process Attracts Scrutiny in Rig Explosion, WSJ, April 30, 2010. The authors note that the Minerals Management Service had conducted investigations into 39 such events in the past 14 years, but did not mention if 39 was the total number of blowouts which occurred in that time. I'd guess not.]
THE BP BUSINESS MODEL
You've heard of the phrase "an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure." Well, BP doesn't subscribe to that notion. Instead, they seem to subscribe to this one: Who gives a $#!* about prevention?! What's a few hundred million in fines and out-of-court settlements when you bank like 20 billion of profits in a year? Not much, that's what. BP just shrugs off these relatively tiny hits as part of their cost of doing business.
A TROUBLED FIVE YEARS:
MARCH 2005 A huge explosion at BP's Texas City Refinery kills 15 and injures 170. After a two-year investigation the incident is blamed on "organizational and safety deficiencies at all levels of the BP corporation."
MARCH 2005 BP pays out over $100 million in a settlement related to air quality violations from its Carson, California refining operation.
JULY 2005 BP's Thunder Horse platform in the Gulf of Mexico tips sideways due to a silly mistake in construction which allowed water to flow freely among the ballast tanks.
Not supposed to look like that?
MARCH 2006 ~200,000 gallons of crude spill from a corroded BP pipeline in Alaska. The leak flows onto the tundra for five days before a worker happens to notice the smell while driving by.
AUGUST 2006 After another leak from a Prudhoe Bay pipeline, BP discovers severe corrosion in miles of pipe and is ordered to shut down most of its operation there for emergency maintenance and pipe replacement. The shutdown causes serious disruption to the already stressed oil markets.
JANUARY 2007 An independent report identifies "systemic process safety issues" throughout BP refineries in the United States.
APRIL 2007 Ten BP employees are awarded $100 million in a suit against the company, after the workers were injured by toxic gases at the Texas City refinery.
OCTOBER 2007 The Minerals Management Service fines BP $41,000 for violations related to a near-blowout on another Gulf rig in 2002 -- a "loss of well control event."
FEBRUARY 2009 BP agrees in a settlement to spend more than $179 million to resolve issues related to violations of the Clean Air Act at their Texas City refinery.
SEPTEMBER 2009 BP settles for 1.7 million in a suit brought by the State of Alaska for failing to maintain containment ponds of minimum size.
OCTOBER 2009 BP is fined $87 million by OSHA for failing to abide by settlement agreements relating to the 2005 Texas refinery explosion, and for 439 new willful safety violations at the plant since the explosion. The fine is the largest fine ever levied by OSHA. Their previous largest fine, $21 million, also belonged to BP. BP squeezes $87 million out of its nose pores in the morning.
MARCH 2010 OSHA proposes $3 million in fines for safety violations at BP's Toledo refinery.
APRIL 2010 The Deepwater Horizon rig blows up and sinks 50 miles off the coast of Louisiana, killing eleven and opening a gusher of crude on the ocean floor. The resulting massive oil slick ... TO BE CONTINUED ...
SEE THE ENERGY & TRANSPORT HUB FOR SPILL UPDATES AND ARCHIVED ARTICLES.