THE horrific on-going disaster caused by oil spewing out from British Petroleum’s (BP) well in the Gulf of Mexico is going from bad to worse, showing little signs of abating. It is already by far the biggest oil spill in the US and rapidly becoming one of the worst man-made environmental disasters in the US if not the world. The oil slick is spreading by the day and threatening new areas. The federal government has banned fishing in more than 37 per cent of the US part of the Gulf of Mexico, double the area under a fishing ban imposed mid-May.
BP is responding in a manner typical of large multinational corporations (MNCs), especially oil companies, trying to minimise the damage while spending as little money as possible, evading legal liability, and treating the whole episode as primarily a public relations issue. BP is once again showing that Big Oil is the dirtiest of businesses, in more ways than one.
The US administration under President Barack Obama is facing its toughest test yet. Its credibility has come under severe pressure, with the public taking a dim view of the slow and inadequate response of the federal government and what appears to be collusion with BP. Obama is discovering that oratory and rhetoric are assets in a campaign but can boomerang in the face of poor results on the ground. The poor response of the US government under then President George W Bush to Hurricane Katrina came to typify the incompetence, cronyism and lack of caring of the Bush administration. Will the BP oil spill, again affecting the state of Louisiana, prove to be President Obama’s Katrina?
Let us look at what has happened to date.
Normally the term “oil spill” suggests an oil tanker breaking-up or developing a leak. The BP disaster is quite different and should really be called an oil gusher.
On April 20th, an explosion on BP’s “Deepwater Horizon” off-shore oil rig in the US exclusive economic zone in the Gulf of Mexico about 66 km off Louisiana left 17 workers injured and 11 missing, presumed dead. The explosion led to a rupture in the well about 5000 feet below sea level from where oil and gas have been gushing out ever since.
The quantity of oil that has spewed out is still being debated, largely because BP itself has made widely varying statements even while it has prevented independent scientific investigations to estimate the quantum of leakage claiming that this was “not relevant to the response” and that such attempts “might distract from efforts to stem the flow”! Amazingly, the Obama government and even its different scientific agencies such as the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) have not insisted on conducting their own assessment, nor have ensured full access to data. Scientists, media personnel and others have been prevented from conducting studies in the spill region not only by BP personnel but also by the US Coast Guard which stated they were “acting under instructions of BP”, lauded BP’s efforts and even conducted joint press briefings, all till June 1 when the Administration decided this cozy relationship was not going down well among the public and announced a track-change putting the onus more sharply on BP.
BP initially estimated that the well was gushing 1000 barrels (160,000 litres) of oil a day. NOAA reached an estimate about 5 times higher at 5000 barrels per day based on early satellite imagery. Under intense media, public and Congressional pressure, a US government team under the US Geological Survey conducted surveys and tentatively estimated a much higher leak rate of 800,000 to 1.8 million gallons (3 to 6.8 million litres) per day. The official Technical Group later put the estimate at a lower 500,000 – 800,000 gallons per day but this was based on merely a 7 minute low-quality undersea video provided by BP showing the oil gushing out, a video feed now being transmitted live by order of Congress. Even at these more conservative figures, 25 to 40 million gallons of oil would have spilled out into the Gulf to date. The previously largest US oil spill, from the Exxon-Valdez tanker in Alaska in 1989, was of 11 million gallons (itself dwarfed by the largest ever spill from a Mexican off-shore rig in 1979 also in the Gulf releasing 140 million gallons of oil).
Worse than the sheer volume of oil, the leak is not on the surface but deep under the sea. Scientists have recently found that large plumes or clouds of oil have formed deep under the sea and are moving quite far. As we go to press, NOAA has reluctantly confirmed that such plumes indeed exist (having earlier joined BP in denying any such phenomena) but claimed they have low concentrations of oil. Several plumes, some as large as 16 km by 4.8 km and 100 metres thick, have been noted, some even 130 km away from the well and sometimes occurring at different depths on top of each other. These plumes comprising oil droplets may cause even more damage to marine life than surface oil because far more species live deeper down and also because oxygen supply would be stifled, one research team estimating it at 30 per cent less than normal. Marine biologists are critical of BP, and of US administration agencies, for not having envisaged and tracked these plumes earlier since their formation after undersea blowouts has been predicted in the scientific literature for years. In the BP oil gusher, chances are that chemical dispersants used to thin out the oil for subsequent clean-up may have actually helped the plumes form, another sign that BP has been fumbling its way along the disaster with no prior preparedness or plan.
TACKLING THE SPILL
There are two broad levels at which the oil spill requires to be tackled. First, to contain the effects of the spill on the surface. Second, to try and stop the leak itself.
Containment measures largely comprise spreading booms or inflatable tubing that float on the surface of the water and physically block the spread of the oil or, in some types of booms, soak it up. Oil will usually stay on top of the water for some time till it gets broken down by the wind, waves and ocean currents., and this oil can be either sucked or skimmed off the top by special ships. So far more than 2 million feet of containment boom and another 2 million feet of absorbent booms have been laid out, and more than 15 million gallons of oil-bearing sea water have been removed.
Chemical dispersants are also used to break down the oil enabling its biodegradation. About 750,000 gallons of dispersant have been used on the surface and another 300,000 gallons at varying depths. However, this procedure is not without risks especially to marine life and, as we have seen in the Gulf, may even have contributed to formation of plumes below the surface. To the best of one’s knowledge, biological agents have not so far been used in the BP disaster. More than 22,000 personnel have been deployed in these operations. Sand banks have also been prepared along certain stretches of coast to prevent ingress of the slick inland or into coastal wetlands and marshes.
Yet for all that local residents are clearly unhappy with the progress. More than 40 per cent of the incomes of people in coastal belts of Louisiana and neighbouring states come from tourism and fishing, both of which have been badly affected, especially the shrimp catch in shallow coastal waters and marshlands. This region contains 40 per cent of US coastal wetlands. Scientists are worried that these fragile coastal belts and wetlands are likely to suffer considerable damage that cannot yet be determined. Water samples all along the Louisiana coast have shown oil and, in some places, the booms near the shore seem to be keeping the oil in by blocking tidal flows as much as they are keeping oil out!
At the time of the rig explosion, the plan had been to plug the well with a cemented cap for later production. The same basic idea was pursued after the well burst but with several variants all of which essentially failed to plug the leak. First a “top hat” procedure — where a massive concrete dome was lowered over the blow-out preventer (BOP) that had failed to engage as it should have after the explosion — was tried but did not succeed. Then a special mud was forced down at high pressure, to be followed by cement once it had kept the oil down and settled, but the procedure could not overcome the upward pressure of the oil and gas. Then a so-called “junk fill” was tried replacing the mud with assorted materials. Lastly the well’s riser pipe was cut and a cap forced on to it with a pipe leading up to the surface where the recovered oil is being stored, with BP now proposing to flare it. One ship on the surface is currently handling the oil being pumped up and another one is expected to join soon to help augment processing capacity.
However, because the cut in the pipe is rough and the cap fits poorly, only a portion of the oil gushing out is being collected in this manner. BP started with the claim that it was tapping off around 10,000 barrels or 260,000 gallons per day then upped the claim to about 300,000-600,000 gallons per day which would mean that around half the total oil gushing out from the well is still leaking out into the Gulf.
BP and federal government officials have repeatedly said that all these are only intermediate palliative measures, and that the only real solution to the problem is to drill a relief well besides the ruptured one so that the oil rises up the new well rather than the old one. This is perhaps correct, but the very fact raises a host of questions about how much BP and the US government knew about the blow-out, damage likely to be caused and steps that could have been taken to prevent it or to tackle the problem once it had arisen.
UNSAFE WITH OFFICIAL SANCTION
It has been clear from the very beginning that BP was not only complacent and ill-prepared for the disaster, but had also knowingly cut corners, circumvented safety measures and ignored safety procedures in active connivance with the governmental regulator, the Minerals Management Service (MMS).
The most glaring avoidance of safety precautions was the decision by BP not to install an automatic shut-off valve which should have shut down the flow of oil from the well into the riser pipe immediately after the explosion on the rig. Such cut-off valves are mandatory and standard equipment on European off-shore drilling rigs as British Petroleum well knew. Yet the MMS went along, and also gave exemption to BP from conducting an experimental site analysis because the chances of an oil spill were “minimal or non-existent.”
Since the explosion, BP executives have been repeatedly pointing to the difficulties of operations at depths of around 5000 feet below the sea even though these were well known and should have been anticipated. Yet the fumbling and ad hocism of BP measures since the disaster as described earlier have shown that it had no emergency plans and no equipment on stand-by to deal with a problem if it happened, like a high-rise building with no fire escape and no fire extinguishers. BP chairman Tony Hayward coolly admitted that “what is undoubtedly true is that we did not have the tools you would want in your tool kit” to deal with this kind of well blow-out even though these are familiar and not uncommon in the oil industry.
Incredibly, the MMS has approved 27 new offshore drilling operations since the April 20 explosion, exempting all but one of them from environmental review. To add insult to injury, two of the new operations approved were submitted by BP, which made the same assertions on drilling safety as it had for Deepwater Horizon despite all that had happened since!
President Obama has belatedly said that he would end the “scandalously close relationship” between regulators and the companies they oversee. The MMS chief Elizabeth Birnbaum has since resigned, but people are wondering why Obama had not noticed the deep conflict of interest built into the very structure and role of MMS before. MMS is responsible for leasing off-shore drilling rights, permitting and overseeing operations and collecting royalties, all of which make it develop vested interests in the commencement, continuation and profitability of off-shore drilling rather than a prime responsibility for workers’ safety and environmental protection.
It has also not gone unnoticed that Obama, in March this year, had proposed to allow expanded drilling for oil in the Gulf, the Atlantic and the Arctic, the very things he had criticised his rival Republican candidate John McCain for during the presidential campaign. Obama now wants to appear tougher against BP and other oil giants, and is making a big noise about making BP pay every penny required, and “kicking a**”! But will the bluster actually translate into action?
The Obama administration is said to be working on a new law to raise the limit on liability claims from $10 billion to $75 billion but with the US government having already spent an estimated $20 billion, this may still be far below the actually costs. More importantly, will Obama show the guts to take on Big Oil, and can he muster the legislative support required? Many Senators and Representatives are already towing BP’s line, trying to minimize the damage and shifting blame. Federal agencies such as NOAA, MMS and the Coast guard seem to be acting in collusion with BP although of late at least putting on an appearance of trying to distance themselves. Evidence suggests that Obama is unable or unwilling to exert real pressure on BP, not able even to secure accurate data about the spill whose quantum will of course be critical in determining the extent of damages BP is likely to pay out. Big Oil clearly has longer arms than the law in the US.