Deadly spill

Print edition : June 04, 2010

A view of the oil that leaked from the Deepwater Horizon wellhead on May 6. The ruptured wellhead has been gushing about 795,000 litres of oil a day since the rig exploded off the Louisiana coast on April 20.-DANIEL BELTRA/RETUERS

ON April 20, a drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico exploded. The rig was called Deepwater Horizon, well named for British Petroleum's (B.P.) remarkable effort to draw oil from a deep-sea rig that has to go through 22,000 to 25,000 feet (6,600-7,500 metres) of water before it strikes the seabed.

Eleven oil workers are presumed dead although their bodies have not been found. They could not have survived the explosion. Some of them worked for B.P., others for Halliburton. The workers were trying to reinforce the drilling hole casing by pouring concrete slurry.

Halliburton was running that operation. It is a very delicate task. The United States government's Minerals Management Service (MMS) points out that 18 of the 39 blowouts in the Gulf of Mexico since 1996 occurred during this process. A blowout in the Timor Sea in 2005 has Halliburton in the Australian dock.

Two days later, on April 22, oil began to gush out into the Gulf. The spill grew massive. B.P. and the U.S. authorities began to think of ways to stop the leak from the ocean floor. The U.S. government's permits to drill in the Gulf typically do not allow for exploration beyond 18,000 feet (5,400 m) of water. Anything deeper than that is considered far too dangerous and very difficult to plug. The salvage operation has now devolved to the level of experimentation. A hundred-tonne concrete-and-steel container was lowered over the hole, but it did not succeed. Ice-like crystals settled in the inside of the box and made it buoyant. B.P. had to remove it on May 9. Doug Suttles, B.P's Chief Operating Officer, told the media: I wouldn't say it's failed yet what I would say is what we attempted to do last night didn't work. Other options are now on the table. But they are not promising.

Tragic timing

The oil slick has already created chaos. It has, of course, reached the U.S. coastline, where it has got entangled in the wetlands. The timing of the spill is very tragic. Several animals have spawned and are now ready to hatch and rear their young. These young alligators, pelicans and shrimp are more vulnerable to the oil slick than others. They cannot move away from it, particularly if they are in the larval phase. In addition, this is the time of bird migrations, and many of the rest areas have been affected such as Alabama's Bon Secour Refuge, the Grand Bay Refuge and the Mississippi River Delta Refuge. Woodpeckers and waterfowl are as affected as the nesting sea turtles and the swamp rabbits.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reported that 20 national wildlife refuges will face significant oil contamination. The Breton Island National Wildlife Reserve is already a disaster area. It is home to laughing gulls, brown pelicans and various types of terns (royal, Caspian and sandwich).

Fishing boats, which dot the Gulf, are now in harbour. Some have been rented out to help lay the buoys to corral the oil. It looks like there will be a long-term problem for the fishing communities. They will be badly battered by the devastation of the shrimp population due to the oil. Bankruptcy is on the horizon for many of the companies, most of which are family-owned boats. The Gulf Coast brings in 40 per cent of the total commercial fishing catch in the continental United States (minus Alaska and Hawaii). This is an industry that generates $2.4 billion annually. The cost to the fishing industry and to the tourism industry on the coastline will run to hundreds of millions of dollars, at the very least.

B.P. has promised to cover all damage, with a new ceiling of about $10 billion. There are others who will share the costs. Transocean owns the rig. Halliburton was pouring the slurry. B.P. shares the enterprise with Japan's Mitsui and Texas' Andarko. Already B.P. is paying $6 million a day on the clean-up. That is a fraction of the total cost. But B.P. is not poor. In the first three months of 2010, it made $5.6 billion. It has a vast exchequer.

B.P. continues to say that this rig disaster was an accident. Indeed, it was. A few right-wing commentators have said that the explosion was set by those who do not want to allow President Barack Obama to go ahead with his plan to extend drilling for oil off the U.S. coastline. There is no evidence for it.

Lax standards

But the explosion was not entirely accidental. It is an example of very lax safety standards. Off Brazil's coastline and in the North Sea of Norway, B.P's rigs have an acoustical regulator, a shut-off switch that closes off a pipe at the seafloor well-head when the manual switch fails. It is a normal failsafe device. B.P. uses it voluntarily in the North Sea of Britain, and other deep-sea drilling firms such as Shell and Total use this device on their rigs. Deepwater Horizon did not have an acoustic regulator. Herein lies a tale.

Robert F. Kennedy, Jr, President of the Waterkeeper Alliance, detailed the reasons why B.P's Gulf rig did not have an acoustic regulator. Kennedy writes that between January and March 2001, Vice-President Dick Cheney held secret meetings with oil industry executives to draft a new agenda for the energy industry and for government regulators. Cheney himself had been the head of Halliburton just before he returned to government. He knew the oil industry personally and professionally. Cheney pushed for the re-staffing of the personnel at the Minerals Management Service (MMS), the U.S. government's regulatory arm. The new MMS decided, in 2003, to find that acoustic systems are not recommended because they tend to be too costly. The switches cost $500,000, far less than a disaster. In 2005, the U.S. government decided that the switch was no longer necessary, not just no longer recommended, because the existing procedures are failsafe.

The George W. Bush administration's activities in the MMS are not unusual. It was normal. The Bush team went after all kinds of other regulatory agencies. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, for instance, was told that its Agricultural Research Service scientists had to seek permission before they could publish research relating to sensitive issues, such as agricultural practices with negative health and environmental consequences, e.g. global climate change; contamination of water by hazardous materials (nutrients, pesticides and pathogens); animal feeding operations or crop production practices that negatively impact soil, water or air quality.

A MEMBER OF the Wildlife Care and Rescue group monitors seabirds for oil-related injures in Biloxi, U.S. The timing of the spill is tragic for several animals have spawned, and young ones cannot move away from the slick, particularly if they are in the larval phase.-MARK RALSTON/AFP

In August 2002, the Bush administration replaced the entire board of the Centre for Disease Control's National Centres for Environmental Health with people who had spent their careers minimising the effects of environmental pollutants. The point was to favour industry over regulation. It certainly helped the bottom line of the vast corporations. It did not, however, protect the planet from disasters. One acoustic regulator might have made some difference.

B.P. was not an innocent bystander to these deliberations. As recently as five months before the disaster, B.P's David Rainey, a top official in the Gulf of Mexico operations, went before the U.S. Senate's hearing on offshore drilling. Obama had announced that he wanted to see more rigs off the U.S. coastline. The Senate wanted to hear about disasters. It called B.P. On November 19, 2009, Rainey told the Senate that drilling in the Outer Continental Shelf (OCS) was safe. I think we should remember that scientific knowledge is always moving forward. And actually using the best available and the most up-to-date scientific information is part of the current regulatory system. And it supports the OCS leasing, exploration, and development programme. And I think we need to remember that OCS has been going on for the last 50 years, and it has been going on in a way that is both safe and protective of the environment.

Two months earlier, Rainey's predecessor, Richard Morrison, had written a letter to the MMS saying, we are not supportive of the extensive and prescriptive regulations that the Obama team had proposed. This is because, as Morrison put it, we believe industry's current safety and environmental statistics demonstrate that the voluntary programmes of the American Petroleum Institute (codified in 2004) have been and continue to be very successful.

In 2009, the MMS had other ideas. It said, The MMS believes that if OCS oil and gas operations are better planned and organised, then the likelihood of injury to workers and the risk of environmental pollution will be further reduced.

The oil continues to seep into the water. There is no way to forecast the magnitude of the disaster. If you are turtle, it is Armageddon. If you are B.P., it is a business write-off.

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