Nicole Colson reports on the backdrop to the oil spill spreading toward the Gulf coast.
WHEN SETTING a giant oil spill on fire is the least-worst option in terms of limiting damage to the environment, you know you’re in trouble.
But that appeared to be the case this week as authorities debated how to contain an oil spill caused by the failure in April of a deepwater oil rig–owned by the oil giant BP and operated by Transocean Ltd.–about 50 miles off the coast of the U.S. in the Gulf of Mexico.
The conservative estimate is that some 5,000 barrels–or 210,000 gallons–of oil are spilling into the Gulf each day. According to the Coast Guard, an estimated 1.6 million gallons have been released so far–at this rate, the spill could eventually overtake the 11 million gallons dumped by the Exxon Valdez off the coast of Alaska in 1989.
But other estimates suggest the spill is already approaching that benchmark. On May 2, the Times of London reported that Professor Ian MacDonald, an ocean specialist at Florida State University, said satellite data suggested the leak has already spread 9 million gallons of heavy crude oil across the Gulf. As the Times noted:
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said deteriorating conditions on the sea bed may result in an even greater flow of 50,000 barrels a day, sufficient to produce one of America’s worst ecological disasters. Experts and officials said their greatest fear was that a disintegration of pipes close to the rig could produce an “unchecked gusher” that would ravage America’s southern coastline.
Even if it doesn’t reach the size of the Exxon Valdez spill, environmental activists are warning that the spill in the Gulf could be much more damaging to the environment in the long term. As the Washington Post reported:
In the Gulf, the oil is floating into wetlands that could hold on to its toxins for years. And, scientists said, the spill’s damage could be magnified by its awful timing. Among the animals that live along the Gulf Coast, this is the time for hatching and rearing: Species as diverse as pelicans, shrimp and alligators are all reproducing, or preparing to. That could bring sensitive young animals in contact with toxic oil or cause their parents to plunge into oily waters looking for food.
Over the weekend, the spill reached the U.S. shore. Florida declared a state of emergency along the panhandle, and Louisiana began mobilizing National Guard troops to help with clean-up efforts.
Jane Lubchenco, head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, told the Washington Post that 40 percent of the coastal wetlands in the continental United States are in Louisiana. “Ninety-seven percent of commercial fish and shellfish in the Gulf depend on estuaries and wetlands during their life cycle,” she said.
As the Post noted, the marshes are one of the most important natural barriers to Louisiana’s coastline. If they die due to being choked with oil, the consequences could be severe, particularly during hurricane season.
THE OIL has been gushing since April 22. On April 20, a drilling rig called the Deepwater Horizon blew up and later sank. Eleven oil workers are still missing and presumed dead–a fact that has received little attention from the media, despite this being the deadliest disaster (even before the spill) in the Gulf in some 25 years.
Two days after the explosion, the first signs of the spill, coming from the well a mile beneath the surface of the water, appeared.
It may take months before the flow of oil is stopped. According to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, there is no way to know when the pipeline would be plugged. “You’re looking at potentially 90 days before you ultimately get to what is the ultimate solution,” said Salazar, appearing on Meet the Press on May 2. By then, “a lot of oil could spread.”
BP is apparently attempting to drill a “relief well” to divert the flow of the still-gushing original well–but that will take up to three months to complete. BP is also reportedly attempting to lower a dome to the sea floor to surround the well-head–but that could take four weeks to install, and using a dome to cap a leaking well has never been attempted at such a depth.
In the meantime, engineers set parts of the growing oil slick on fire last week in an attempt to minimize its effects before it reached the Louisiana coast.
“When you’ve got a spill like this, there are three things you can do,” Edward Overton, a professor of environmental sciences at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, told ABC News. “You can burn it, scoop it up out of the water, or use chemical dispersants to break it up. This oil is not particularly good with any of those three.”
For their part, BP officials claim they are “throwing every resource that we’ve got” into trying to plug the well, in the words of Chairman Lamar McKay.
But while McKay and other BP officials claim the spill is the result of mechanical failure, there are growing questions over how much the company knew about previous problems with blowout preventers–the underwater valves that are supposed to shut off the flow of a well in the event of a blowout. According to the Times of London, “BP technicians have been unable to activate [the valves] even though they appear to be undamaged by the blast.”
As recently as September, BP was one of several oil companies making their case to the U.S. Minerals Management Service (MMS) that stricter regulations were not needed, because, the Wall Street Journal reported, the companies’ voluntary compliance with safety rules was enough to police the industry. As the Journal noted:
Last year, the MMS studied more than 1,400 offshore incidents that led to 41 deaths and hundreds of injuries between 2001 and 2007. Many of them, the MMS found, were linked to factors such as communications failures, a lack of written procedures and the failure of supervisors to enforce existing rules, and proposed mandatory requirements to reduce the number of incidents. That would have replaced a system under which many safety procedures were voluntary.
In a letter published on the U.S. government Web site Regulations.gov, Richard Morrison, BP’s vice president for Gulf of Mexico production, wrote that while BP “is supportive of companies having a system in place to reduce risk, accidents, injuries and spills, we are not supportive of the extensive, prescriptive regulations as proposed in this rule.”
He added: “We believe the industry’s current safety and environmental statistics demonstrate that the voluntary programs…have been and continue to be very successful.”
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THIS ISN’T the first time that BP has come under fire for a shoddy safety record.
In 2005, an explosion at BP’s Texas City Refinery caused the deaths of 15 workers and injured 180 others. In a review of the incident released in 2007, the U.S. Chemical Safety Board noted that “The Texas City disaster was caused by organizational and safety deficiencies at all levels of the BP corporation. The combination of cost-cutting, production pressures and failure to invest caused a progressive deterioration of safety at the refinery.”
And as the Observer reported, “While experiencing its highest profits in its corporate history, BP implemented budget cuts of 25 percent in 1999 and 2005 at each of its five U.S. refineries. The safety board found a pervasive ‘complacency towards serious safety risks’ at all of them.”
Yet business remains good for BP. In the last quarter alone, BP’s profit doubled from a year ago–to $6.1 billion.
There’s plenty of blame to go around, however. As it turns out, oil services giant and war profiteer Halliburton was apparently in charge of the “cementing” on the Deepwater Horizon rig.
Cementing, according to the Wall Street Journal:
is supposed to prevent oil and natural gas from escaping by filling gaps between the outside of the well pipe and the inside of the hole bored into the ocean floor. Cement, pumped down the well from the drilling rig, is also used to plug wells after they have been abandoned or when drilling has finished, but production hasn’t begun…
Regulators have previously identified problems in the cementing process as a leading cause of well blowouts, in which oil and natural gas surge out of a well with explosive force. When cement develops cracks or doesn’t set properly, oil and gas can escape, ultimately flowing out of control.
Halliburton has, of course, denied any wrongdoing. But last year, according to the Huffington Post, the company “was also implicated for its cementing work prior to a massive blowout off the coast of Australia, where a rig caught on fire and spewed hundreds of thousands of gallons into the sea for ten weeks.”
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THEN THERE’S the Obama administration. Just last month, the White House announced plans to open up U.S. coastal areas–from the northern tip of Delaware to the central coast of Florida, and the north coast of Alaska–to oil and natural gas drilling. As SocialistWorker.org’s Elizabeth Schulte noted at the time:
However heavily considered the decision was, the Obama administration has given the go-ahead for what could be a tremendous danger to millions of acres of U.S. coastlines.
In just the past decade, an estimated 1 billion gallons of oil has been spilled into oceans around the world. Plus, the areas on the north coast of Alaska that were opened to drilling by Obama–the Chukchi Sea and Beaufort Sea–are especially vulnerable to climate change right now. Drilling would only worsen the impact.
The disaster in the Gulf left the Obama administration scrambling to justify its defense of offshore drilling.
Taking the prize for “bad timing,” the U.S. Minerals Management Service had been planning on holding its annual “2010 Annual Industry SAFE Awards Luncheon” on May 3–but was forced to postpone the event when it realized how such an awards ceremony might appear with the bodies of 11 oil-rig workers still not found and thousands of gallons of oil pumping into the Gulf each day.
According to the Los Angeles Times, “Last year, BP America…was among the luncheon’s winners, cited for ‘outstanding dedication and leadership in promoting improved medical care and evacuation capabilities for offshore facilities.'”
Likewise, it’s a safe bet that Barack Obama now wishes he could take back his defense of offshore drilling in a speech on April 2, where he claimed, “I don’t agree with the notion that we shouldn’t do [any offshore drilling]. It turns out, by the way, that oil rigs today generally don’t cause spills. They are technologically very advanced. Even during Katrina, the spills didn’t come from the oil rigs, they came from the refineries onshore.”
Nevertheless, with the Deepwater disaster worsening, the Obama administration is defending its plans for offshore drilling. In an April 29 statement, the White House stated that, “The administration’s offshore oil and gas plan proposes a thoughtful, scientifically grounded process for determining which new areas on the outer continental shelf are appropriate for exploration and development, and for assessing the potential risks and benefits of development in areas that are being explored.”
And on ABC’s This Week on May 2, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar dismissed the idea that any of the other 30,000 drilling rigs in the Gulf of Mexico should be shut down, even temporarily. “For us to turn off those spigots would have a very huge impact on America’s economy right now,” said Salazar.
Despite the evidence of the BP spill, Salazar insisted that the oil industry could “operate safely.”
That’s simply not the case. Not counting the loss of human life in these accidents, there’s nothing environmentally safe about oil and gas drilling. Even when spills are infrequent, they cause immense damage to fragile ecosystems.
But the Obama administration has decided to stand on the side of oil companies–which may not be a surprise considering how much the companies have invested for their right to drill.
In 2009, for example, BP spent some $16 million lobbying the federal government, ranking it among the 20 highest spenders that year (and shattering its own previous record of $10.4 million in 2008). The year before, it ranked in the top 10 political spenders in the oil industry, handing out some $530,000 during federal elections.
If the Obama administration’s defense of offshore drilling is any indication, BP–and the rest of the oil industry–got their money’s worth. Now, the fragile ecosystem of the Gulf Coast is paying the bill.