It is still difficult to assess the scale of the disaster that followed the explosion on the BP oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico on 22 April, which killed eleven workers. BP claims that ‘only’ 210,000 gallons a day of crude oil have been released so far, but others calculate the figure could be as high as 4.2 million gallons a day.
By Pete Dickenson
These estimates show a huge difference but it is impossible to check as the company refuses to allow independent scientists and engineers access to perform their own tests. Even if the lower figure is accepted, Deepwater Horizon is the most seriously polluting oil spill in US history, by far exceeding the previous worst, the Exxon Valdez tanker accident off Alaska in 1989 which released eleven million gallons.
It is not clear how long it will be before the well is capped, since attempts to plug the leak are continuing at the time of writing. However a blow-back from a well being drilled in the same area in 1979, Ixtoc 1, took nine months and 22 days to cap. And this was only achieved after two relief wells were dug, a very time-consuming process that in this case, BP admit, will take until August at the earliest.
Even then the technical problems will be massive. The leak is 5,000 feet down on the sea bed, whereas Ixtoc 1 was only in 150 feet of water, and the pipe to be capped is just 21 inches across. In a further complication, the region’s hurricane season is just beginning which could compound the technical difficulties.
To give a handle on the possible scale of this incident, the US Coast Guard categorises marine oil spills as minor, medium or major, with major spills releasing over 100,000 gallons. If the higher estimate of leakage proves true, about 160 million gallons have already leaked, but the impact on the environment will still be severe even if the lower estimates are correct.
Oil poisons the coastal sea floor, interrupting the food chain that marine life depends on and ultimately threatening the extinction of species. The Gulf of Mexico is an important habitat for endangered sperm whales, sea turtles and blue fin tuna which will be under threat. Sea birds are very vulnerable, with millions likely to be killed by exposure to crude oil.
The coastal fishing industry will be devastated as fish are contaminated, with thousands of jobs then destroyed, some permanently. Tourism will be hit if large quantities of oil are deposited on beaches and recreational fishing has to be abandoned.
Many politicians now blame a failure of regulation for the accident and there were scandalous failings in this area. Friends of the Earth described the Minerals Management Service (MMS), the government body responsible for regulation, as corrupt. Even President Obama now complains, after the event, of the cosy relationship the body has with Big Oil, the multinationals dominating the industry.
A US government report on the MMS found a ‘revolving door’ of oil company executives joining the agency, watering down the regulations and then going back to their original companies on higher salaries.
BP applied for a drilling permit for this project to MMS in February 2009, stating that it was ‘highly unlikely that an accidental oil spill will occur’ and even if it did, BP would be able to fix it. The MMS accepted this at face value. No further details were asked for, although BP now admits that it was not prepared for this accident.
The politicians, including President Obama, are hypocritical when they now complain about BP’s activities or the failings of regulation. A month before the disaster the US government announced plans to open up large areas of the coastline to oil exploration, which was banned after the Exxon Valdez accident.
Even after the 22 April explosion, the administration still refused to permanently ban off-shore deep sea drilling, and in fact handed out several dozen new permits for offshore drilling including two to BP.
The regulatory failures were scandalous, if not criminal, but to call for improvements and to restructure the regulatory bodies, as Obama is now doing, misses the point. Deep sea drilling for oil poses huge risks and should be banned permanently.
A wider issue is also involved, the need to tackle global warming. This requires that the burning of oil, a major driver of climate change, be reduced to a fraction of its current level, if not phased out entirely. This will mean that the big oil companies have no future in their present form and need to be restructured.
Most of them dabble in renewable energy technologies at the moment, but this is largely done for PR purposes with no serious intent to switch over their operations in a meaningful way. These companies however possess expertise in many areas that could be used to help switch to renewable energy, for example, in overcoming problems linked to the storage of carbon dioxide (CO2) that urgently need to be solved if this potentially useful technology is to be safe.
Their knowledge of under-sea engineering could be used to devise a safe way to store the carbon dioxide generated when coal-fired power plants use carbon capture technology to eliminate global warming effects.
BP and the other oil companies though, will never voluntarily cease drilling in deep sea locations. Still less will they seriously address problems like carbon capture, since it is more profitable for them to keep operating as they are.
It will be necessary to nationalise these multinationals, and put them under genuine democratic control, in order to begin an orderly restructuring of their operations that will meet the planet’s environmental needs.