When setting a giant oil spill on fire is the least-worst option to limit environmental damage, you know you're in trouble.
But that appeared to be the case as US authorities debated how to contain an spill caused by the failure in April of a deepwater oil rig — owned by the oil giant BP — about 80 kilometres off the US in the Gulf of Mexico.
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.
At this rate, the spill could overtake the 11 million gallons dumped by the Exxon Valdez tanker off the coast of Alaska in 1989.
The Times said: “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 have warned the spill in the Gulf could be much more damaging to the environment.
The Washington Post reported on April 30: “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.”
Jane Lubchenco, head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, told the Post that 40% 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.
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 in the Gulf in some 25 years.
It may take months before the flow of oil is stopped.
BP is apparently attempting to drill a “relief well” to divert the flow of the still-gushing original well — which will take up to three months to complete.
In the meantime, engineers set parts of the growing oil slick on fire in an attempt to minimise its effects before it reached the Louisiana coast.
BP officials claim they are “throwing every resource that we've got” into trying to plug the well, in the words of chairperson Lamar McKay.
But while 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 the underwater valves that are supposed to shut off the flow of a well in the event of a blowout.
The Times said: “BP technicians have been unable to activate [the valves] even though they appear to be undamaged by the blast.”
In September, BP was one of several oil companies making their case to the US Minerals Management Service (MMS) that stricter regulations were not needed. Their argument, the Wall Street Journal reported on April 28, was that the companies’ voluntary compliance with safety rules was enough to police the industry.
WSJ said: “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 ...
“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.’
This isn’t the first time 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 US Chemical Safety Board said: “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.”
Yet business remains good for BP. In the last quarter alone, BP’s profit doubled from a year ago — to US$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.
The WSJ said on April 30: “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, Huffington Post said on April 30, 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”.
Then there is the Obama administration.
Just weeks before the BP spill, the White House announced plans to open up US coastal areas to oil and natural gas drilling.
The disaster in the Gulf left the Obama administration scrambling to justify its defence of offshore drilling.
Taking the prize for “bad timing”, the US 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 realised 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.
The Los Angeles Times said on April 29: “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’.”
No doubt Obama now wishes he could take back his April 2 defence of offshore drilling, 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.
On ABC's This Week on May 2, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar dismissed the idea that any of the thousands of 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 BP spill, Salazar insisted that the oil industry could “operate safely”.
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, BP spent $16 million lobbying the federal government, ranking it among the 20 highest spenders that year.
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 defence 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.