The uncontrolled oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico has turned into what looks to be the US’s worst environmental disaster. 40 days into the spill the well is still spewing 19,000 barrels (79,000 gallons) of oil per day into the deep waters 50 miles off of southern Louisiana. If ever there was an environmental event that could be called “catastrophic,” this is it. Estimates are that the oil slick (which is far more extensive in the middle layers of the Gulf than at the surface) will reach the Florida panhandle within days, the western Florida coast within weeks, and if the prevalent currents take hold it, the Florida Keys, Florida Straits, Cuba and South Florida Atlantic Coast by mid July. Estimates of when the spill will be contained range from August to December. If it is the latter, the slick could well be in New England given the flow rate of the Gulf Current. If a hurricane hits (the Atlantic/Caribbean hurricane season started on June 1), then all bets are off. Whatever happens, the economic costs of the disaster are already mind-boggling and wide-spread, which at a time when the US was just starting to emerge from a deep recession is a catastrophe all of its own.
By now everyone who follows the news knows that British Petroleum is the lessee of drilling rights in that part of the Gulf and owner of the drilling platform that exploded and collapsed with the loss of 11 lives that led to the leak. BP’s inability to staunch the flow after nearly a dozen unsuccessful attempts has been matched by the the wait and see response of the US government, which initially relied on BP assurances that the leak was not as big as is now known and that a capping solution was possible within a few weeks. Now that oil has fouled the Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama coast lines on its way to Florida, public anger against BP and the Obama has started to boil over. A few days ago the US public was treated to the spectacle of James Carville, the well-known Clinton political advisor, ranting on national television against the Obama administration for its slow response (Carville is a Louisiana native). His rant was remarkable only because he is a loyal Democrat, since a host of Tea Party spokespeople, Republican Party figures and the baying hounds at Fox News and talk back radio have all lambasted the president for his lackadaisical approach to the crisis. A recent opinion poll shows that a quarter of those polled blame BP for the accident, a quarter blame Obama, and the rest blame both.
That is pretty rich. During the W. Bush administration regulations on off-shore drilling were relaxed and wilderness areas opened to oil exploration. Common emergency cutoff safeguards were abandoned as the GOP-controlled Congress approved policies of oil industry self-regulation. Dick Cheney chaired the White House energy task force, which was staffed by oil industry heavyweights including the infamous Ken Lay of Enron fame. Their recommendations, many of which passed into law, were that “less is more is less” when it comes to oil: the less US regulation the more domestic production. The more domestic production the less dependence of foreign oil. The entire federal regulatory and oversight apparatus charged with oil industry supervision adopted this mantra, which was spearheaded by Bush appointees whose idea of environmental protection was to make industrial polluters plant trees in the neighborhoods in which they operated or designate areas under their control as wildlife refuges.
The Obama administration had nothing to do with this. Its main fault lies in that, in an effort to appear centrist and “pro-business” it has allowed BP to lead the repair operation even though BP initially lied about the extent of the leak or about the fact that there had been multiple warnings from its own engineers that the well was showing signs of blowing in the weeks before the explosion. The timing of the disaster was both unfortunate and fortuitous, as, following the “less is more is less” line of thought, Â the Obama administration just approved new off-shore drilling rights off the lower US East Coast, a decision it may now have to review in view of the fact that, unlike the Gulf of Mexico coastline, the US Eastern Seaboard holds a majority of the population and important commercial and military ports as well as providing the jump-off point for Trans-Atlantic sea traffic. An uncontrolled oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is a disaster; a similiar uncontrolled oil spill off the northern coast of Florida or the coasts of Georgia, North and South Carolina would be apocalyptic.
The situation has gotten so desperate that experts are now debating the merits of the so-called “nuclear option:” a plan to detonate a nuclear explosive 15000-18000 feet under the surface so as to melt the surrounding rock into a glass-like “plug” (the wellhead itself is just a mile (3,800 feet or 1600 meters) down). This is also called the “Russian option” because Russia has reportedly used this technique to cap runaway natural gas wells (the Russians have not said anything in public to confirm or deny these stories). Trouble is, no one knows if the nuclear option will work, or what its collateral effects will be. As one Canadian blogger reportedly wrote: “What s worse than an uncontrolled deep water oil spill? A radioactive deep water oil spill.”
So the situation is grave. But in the their effort to place the blame on Obama, the Republican Party Â and its tea bagger/media loudmouth cohort have shown that they are craven hypocrites with no sense of Â fair play. In their attempts to divert attention from oil industry greed and failures onto the Obama administration, they reveal themselves as complete weasels. Take, for example, Sarah Pains claim that Obama was moving slow on the crisis because he had taken money from BP. Well, the “took the money” part is true. The Obama/Biden campaign received US 70,000 dollars from BP, which also gave US$38,000 to the McCain/Palin campaign. But the oil industry as a whole gave the McCain/Palin campaign US$ 1.3 million and the Obama/Biden campaign US$900,000. Â It is axiomatic in US politics that lobbying groups paper the wallets of both sides of the political spectrum, with big business and Wall Street favouring the GOP and unions, high tech and other public interest groups favouring the Democrats. Thus the claims that Obama is in BP’s pocket are refuted by a simple perusal of the public record (to be fair, Palin may not have the attention span or time to peruse the public record given that she reads “all” of the newspapers and is busy with her Fox TV Show and book tours).
Obama’s detractors are also stupid. After years of clamouring for “less government,” this motley crew of “conservative” champions of free enterprise now whine about a lack of government response to a disaster created by the very private industry that they helped free from government regulations in the first place. The Obama administration may have been slow off the mark in its response to the crisis, but that is precisely because it relied on private industry–in this case BP–to be upfront and honest about he scope of the disaster. Now that it is clear that BP was dishonest, and that this dishonesty is endemic in the oil industry when it comes to environmental safeguards, the government turns out to be the default option after all, but this time in a reactive rather than a proactive role such as what existed before Bush 43 laid waste to the federal regulations governing off-shore drilling.
Obama may rue the fact that his first two years have been consumed by problems that were not on his agenda when he came into the office. But for those salivating at the prospect of a GOP sweep in the 2010 midterm elections, the oil spill may prove to be even more problematic because no matter how they may try to spin it, it was the Republicans who set the stage for the disaster to happen. Whatever flaws his administration has, Obama gave private industry a chance to fix the problem, and it is only after BP’s repeated failures that it is now considering direct intervention in the capping efforts. So much for him being a commie, and if the Democrats have any sense of irony, then so much for a Republican landslide in November.
You mention the consequences of the spill to the neighbouring US states in the Gulf of Mexico, and the possibility that predicted currents may drive the unabated spill out to the nearby Caribbean and Central American states- I’m yet to read any discussion of the US actions and responsibility toward these countries, have you read or heard anything?
I’d assume that the coastal communities of these countries would be much greater affected by the environmental impact of the spill, both in terms of source of income and food. Presumably BP and the US federal government have a legal responsibility to supply food and aid to these countries, to fund environmental recovery programs, and to reimburse lost income.
In particular, I wonder how the US relationship (o.e. lack thereof) with Cuba will influence aid decisions of that area.
It sounds like BP and the US federal government have been clearly negligent- I wonder whether a case will be brought to the International Court of Justice for environmental crime? Somehow I doubt it, the US seem to get away with torture and other human rights abuses, state-supported terrorism, and financial terrorism with little repercussions to its people or their interests- so why would a bit of spilled mild, er oil, make any difference?
That’s ‘milk’ not ‘mild’ at the end of my whine.
Under normal conditions prevailing winds and currents should take the slick ESE, then North as it rounds the Keys. Central America should only be affected in the event of a hurricane that blows West to SW through the northern Gulf, which is possible if an Atlantic storm skirts the upper Keys from the East or manages to cross the South Florida mainland without losing too much punch (I have a home on the Atlantic side of South Florida so have some familiarity with the hurricane patterns).
It should seem obvious that if the spill hits Mexican or Central American territorial waters or coast, the US and BP are liable (BP in the first instance). Should BP renege, the US will probably pay the reparations and sue BP in US courts to recover the costs.
Deepwater Horizon was not owned by BP but by an independent rig leasing company.
Thanks for the correction. Apparently Halliburton was involved in some aspect of the rig operation as well.
Try entering Auckland, or Wellington, or any part of New Zealand for that matter. Holy moly.
The permits require US Govt Minerals Management Service to approve proposals, overview exploration, and collect revenue. BP is the permit holder, and was already convicted for serious earlier petroleum industry safety breaches. IIRC, BP may be the only petroleum company with such felony convictions for safety.
BP’s current problem is that they failed to understand US culture. Having a senior manager suggest the dead platform hands were at fault before they were even buried was deeply offensive to the whole US drilling community. BP instantly became an uncaring foreign company trying to shift blame.
BP has marshalled all of the resources because only a deep sea exploration company has the expertise to kill such a deep-sea well. MMS, or the Defense Department, can only watch the situation, and make inane suggestions.
Nobody senior at BP has taken responsibility, whereas the MMS head has gone, as has a least one of the US Govt managers running the cleanup.
Causing MMS to cease all deep-water operations until the investigation is completed will compromise many industry supplier firms.
The inquiry will find multiple causes of different events ( imminent early completion payments, removal of the mud without adequate monitoring, faulty BOP, faulty cement, not enough cement cure time, etc. ).
BP hired the Transocean semi-submersible rig ( the sea floor Blow-Out Preventer will be also owned by the rig ).
Transocean used be known as Sedco, and their 135F rig that drilled Maui, later become infamous as producing the largest Gulf of Mexico spill ( Ixtoc at only about 50 metres sea depth ).
If you review the methods used during the 9 months it took to seal Ixtoc, you recognise that many of the same options were tried – until the relief wells succeeded. Relief wells succeed because they cut off the source, they don’t fight the upwelling supercritical gas/oil solution.
Trying to seal this damaged well ( capable of 13,000 psi at stopped flow ) from the 1500 metre sub-sea surface is like trying stop a geyser in the middle of an underwater mud field using your garden hose or bicycle tyre pump.
Even if BP could shut the BOP without mud balancing the well pressure, they would risk blowing several parts of the well apart, creating another Ixtoc. Hence they tip-toe around the BOP for each attempt, and will back out at the slightest sign of stress. Without pressure balance, the well can not be safely sealed.
All of the undersea hardware at the BOP is sitting on top of 300+ meters of silt, so if you shock/shake the well enough, you might break the deeper casing/rock bonds and have the oil running up the outside, in which case the only control will be a bottom relief well.
BP have been drilling two relief wells, but some say they should drill more. Most experts agree the only real solution is relief wells, everything else is palliative.
In any complex drilling, there are specialists, eg Halliburton are specialists in cementing in wells, and Schlumberger are specialists in data logging.
Specialist teams and equipment are flown in at specified steps in the process. Throughout the process the final decision is with the BP representative, hence they are liable, even if Halliburton’s foamed cement was defective, or Transocean’s BOP was non-functional.
Such service and lease contracts can be 400 pages, and are total “no responsibility” types. BP will have to pay, as the service providers acted on their instructions.
The cause of the tragedy is failure to monitor and/or interpret mud flows. Mud circulation is the blood of drilling, and good mud logging would have sufficently warned them that the well was “coming in”. It’s normal practice to monitor mud flows during well operations.
With mud flow indication, they could have sealed the well – as they would have done several times when the same events occurred during the actual drilling. They could even have activated the BOP and/or Emergency Disconnect System if they couldn’t control it. With no warning, they were doomed.
This was not an easy well, but it wasn’t exceptionally bad, procedures exist to cope. This tragedy is a watershed, the whole petroleum industry will change. BP may survive, but that’s not a given, Occidental didn’t survive Piper Alpha.
Whether our appetite for fuels changes is another matter.
Thanks for that, it would have taken some time reading reports about this to have worked all that out.
Thanks Bruce. That was an excellent primer on the technical aspects. I shall confine myself to discussing the political spill-over (pun intended).
Anyone interested in the detailed technical aspects of this tragedy, then the WWW site ” The Oil Drum ” ( US version, not the Oz/NZ site ) is one of the better- balanced resources around, especially on the drilling. If you haven’t worked in the industry you may also need Wikipedia or Google to help with some of the jargon.
Unfortunately, The Oil drum has just become very popular and a lot of dross is now appearing, but several major participants are active or retired deep-water drilling specialists.
Every day, a new 400 comment thread about progress is started. 10 – 20 of those comments will be insightful gold, and the rest dross. Those odds are better than most other sites I’ve found. Good luck. MSM coverage has, at best, been technically-inept, and some has been truly abysmal.
If you just want industry-perception and US govt status summaries, then Upsteam Online is a good source. If you want live video, then the BP incident site is a good starting point.
You can quickly tell what sort of site you’re visiting, industry and govt. sites and media releases will not include “BP” in the title, instead referring to “Macondo”, “Deepwater Horizon”, or “Gulf of Mexico” spill. Activist and impartial sites now prominently include “BP” in titles and threads.