A nightmare that only grows worse
BP's cleanup efforts are making the Gulf oil disaster worse, and Washington is playing the blame game while more and more oil spews into the gulf, reports.
THE CRUDE oil belching out of the floor of the Gulf of Mexico where a BP oil well exploded has formed giant plumes beneath the surface of the water, one estimated to be 10 miles long, three miles wide and 300 feet thick in some areas.
That's the latest nightmarish evidence that the gulf oil catastrophe is significantly worse than either corporate giant BP or government officials have admitted--and that it is already among the worst ecological disasters in U.S. history.
"There's a shocking amount of oil in the deep water, relative to what you see in the surface water," said Samantha Joye, a University of Georgia researcher who is part a team of scientists studying the effects of the spreading oil spill. "There's a tremendous amount of oil in multiple layers, three or four or five layers deep in the water column."
The oil depletes the life-giving oxygen in the gulf's waters, endangering myriad species of sea creatures that come in contact with the oil--or with the toxic chemical dispersants that BP is pouring into the gulf, which mainly make things look better from the surface.
The government claims that satellite images of the surface of the gulf indicate the flow of oil spewing out of the sea floor a mile below is 5,000 barrels a day--or more than 200,000 gallons every 24 hours. But Dr. Joye and other scientists fear the actual rate is closer to 25,000 or even 80,000 barrels a day.
Under the worst case scenario of 80,000 barrels a day, more than 84 million gallons of oil has already flowed into the gulf's waters since the BP oil rig exploded on April 20, killing 11 workers. By comparison, the Exxon Valdez oil tanker spilled about 11 million gallons of oil in Prince William Sound, Alaska, in 1989--and more than two decades later, many of the region's beaches are still toxic and many wildlife species have not recovered. If the true rate of oil flow is 25,000 barrels a day, the spill is already more than twice the size of the Exxon Valdez spill.
BP, the owner of the well, has yet to come up with a way to stop or even control the toxic oil geyser. A giant "top hat" containment vessel weighing 100 tons sank before it could be lowered over the wellhead, and another smaller device also failed.
BP claims it has other strategies in mind. But the only certain method is to drill a relief well that would draw off the oil flow--something that won't be completed until August, according to BP officials.
Whatever the case, an unprecedented environmental disaster is already well underway. The destruction of the gulf's fragile ecosystems has already begun--the spill couldn't have come at a worse time, with Atlantic bluefin tuna heading into the gulf for spawning and countless migratory and native birds nesting in the marshes at the mouth of the Mississippi River, which is 50 miles from the source of the spill.
IN A desperate attempt to prove that it's doing something, BP is celebrating its use of massive amounts of the chemical dispersant Corexit. But critics, including Louisiana authorities, say that BP is performing a "toxic experiment" that may only make things worse.
BP claims that Corexit has undergone "lots of testing," according to a spokesperson, and is biodegradable. But Corexit is made up of active ingredients such as 2-butoxyethanol, which tests have shown to reduce fertility in animals, and propylene glycol, which is the main ingredient in antifreeze and jet deicing solutions. These substances further rob the ocean of its oxygen content.
"We don't have any data or evidence behind the use of these chemicals in the water," said Alan Levine, head of Louisiana's Department of Health and Hospitals. "We're now basically using one of the richest ecosystems in the world as a laboratory."
But BP sought and received permission from the federal Environmental Protection Agency to continue using the dispersant, despite the lack of data supporting its effectiveness in reducing the spread of the oil spill.
The dispersant is effective in one crucial respect--BP's effort to manage the public relations nightmare it now confronts. According to Mark Floegel, who is blogging about the oil spill on Greenpeace's Web site:
In all, Corexit acts like a surfactant, the same thing that's in your dish or laundry soap. The oil is more attracted to the surfactant than to the water it's floating in. The oil forms globules and sinks to the bottom. This is a boon for BP, because it creates less of a photogenic oil slick on the surface of the gulf to be filmed by television news crews.
As we've seen in Prince William Sound in the two decades since the Exxon Valdez spill, oil that sinks to the bottom tends to be re-suspended in the water column by storms and with the frequency of hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico, we'll see BP's oil belched back up--with damage to the environment--for generations to come.
Why would anyone in their right mind pour chemicals that poison and suffocate fish into an oil spill that already threatens their lives?...The fewer dispersants you use, the more dead, oily birds and turtles you'll have washing up on shore. The more dispersants you use, the more dead fish you'll have--some of which will wash up on shore, many of which will sink to the bottom of the gulf and never be seen again. I imagine the PR department at BP prefers dead fish to dead birds and turtles.
WHEN OFFICIALS from BP, Transocean and Halliburton--the three companies responsible for different aspects of the construction and operation of the deepwater rig that exploded--trudged to Capitol Hill for a May 11 hearing about the spill, they each had a reason why the others should bear primary responsibility.
The buck-passing and finger-pointing got so bad that Barack Obama publicly dressed down the corporate officials for creating a "ridiculous spectacle." Obama also criticized the "cozy relationship" between Big Oil and the federal agency that regulates drilling, the Minerals Management Service (MMS)--and promised to end the granting of drilling permits "too often issued based on little more than assurances of safety from the oil companies."
But there is plenty of blame to go around--and the Democratic Party and Obama deserve their fair share.
For example, when Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) declared that the Obama administration's earlier proposal to allow more offshore drilling operations was "dead on arrival," Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) countered with the standard oil industry argument that the risks are minimal.
"They've drilled a thousand wells in the gulf, and all have been drilled safely and with no disruptions," she said. "I don't believe we should shut down an industry because we had one incident. When an airliner falls out of the sky, do we ground all planes forever?"
Instead of sounding the alarm that any of the rigs that dot the gulf might become the next source of a multimillion-barrel spill--or that one of the many hurricanes that tears through the gulf might sink one or several rigs--Landrieu was ready to denounce any proposal to halt the expansion of offshore drilling as a dangerous overreaction.
Even oil industry experts think that the systematic lack of safeguards for offshore drilling has to be addressed. "If you compared us to commercial aviation, to nuclear power, even to chemical refineries, you would find out the likelihood of having these bad things happen is at least a factor of 10, if not 100, higher," said Leta Smith, director of oil supply research for Cambridge Energy Research Associates (CERA), a leading oil analyst.
Another Democrat, Rep. Gene Taylor of Mississippi, flew over the spill in a Coast Guard plane and downplayed concerns, saying the "chocolate-milk-looking spill" was "not as bad" as he expected and was beginning to "break up naturally."
Despite Obama's tough talk--and the many hopes of environmentalists that he would put an end to the Bush era when Big Oil enjoyed unfettered access to White House policy-makers--the administration has done nothing to slow the growth of the offshore oil drilling empire.
Obama not only delivered an ill-timed defense of offshore oil drilling in early April, but he appointed a known industry champion--Ken Salazar, a former senator from Colorado--to be Interior Secretary. Needless to say, Salazar sailed through his confirmation hearing. In the words of Billy Wharton writing at CounterPunch.org:
Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) neatly summarized the event as "a full-fledged bouquet-tossing festival" (Denver Post, 1/15/2009). Even Jim DeMint, the politically paranoid Republican Senator from South Carolina, took time off from his campaign to "save freedom" from Obama's "socialist agenda" to praise Salazar. At first, DeMint was convinced that Salazar was the front man for Obama's grand scheme to "cut off America's energy supply," but he left the hearing convinced that "we're pretty much on the same page."
What's more, Obama's MMS has continued to grant exemptions to oil and gas corporations so that they don't have to do in-depth environmental studies of exploration and production projects in the Gulf of Mexico. In fact, MMS has granted at least 27 such exemptions in the weeks since the spill began.
The waivers were granted despite President Barack Obama's vow that his administration would launch a "relentless response effort" to stop the leak and prevent more damage to the gulf. One of them was dated Friday--the day after Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said he was temporarily halting offshore drilling...
"Is there a moratorium on off shore drilling or not?" asked Peter Galvin, conservation director with the Center for Biological Diversity, the environmental group that discovered the administration's continued approval of the exemptions. "Possibly the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history has occurred, and nothing appears to have changed."
Longtime environmental activist Harvey Wasserman lashed out at the administration's caving to the oil industry. "Our mass media should be filled with stirring images of a focused, determined President mobilizing all available assets to curb the damage," writes Wasserman. "Instead, Barack Obama defends offshore drilling and endorses the resumption of whaling--if this underwater gusher actually leaves any alive. It is a suicidal tribute to the power of corporate ownership."
On the Republican side, of course, there's nothing but enthusiasm for offshore drilling. Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) blocked a Senate bill that would have retroactively lifted a cap limiting the liability of oil corporations to pay for the spills they cause from a paltry $75 million to $10 billion. Over the years, Murkowski has raked in almost $300,000 in campaign contributions from the oil and gas industry.
AT THE core of the environmental threat posed by offshore oil drilling is fact that oil corporations put their profits above all other considerations, including the environment, wildlife and even the lives of their own workers.
In 1990, the deep-water drilling in the gulf yielded roughly 20,000 barrels a day of crude oil. Last year, that number had grown to 1 million, according to CERA. That's a 50-fold increase in 20 years.
But the oil industry hasn't invested anywhere near this scale to prevent or deal with gulf oil spills. The blowout preventers (BOP) that are supposed to provide multiple redundant failsafe mechanisms for shutting off the flow of oil in the event of a rig disaster like the Deepwater Horizon explosion are anything but failsafe.
A 2003 report by the then-director of technology development at Transocean suggested that the relentless pressure to keep the drills turning meant that fundamental problems with BOPs weren't being sufficiently addressed. Instead, they were rushed into the field without adequate testing, and failures were fixed with stop-gap maintenance rather than looking for the sources of the problem.
"Floating drilling rig downtime due to poor BOP reliability is a common and very costly issue confronting all offshore drilling contractors," said the report. "Because of the pressure on getting the equipment back to work, root cause analysis of the failures is generally not performed...In many operations, high maintenance is accepted as a necessary evil to prevent downtime."
With deepwater drilling projects taking place on a massive scale in the Gulf of Mexico, an accident on the scale we are now witnessing was bound to happen.
The sad truth is that very little can be done to clean up a major maritime oil spill. The only way to protect the environment and wildlife, as well as the livelihoods of fishermen and other industries that depend on these ecosystems, is to prevent such spills from happening in the first place.
That can only be done by halting deepwater drilling operations--immediately. Failure to do so will come at an ecological price that is impossible to calculate.