A catastrophe waiting to happen

June 3, 2010

At the heart of the Deepwater Horizon spill is the drive for profit, writes Nicole Colson.

MORE THAN a month into the crisis, and in the wake of each-more-screwed-up-than-the-last failures to cap the still-gushing Deepwater Horizon well, officials of the oil giant BP are looking more incompetent by the day.

It's not only the successive failures--faulty "domes," a failure to staunch the flow by pumping dense "drilling mud" into the well in a move known as a "top kill," a desperate attempt to shoot golf balls and other debris into the well to plug it up, a robotic saw getting stuck as it cut through a riser pipe.

There's also the ease with which top BP executives continue to lie about the severity of the spill, the dangers they knew about beforehand, the safety and environmental corners they cut to maximize profits, and, of course, the idea that the company will "pay for" the cleanup.

Meanwhile, the oil plumes found in the Gulf of Mexico continue to grow--with one reported to be 22 miles wide--choking off sea life, smearing hundreds of miles of beaches in several states with viscous oil, and devastating local economies.

BP's Deepwater Horizon oil rig
BP's Deepwater Horizon oil rig

The spill is now, without doubt, the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history. If the fairly modest estimates made by some environmentalists--that some 19,000 barrels of oil are spewing out of the well each day--are correct, some 779,000 barrels (or 32.7 million gallons) of oil had been released into the water by the end of May.

To put these numbers in context, the 1989 spill of the Exxon Valdez tanker released 250,000 barrels (10.8 million gallons) of oil into Prince William Sound off Alaska's coast.

Given the fragile ecosystem of the gulf, the spill will undoubtedly have a much greater impact on wildlife for decades to come.

And--more good news--with hurricane season approaching, scientists are worried that a hurricane rolling over the spill could push the oil over an even wider area and farther inland into delicate marshland areas. "It would very definitely turn an environmental disaster into an unprecedented environmental catastrophe," Brian D. McNoldy, a tropical storms researcher at Colorado State University, told the New York Times.

AS THE damage grows worse, more light is being shed on what BP officials knew about the potential for disaster, and when.

The New York Times has revealed that internal memos from BP showed serious problems with, and safety concerns about, the Deepwater Horizon rig nearly a year ago. According to the Times:

The documents show that in March, after several weeks of problems on the rig, BP was struggling with a loss of "well control." And as far back as 11 months ago, it was concerned about the well casing and the blowout preventer.

On June 22, for example, BP engineers expressed concerns that the metal casing the company wanted to use might collapse under high pressure. "This would certainly be a worst-case scenario," Mark E. Hafle, a senior drilling engineer at BP, warned in an internal report. "However, I have seen it happen, so know it can occur."

The company went ahead with the casing, but only after getting special permission from BP colleagues because it violated the company's safety policies and design standards.

In another document--this one from April of this year (just before the out-of-control spill began)--BP engineers concluded that the casing was "unlikely to be a successful cement job," a reference to how the casing would be sealed to prevent gases from escaping up the well, which may have contributed to the disaster. According to the Times, "The document also says that the plan for casing the well is 'unable to fulfill MMS [Minerals Management Service] regulations.'"

A later version of the same document, however, says, "It is possible to obtain a successful cement job" and "It is possible to fulfill MMS regulations."

Likewise, documents obtained by the Times under a Freedom of Information Act request:

show that in March, after problems on the rig that included drilling mud falling into the formation, sudden gas releases known as "kicks" and a pipe falling into the well, BP officials informed federal regulators that they were struggling with a loss of "well control." On at least three occasions, BP records indicate, the blowout preventer was leaking fluid, which the manufacturer of the device has said limits its ability to operate properly.

Yet despite these multiple problems--warnings of what was to come, really--BP officials don't appear to have considered shutting down the rig, even temporarily, in order to assess the risks. Instead, MMS officials allowed BP to temporarily put off a federally mandated test of the blowout preventer (which is supposed to occur every two weeks).

When BP did finally did start doing the tests again, the blowout preventer was "tested at a lower pressure--6,500 pounds per square inch--than the 10,000-pounds-per-square-inch tests used on the device before the delay. It tested at this lower pressure until the explosion," the Times reported.

BP'S corner-cutting seems to have extended even to April 20--the day of the rig explosion.

According to McClatchy newspapers:

Company executives and top drill hands on the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig argued for hours about how to proceed before a BP official made the decision to remove heavy drilling fluid from the well and replace it with lighter weight seawater that was unable to prevent gas from surging to the surface and exploding.

One employee was so mad, the rig's chief mechanic Doug Brown testified, that he warned they'd be relying on the rig's blowout preventer if they proceeded the way BP wanted.

"He pretty much grumbled, 'Well, I guess that's what we have those pinchers for,'" Brown said of Jimmy Harrell, the top Transocean official on the rig. "Pinchers" was likely a reference to the shear rams in the blowout preventers, the final means of stopping an explosion.

Brown said in sworn testimony on Wednesday that the BP official stood up during the meeting and said, "This is how it's going to be."

This decision took away one of the last fail-safe measures that could have stopped the accident. As the McClatchy article chillingly notes, "It was the kind of power struggle that's common on all offshore rigs, but the fight on the Deepwater Horizon had deadly consequences."

As author and professor Michael Schwartz commented about the article:

This is the proof that the accident was a "normal" accident--these sorts of arguments take place all the time, and they often end up one way or the other. These choices about safety versus efficiency are endemic in this tightly coupled systems, and they create the possibility of an accident--a very remote possibility.

But when you repeat them over and over (i.e., if they are "all too common"), then you are turning that very remote possibility into a probability. Eventually, the long shot will occur, just like the roulette wheel finally landing on double zero.

AND WHEN disaster struck, BP was wholly unprepared to respond.

According to Jonathan Hiskes of the environmental Web site Grist.org, oil companies like BP are required by law to draft a comprehensive spill-response plan--and MMS is supposed to vet such plans--before they start drilling. Here are some of the gems that BP's plan included, according to Hiskes:

1. BP mentions sea lions, seals, sea otters, walruses in its Oil Spill Response Plan for the Gulf of Mexico region. The geniuses who wrote the plan either don't know jack about wildlife, or they cribbed text out of a plan for the Arctic region.

2. BP's "plan" offers a Japanese home shopping site as the link to one of its "primary equipment providers for BP in the Gulf of Mexico Region [for] rapid deployment of spill response resources on a 24 hour, 7 days a week basis." Apparently, the site didn't have a 100-ton underwater containment dome in stock--it took rescue workers days to build one in an early attempt to stop the leak...which failed.

3. The "plan" included no information about tracking sub-surface oil plumes from deepwater blowouts, although more oil may be spreading below the surface than at the top.

4. The "plan" includes no oceanic or meteorological data, despite the ocean-floor site in a hurricane-prone region.

5. The "plan" directs BP media spokespeople to never make "promises that property, ecology or anything else will be restored to normal." Sounds like weaselly responsibility-dodging, although this may be more honest than the company intended.

6. The "plan" included no measures for preventing disease (viruses and bacteria) transmission to captured animals in rehab facilities. This was found to be a major risk after the Exxon Valdez spill, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), which analyzed the response plan and culled these absurd lapses in common sense.

7. The nearly 600 pages of the "plan" consist largely of lists, phone numbers and blank forms, according to PEER Board Member Rick Steiner, a marine professor and conservationist who tracked the Exxon Valdez spill.

Instead of meeting the challenges that come with a spill of this magnitude, BP's main concern seems to be limiting media exposure to the catastrophe and waging a PR campaign. In some instances, journalists attempting to photograph or report on oil-soaked beaches have reported being turned away or even threatened with arrest by BP and Coast Guard officials.

BP's other main achievement seems to be dumping as much of the chemical dispersant Corexit--a toxic brew of ingredients such as propylene glycol, a key ingredient in antifreeze--into the Gulf as it can.

In fact, when the Environmental Protection Agency recently ordered BP to cut back by 50 to 75 percent on the amount of Corexit it is dumping into the Gulf, BP refused. Corexit, BP claims, is the "best and most appropriate choice." What the dispersant really does, however, is create "less of a photogenic oil slick on the surface of the gulf to be filmed by television news crews," in the words of Greenpeace activist Mark Floegel.

When Corexit on its own isn't enough, BP is willing to go a little farther in staging the scene to make it look like the company is serious about clean-up.

When President Obama toured the Gulf region last week, BP apparently bussed in hundreds of "temporary" cleanup workers--just for the day.

Thus, officials in Jefferson Parish, La., told reporters that up until that point, there were "no more than a dozen" workers on Grand Isle Beach. According to Councilman Chris Roberts, "The level of cleanup and cooperation we've gotten from BP in the past is in no way consistent to the effort shown on the island [yesterday]...[A]s soon as the president left, they were immediately put back on the buses and sent home."

THAT AN oil spill of this magnitude is occurring should not, sadly, come as a surprise.

Since 2005 alone, BP--the most heavily fined energy company in the U.S.--has paid the government some $485 million in fines and settlements for neglect of worker safety rules and penalties for manipulating energy markets. As Joshua Frank reported,

In 2009, the British-based company paid $87.43 million for a single Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) violation for willful negligence that led to the deaths of 15 workers in a 2005 explosion at a Texas refinery. BP handed over $50 million to the Department of Justice (DOJ) for the same crime.

In 2006, an oil leak at a BP pipeline in Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, resulted in a $20 million settlement for alleged Clean Water Act violations...

[J]ust last month, the company paid another $3 million fine for 42 worker safety violations at a company refinery in Ohio. In fact, if BP were an actual person, it would have spent time in prison, as the company has been levied two separate felony charge for violating the Clean Air and Water Acts.

In the past three years, BP has racked up 760 safety violations. Exxon, by comparison, had just one.

Such violations and the fines they carry are pocket change for a company that made some $14 billion in profits for 2009 alone--and hardly a deterrent to a company engaged in a pattern of cutting corners in pursuit of profits.

But to hear them tell it, BP officials feel like they're being "picked on." CEO Tony Hayward--who earlier made headlines for calling the spill "relatively tiny"--complained to reporters last week, "There's no one who wants this over more than I do. I'd like my life back."

Hayward stuck his foot in his mouth again, telling CNN that an illness which forced nine cleanup crew workers to be airlifted to a New Orleans-area hospital was probably just "food poisoning"--despite the fact that at least one of the workers, a fisherman forced out of work by the spill, blamed exposure to Corexit for his illness.

Then there's BP Chairman Carl-Henric Svanberg, who, displaying slightly less contrition than Hayward, issued a thinly veiled threat to U.S. critics of BP. Svanberg told the Financial Times, "The U.S. is a big and important market for BP, and BP is also a big and important company for the U.S., with its contribution to drilling and oil and gas production. So the position goes both ways."

But at least as troubling as BP officials' slow and inept response to the spill has been the response of the Obama administration--which put an extraordinary level of trust in BP to fix the disaster it created.

As public sentiment has grown against BP and offshore drilling in general, the administration was forced to make a more public showing of criticism of BP, and try to quash the public perception that the company will not be held accountable for the devastation it has caused to the environment, the lives of millions of Gulf Coast residents, or the families of the 11 workers who perished when the Deepwater Horizon blew up.

But the announcement this week that the Justice Department will begin a criminal probe of BP, Transocean and Halliburton--and won't allow new offshore drilling until it's clear what went wrong with the Deepwater Horizon spill--should be greeted with a fair amount of skepticism.

For one thing, the "bipartisan" commission to look into the BP disaster will be co-chaired by Republican William K. Reilly. Although he once served as the chief of the Environmental Protection Agency, Reilly currently is on the board of directors of ConocoPhillips, DuPont (which provides technologies for oil and gas extraction) and Energy Future Holdings (a Texas-based electric utility company).

No BP official is likely to spend a single day in jail for the loss of life of 11 oil workers--or from the environmental fallout that will ruin countless lives and poison the region indefinitely.

But they should be made to pay. BP's U.S. holdings could be nationalized--and should be--in order to pay for the damage the company has done.

With two months to go before a relief well can be completed to contain the flow of oil, each new day will be a further crude--literally--reminder of the consequences of a system that puts corporate profits ahead of the environment.

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