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The Devil Went Down to Louisiana: Disaster in the Gulf

(page 2 of 5)

  BP CEO Tony Hayward

A Culture that Rewarded Recklessness

Like the investment banks that mortgaged their own futures, BP officials gambled that gargantuan profits were worth enormous risks. In this case, instead of playing with other people’s money, BP risked the very lives of its employees and the ecosystem that supports entire states in the Gulf coast region.

Although the Deepwater Horizon accident is by far the biggest it wasn’t the deadliest BP incident in the United States. Just five years ago, the company’s Texas City refinery exploded, killing 15 workers and injuring more than 170. Another, serious if non-fatal accident occurred in 2006 when a BP pipeline poured more than 200,000 gallons of oil onto the Alaskan tundra.

Apparently OSHA, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, was so concerned by BP’s disregard of employee safety that it charged BP with record setting fines not once but two times, costing the company more than $100 million.

Of course, to a company that makes $8 billion in profits every year, that’s like a drop in the bucket. Which may explain why previous incidents haven’t caused BP to change its behavior when it comes to safety.

According to ProPublica.org, prior to the Gulf disaster—BP was already facing a potential ban on new drilling leases in U.S. waters due to the accumulation of previous safety violations.

An internal 2001 BP “operational integrity” report examining employee complaints about safety violations revealed that critical safety equipment had been neglected.

In fact, ProPublica found that a series of internal investigations over the past 10 years warned BP management that the company was systematically disregarding safety regulations and risking a catastrophic accident.

Interviews with former employees, lawsuits, state inquiries and e-mails obtained by ProPublica further document that, in order to speed up operations and cut costs,

BP managers flouted the company’s own safety policies, neglected aging equipment, pressured employees not to report problems and delayed critical safety inspections.

Most recently, Democracy Now revealed that BP engineers took risky shortcuts to save money on the Deepwater Horizon. Just four days before the explosion, Halliburton contractors recommended installing 21 “centralizers” to stabilize the well. BP decided to use six.

That same day, one BP official sent an email about the decision to short change safety measures, saying, “Who cares, it’s done, end of story, will probably be fine.” 

In retrospect, it seems clear it wasn’t fine. And far from being the end of the story, it was just the beginning.

While we are gaining greater understanding of what went wrong and why, most people in American public don’t understand why it’s still happening. After all, we can put a man on the moon. Why can’t we stop oil from gushing into the Gulf?

There are two different issues at hand. One is stopping the leak, the other is cleaning up the oil that has risen to the surface.

 

Capping the Gusher

In many ways we understand the moon’s surface better than we do the deep ocean waters on our own planet. While Neil Armstrong walked on the moon four decades ago, we still haven’t figured out how to walk around a mile underwater. BP does have an army of deep-sea robots it deployed that can go down there, but there’s a limit of what they can do.

From the start, BP’s primary response has been to drill a relief well that should intersect with the other well about 13,000 feet below the seafloor and allow them to seal the gusher. The EPA insisted that BP start a second relief well, to improve the chances that the effort will work, especially since it takes months on end to verify it’s success or failure, all the while oil is pouring from the broken pipe. Although some experts have raised concerns that even with two relief wells, the statistical chances for success aren’t that great, there doesn’t seem to be another contingency in play.

While waiting for the relief well to be drilled, BP has attempted several other maneuvers and devices to capture or block the oil. First they sent down robotic submersibles and tried to activate the blowout preventer. When that failed, they attempted a “top kill” method in which they tried to plug the hole with mud and an assortment of junk (like rubber balls and pieces of plastic) so they could then seal it off with concrete. After three days, engineers called that method a failure too.

Next BP engineers fabricated a giant top hat shaped containment device and attempted to lower it down over the gushing pipe. That too failed. Finally, the oil company thread a mile-long tube into the broken pipe. This final endeavor has been somewhat successful, in that BP has managed to siphon some of the oil in to a waiting tanker. 

While engineers first tried one and then another scheme to stop the oil from pouring into the Gulf, Coast Guard, BP and commercial ships have been skimming oil from the surface. And BP has been dumping thousands of gallons of chemical dispersants; spraying it from airplanes and pumping it directly into the oil where it is gushing out of the broken pipe 5,000 feet below.

 

What are Dispersants and Why are We Using Them?

Oil dispersants are chemicals that makes oil molecules scatter, thus breaking up large clumps of oil and presumably making it small enough that oil eating microbes can break it down.

While that may sound good, there are actually some real problems with using dispersants. First, it is widely derided as not being the best way to clean up large-scale spills. That’s because, without the chemical, oil naturally separates from water and floats to the surface, where it can be burned off, soaked up with absorbent mats or picked up by an oil skimmer.

EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson

EPA administrator Lisa Jackson has called the use of dispersants the “lesser of two difficult environmental outcomes,”

But many scientists disagree.

For example, renown oceanographer Silvia Earle, called use of dispersants an “unmitigated disaster.”

An Explorer in Residence at the National Geographic Society, Sylvia Earle suggested that the only reason for BP to use so much of the chemicals is to force the oil to sink. With a large portion of the oil out of sight, the disaster would appear smaller than it actually is. Rather than solving the initial problem, Earle contends, BP is creating another, dispersing oil into the ocean’s water column where it could have devastating effects. The true impact of the dispersants on the oceanic ecosystem may never be known because BP isn’t allowing scientists to monitor the use or study the impact.

What is known is that Corexit 9500, the chemical being dumped on the Gulf in record-breaking amounts, is toxic. Its use has been linked with human health problems including respiratory, nervous system, liver, kidney and blood disorders. It is considered so unsafe that other countries, including England banned their use a decade ago.

Dispersants may already be sickening dozens of fishermen who have been helping with the Gulf oil clean up efforts. Last month, over a hundred commercial fishing boats which had been helping in the Gulf clean up were ordered ashore after many began falling ill.

Nearly a week prior to that announcement, the EPA had “ordered” BP to use a less toxic chemical dispersants, saying Corexit 9500 has been rated more toxic and less effective than many others on the list of 18 EPA-approved dispersants.

To date BP has chosen to ignore the EPA’s order, arguing that Corexit 9500 continues to be “the best option for subsea application,” and maintaining that no other alternative was less toxic, equally effective and as readily available as Corexit.

EPA responded by offering to do all the testing and procurement necessary to provide BP with a safer alternative, but doesn’t seem to have convinced the oil company to stop using Corexit 9500.

BP continues to rely on dispersants, as of June 4, they had dumped more than a million gallons of Corexit 9500 into the Gulf.

In June, CNN reported that widespread crop damage in the Gulf region is being blamed on Corexit 9500.

While BP’s efforts to cap the oil gushing into the Gulf of Mexico, they have been remarkably effective at blocking access to the area by journalists, scientists and even volunteers.