BP: “This scares everybody”

UPDATE 6/2/2010: The latest maneuver – trying to cut the pipe and then cap it – ran into trouble, as the drill got “stuck.” The Justice Department is now pursuing unspecified criminal investigations. And the oil is nearing Florida’s beaches.

Operation Top Kill has failed to stop the oil gushing into the Gulf of Mexico. The Los Angeles Times quotes BP Chief Operating Officer Doug Suttles: “After three full days, we have been unable to overcome the flow from the well, so we now believe it is time to move on to another option . . . This scares everybody — the fact that we can’t make this well stop flowing or the fact that we haven’t succeeded so far.”

Now BP will try another strategy that, even if successful, would stop only part of the oil flow and, if unsuccessful, will make it worse. According to BBC:

BP is setting up its Lower Marine Riser Package (LMRP) to stem the flow.

It will use undersea robots to slice through the damaged pipe to make a clean cut that can be connected to another pipe, capturing the leaking oil. …

University of Alabama engineering professor Philip W Johnson told Associated Press news agency that although he was hopeful the plan would succeed, if the new cap could not be placed on the fresh cut, “things will get much worse”.

So the new strategy, which will take four days to implement, might be a partial fix – or it might make things much worse. In either event, the relief well won’t be ready until August – any bets on whether that will work?

The meta-issue, as posed by Juan Cole, is that we continue to subsidize the petroleum companies that are ruining the environment while raking in the profits – and fail to take seriously the need to end our petroleum dependence and develop alternative energy sources.

In the medium to long term, the fix for this mess is a transition to hybrid and electric vehicles, and to electricity generated by wind and solar. This transition was come more quickly (and it is very urgent) if the federal and state governments would stop subsidizing petroleum on a massive scale, making the public pay for the environmental costs of producing it while giving the petroleum companies substantial tax breaks. Not to mention that the federal superhighway program functions as a huge taxpayer subsidy to automobile and truck traffic, when it would be far less expensive and more ecologically sound to favor trains instead. I.e., we wuz robbed, and continue to be robbed, in order to subsidize corporations that are poisoning us.

Cole also provides a handy catalog of the human and ecological consequences of the disaster, now estimated at more than 25 thousand barrels per day (roughly equivalent to the amount of oil used every day by the entire population of Minneapolis):

  • Evaporating oil causes fumes that are already sickening people and animals in Louisiana.
  • Underwater plumes — beyond the reach of chemical dispersants — will coat coral and destroy underwater ecosystems.
  • Chemical dispersants will allow bacteria to eat some of the oil – but the oxygen capture needed for this process will create dead zones in the Gulf, similar to the fertilizer-caused dead zone now stretching from the mouth of the Mississippi.
  • Fish kills directly caused by the oil have already begun, along with the devastation of the fishing industry.
  • Sea birds’ feathers are fouled by oil.
  • Shrimp and oyster beds are being destroyed, and with them, the livelihood of people who harvested “something like three-quarters of the shrimp and two-thirds of the oysters produced in the US.”

The New York Times notes that misplaced faith in the ability of technology to save us may have contributed to the frontier mentality of underwater drilling expansion:

As BP struggled last week to stanch the flow of spewing oil at the Deepwater Horizon rig, it has become clear that the pressure to dig deeper and faster from what Mr. Eyton then called a “frontier province” of oil exploration has in some ways outpaced the knowledge about how to do that safely. (And there is still the question of whether BP used all the tools and safety mechanisms available.)

But the problem is not in the misplaced trust of the masses, as implied in the preceding article. Instead, it is in the arrogant deception and cowboy risk-taking of the industry. Even as one NYT writer pontificates about “our” faith in technology, another reports that BP knew perfectly well that it was taking huge risks, and chose to ignore them:

The [BP internal] 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. …

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.

The article, and the Congressional testimony on which it is based, show repeated, continuing shortcuts and decisions to ignore consistent and serious problems with blowout prevention mechanisms. Not only did BP and Transocean ignore the safety issues that led to the current disaster – federal officials rubberstamped their requests for variances. The final example: on April 15, BP applied for a variance in blowout safety precautions for Deepwater Horizon. “Less than 10 minutes after the request was submitted, federal regulators approved the permit,” wrote the NYT.

BP has a long history of bad behavior. Daily Kos blogger Robert Kezelis, who blogs as “agnostic,” sounds a warning about BP’s Assault on the Great Lakes. Even though attention is focused on the Gulf of Mexico, BP continues to push its drilling agenda in other parts of the country and world, and we cannot afford to ignore them.

For disaster-movie fans, the Wall Street Journal’s minute-by-minute account of exactly what happened on the night of April 20 reads like a script, complete with a 23-year-old heroine who broke the rules to issue the first MayDay call, delay by higher-ups in issuing an abandon ship order, and workers leaping from the sides of the rig into the Gulf waters below.

The deck pulsed with heat. The air was thick with smoke, and the surface of the water beneath the rig—covered with oil and gas—was burning. Crew members attached a 25-foot life raft to a winch, swung it over a railing and inflated it. Mr. Wheeler was lifted in and several others climbed in with him. As the raft began descending, Ms. Fleytas jumped in. The remaining people on the rig, including Capt. Kuchta, leapt into the Gulf.

I’m reading about the oil spill and writing this blog post as I take a break from WisCon, a science fiction and fantasy convention. The WSJ story makes great reading, and would fit neatly into a science fiction dystopia, complete with an attractive heroine in a doomed struggle to save the day, and individual failures which, if not always villainous, at least keep in motion the inexorable slide into death and destruction.

Individual heroism or failure, however, is not the real story here: we have systems failure on multiple levels. Michael Klare’s article in the June 14 edition of The Nation is a powerful indictment, with specifics about corporate wrong-doing and collusion by the Minerals Management Service, supported by our drilling-and-driving energy non-policy. Unfortunately, there’s nothing fictional about this business-industrial disaster of unknown and growing proportions, with no scientific, technological or policy fixes in sight.

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