(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)
August 01, 2010
in Action: The Case of BP's Oil Spill
ON April 22, ironically being observed world over as
Earth Day, the Deepwater Horizon rig drilling in Gulf of Mexico, blew
killing 11 workers and creating one of the worst oil spills in history.
well being drilled off the coast of Louisiana was owned by British
(BP). The well which has been temporarily capped now, spilled an
million barrels or an equivalent of one Exxon Valdez every 3-5 days.
Valdez was the tanker, which had sunk off the Alaskan coast in 1989 and
as the benchmark on oil spills in the oceans. The only other oil spill
seas that is bigger than Deepwater was the one in Persian Gulf during
The record of Big Oil on spills have been dismal
But disaster is what Big Oil lives with, not because
it has to but because it always puts profits before safety and people.
Deepwater rig blow out, BP was paying a half million per day for the
wanted to move it to another location quickly to save this money. They
against the recommendations of their own engineers and their
this hurry. Check this saving half a million per day against the
was making in the last quarter alone, it made more than $6.1 billion
The record of Big Oil is matched by that of the
governments. In the US, despite known danger of oil spills, there was
no regulatory oversight in deep sea drilling. The companies were
regulate themselves, very much in the mode of the press in India. The
not very different from paid news being served up as real news. The oil
companies routinely run equipment to failure giving preventive
all other such practices the go-by. From Alaska to Nigeria, from BP to
the results are there for all to see.
Not only was all oversight left to the oil companies
themselves, even the liability from any accident capped under the Bush
was capped to only 75 million dollars from any off-shore drilling.
this figure to the amount that companies such as BP are making more
billion dollars in profits for the international oil majors.
is on par with what the Indian government is now proposing for nuclear
operators for a plant costing billions, the liability cap for the
will only be 110 million dollars. This is what capitalism has always
about privatising huge profits, while people pay with their lives or
livelihood for accidents. And in this, governments big or small are
gloves with private capital.
Turning to the Deepwater Horizon well spill, one of
the key issues today is that the era of easy oil is over, at least for
oil majors. Companies such as BP, Shell, Texaco, Aramco, etc., are no
able to access easily oil resources. Most of the West Asian oil fields
owned by state owned companies and they are facing competition from
Tough oil comes at a price it is far more
challenging a task to drill for oil one to two kilometres under water
further 5-10 kilometres in the mud and sediment of the ocean floor. The
pressures are enormous a column of water and sediment of 6 -10
easily crush equipment and buckle steel plates. The temperatures at
the ocean is near freezing, while deep under the ocean floor, the
are as high as 250 degrees centigrade. Most of the oil at these
are in gaseous form and that is one of the problems. They can shoot up
giant methane bubble as happened in Deepwater or become a solid mass
encounters the cold temperatures of the ocean. Either way, the problems
going deep under the sea has major technological problems.
The problems are further compounded by the fact that
no vehicle carrying human beings can operate at these pressures: we
implode. Every bit of the work is done remotely using robots or
controlled equipment. On top of this is
the rig, costing more than half a billion and as large as the Titanic.
always manoeuvre to stay stationary over the spot which is being
despite typhoons and hurricanes. This is one hugely complex system, for
every part must work for disasters not to happen. It is not a system
works if you play with safety. Nor can such systems be left to the
mercy of the
operators themselves, as the US government decided.
The Deepwater Horizon blow out was the result of a
complex series of events. There were reports of leaking valves,
well control, the design of the final safety system the blow-out
The US house committee investigating the blow-out in a statement made
noted that in a number of cases leading up to the explosion, BP chose
procedures to save time or money, sometimes against the advice of its
contractors. BP's partner in the oil field, Anadarko Petroleum
said "... BP operated unsafely and failed to
monitor and react to several critical
warning signs during the drilling. ... BP's behavior and actions likely
represent gross negligence or willful misconduct. The net result was
bubble of methane rose up the riser that connected the well to the
platform, exploded destroying the rig and the riser.
BP's initial reaction, backed by the Obama
administration was to reassure everybody that there was no leak. When
signs of oil slick appeared, they kept on reassuring the public that it
small leak of 1,000 barrels a day. This was revised six times, each
after independent estimates made clear that the spill was much bigger
being officially stated. The current figures officially released by the
Coastguards is about 60,000 barrels a day, while internal BP documents
that the spill could be as high as 100,000 barrels a day.
Though the well has been temporarily capped, this is
only a temporary measure pending drilling a relief well, expected to be
operational by August. The damage however to the coastline and to
is enormous. Reports indicate that a methane pool has accumulated
huge dead zone. Meanwhile, BP has pumped huge amounts of chemicals in
to disperse the oil. These chemicals also have long term effects they
toxic and could stay in the food chain for a long time. Probably, about
the spilt oil has been mopped up through pumping back into barges
some of the
spilt oil, burning and dispersing through the chemicals, etc. The rest
stay in the sea as a long term issue plaguing the Gulf and the
decades. The clean-up can only address a
part of the problem, leaving mother nature to take care of the rest.
The Obama administration has missed major
opportunities in orienting the debate on regulations and on energy.
Obama did come down on BP and Democrats have
proposed legislation that will force BP pay compensation beyond
million dollar cap retrospectively, nevertheless, the administration
collaborated with BP in first tamping down on all information flows on
disaster and later helping BP hide the damage of the oil spill. All
have been barred from spill areas on the specious plea that it will
task of controlling the spill more difficult.
The energy debate is still bogged down on the need for
a high oil consumption economy. No major changes are foreseen, meaning
deep sea drilling will continue in the future. The only change here is
temporary moratorium on deep sea drilling, which has now been stayed by
Court. How this scenario will play is yet to be seen.
The key issue of regulatory controls is how to bring
back serious regulation after the hammer that the Bush administration
the regulator the Minerals Management Service (MMS). MMS was more
kickbacks, sniffing cocaine and partying than any serious oversight. In
hearings of the Congressional Committee, the MMS officials have openly
that they did not do anything that could be even remotely considered as
oversight. It was self regulation all the way, the same as in the
sector that tanked the global economy.
The real issue is with the way capital today looks at
the world. It is continuing to look at the world as an infinite
oceans and the air as infinite sinks where anything and everything can
dumped. All this is tied to governments who believe that it is the
capital that they must serve. Whether a Bush or an Obama in