Thursday, June 10, 2010

BP Oil Spill: Destroying a way of life and ending a heritage

By Ernest Corea
Republished courtesy IDN-InDepth NewsAnalysis

WASHINGTON DC (IDN) - Viceroys, lesser officials, military commanders, and commercial barons of the empire on which it was believed the sun could never set would have envied the speed with which their distant descendants at British Petroleum (BP) have made their mark internationally, with maximum visibility and public attention.

So swift has their recent ascent been in public awareness that the initials are no longer identified with the eternal "side dish" of British cuisine, boiled potatoes. The real BP is the power behind the gusher that keeps on gushing.


The BP Disaster began on April 20, 2010 with an explosion on the "Deepwater Horizon", an oil rig stationed some 40 miles off the coast of Louisiana, drilling for oil on a well situated approximately one mile below the surface of the Gulf of Mexico.

The explosion was followed by a spectacular blaze. The tragic incident killed 11 workers and seriously injured seventeen. The Deepwater Horizon sank and burned, setting off an offshore oil spill now recognized as the worst in U.S. history.

Three companies were involved in the operation: Transocean owned the rig, BP was awarded the lease to carry out the drilling and leased the rig from Transocean until 2013, and BP hired Halliburton (with which Vice President Dick Cheney was once associated) to cement the different segments of the deep water oil well.

As the weeks passed, people in the affected areas were on the edge of desperation as they feared that the oil flow would never end -- and that nobody engaged in fighting it knew exactly how to deal with it.

Public reaction exploded into anger when top executives of BP, Halliburton, and Transoceanic appeared before a congressional committee in Washington DC bearing prepared statements blaming each other.

As for the culpability of each individual company, the witnesses performed like a combined manifestation of Corporal Klink, a character in the old television show "Hogan's Heroes" whose inevitable response to any question concerning his responsibilities was: "I know nothing."

Anger was laced with revulsion when BP's CEO Tony Hayward offered victims of the tragedy a crude and insensitive "apology." He said: "We're sorry for the massive disruption it's caused their lives. There's no one who wants this over more than I do. I would like my life back."

He had already forgotten that as a result of the BP gang's reckless delinquency, 11 grieving families could never get back their lost loved ones.


The gush of oil was estimated at some 1000 barrels of oil a day to begin with, but towards the end of April the estimate was raised to 5000 barrels a day. Even this estimate was questioned and has since been elevated to a possible 12,000 to 25,000 barrels a day.

Recently, however, a metal cap appeared to be reducing the flow. Much damage had, however, already been done as the slick moved on persistently, threatening Louisiana first, then Alabama, Florida, and Mississippi.

Thus, with a single explosion on an oil rig, and lack of preparedness or skill to deal with it, BP and its partners were credited with creating a complex, multi-faceted crisis that has resulted in death and injury, threatened livelihoods, caused ecological havoc, and intruded into international affairs.

The severity of the crisis and the anguished reaction to its impact on lives and livelihoods compelled President Barack Obama to cancel visits to Pacific Rim countries for the second time and stay home where he took personal leadership of efforts to restore the affected areas to something approaching near-normal.

Threats to people and the environment on which they depend continue, provoking Obama to say:

"this spill has not just damaged livelihoods. It has upended whole communities. And the fury people feel is not just about the money they have lost. It is about the wrenching recognition that this time their lives may never be the same….. It is brutally unfair."

At the time of writing the relentless spread of potential catastrophe over an ever-widening area, is breathtaking.


The expanding sheen of oil across the surface of the Gulf's waters is on show daily, on commercial television. The contamination looks ugly. But if only scenic considerations were the problem the BP spill would not be the scandalous crisis of the season.

The oil slick which has something of the consistency of tar is expected to damage marine life in the gulf, as it moves towards land and spreads across the region -- unless it is stopped. The first sign that the people of Louisiana had that their state was an early victim came in the form of a dead, oil-soaked pelican -- the state's "official" bird.

Ed Overton, a chemist at Louisiana State University, was quoted as pointing out that "if this is the heavy oil [as] we suspect, it's just like road tar. It doesn't go away. It's not very biodegradable, and it's not easy to wash off with dispersants, soaps or beach cleaners."

The roaming oil could also destroy the basis of the seafood industry and devastate the lives of families whose incomes depend on shrimping, crabbing, oyster fishing, and so on. Marsh lands could be damaged to the point that it will take years for them to recover and that, too, only with concerned and competent care.

With the economy of the Gulf states dependent on clean coastal water, seafood and tourism, estimates of the cost of the spill have already been put at some $15 billion. That is only a starting estimate.

The head of a fishing family told visiting officials: "We were lying in the hole that Katrina created. No we can't get out of it." "This is the end of a way of life. We have no heritage to pass on," said another.


The short-term effects of the disaster are expected to linger at least until August. The long-term effort to turn the situation completely around could truly be long term, lasting several years.

"This is a long campaign, and we're going to be dealing with this for the foreseeable future," says Admiral Thad W. Allen, of the U.S. Coast Guard, who is overall command of the clean-up and rehabilitation.

Allen and his colleagues will be dealing with the spill itself. "We're adapting to an enemy that changes. As the spill changes, we need to change, too."

The long-term campaign has to be conducted on several other fronts as well, because there is much more to the situation -- past, present, and future -- that technology alone can handle.

For instance:

From April 20, 2010 itself, there appears to have been confusion about how the explosion occurred, with numerous questions remaining unanswered.

Had sub-standard material been used? Were potentially dangerous short cuts taken to reduce expenditures so that profits would be enhanced? Were warning signals from experienced rig staff ignored? Were safety tests incorrectly conducted? Did BP have any idea as to how it should cope with a major spill? Was the preparedness of the Coast Guard to grapple with a catastrophic development adequate?

-- BP is considered responsible for the oil spill, but were there other factors at play as well? Is oil drilling intrinsically crisis-prone and should Obama therefore ditch his effort to appease driller Republicans by permitting a limited amount of oil drilling?

-- Are the laws that apply to drilling adequate? "If the laws on our books are insufficient to prevent such a spill, the laws must change," says Carol Browner, Assistant to the President for Energy and Climate Change

-- Were existing laws broken, and did that contribute to the death and destruction? If so, mechanisms will be required to "bring those responsible to justice on behalf of the victims of this catastrophe and the people of the Gulf region," says Browner.

-- The Department of Justice has already launched a criminal investigation into the crisis. This needs to take all aspects of the damage cause, and help to determine the culpability for each act or segment of destruction.

-- There has been much speculation about a far too "cosy" relationship between government officials and the oil industry going back at least a decade. If that is not just gossip but fact, and if the cosiness contributed to the catastrophe, the arm of the law must reach out to all responsible persons, however high their positions in government might have been.

-- The Obama Administration has pledged that "BP and any other responsible parties pay not only for the cost of the cleanup, but also for the economic damages suffered by people living in the region whose livelihoods have been affected or destroyed by the spill." To what extent will that commitment be hampered by the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 that caps the liability of a firm for economic damages from oil spills at $75 million?


Obama has appointed a bipartisan BP Oil Spill Commission chaired by former Senator Bob Graham and former EPA Administrator Bill Reilly to conduct a full and thorough investigation of the cause of the BP oil spill.

The commission will hold public hearings and, based on evidence from the government, experts in the oil and gas industry, and all other relevant sources, will present Obama with options for ensuring that a tragedy like this one never happens again.

But now, consider this: can really effective options be developed without changing the nation's uncontrolled thirst for petroleum? Will the "drill, baby, drill" crowd ever understand that their slogan is better suited to serve as the title of a movie than as a definition of public policy? (IDN-InDepthNews/09.06.2010)
Copyright © 2010 IDN-InDepthNews | Analysis That Matters

The writer has served as Sri Lanka's ambassador to Canada, Cuba, Mexico, and the USA. He was Chairman of the Commonwealth Select Committee on the media and development, Editor of the Ceylon 'Daily News' and the Ceylon 'Observer', and was for a time Features Editor and Foreign Affairs columnist of the Singapore 'Straits Times'. He is on the IDN editorial board.

This article appears in the writer's regular column 'Consider This' in June 2010 issue of Global Perspectives (, a monthly magazine for international cooperation, produced by Global Cooperation Council -- a non-governmental organisation campaigning for genuine cooperation and fair globalization -- in partnership with IDN-InDepthNews.