Deepwater: An Unnatural Disaster on a Massive Scale

By Reid Mukai

On April 20th, 2010 an explosion rocked the Deepwater Horizon oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico, instantly killing 11 workers and injuring 15. The rig was owned by Transocean Ltd. and under contract with British Petroleum. Halliburton was contracted to perform a variety of operations on the rig including a well-plugging procedure called “cementing”, which they performed less than 24 hours before the explosion. Faulty cementing was the cause of a November 2005 oil spill that the Deepwater Horizon was involved in, as well as one that occurred one week later at a different oil rig in the same area. Two days later (which happened to be 2010’s Earthday) the Deepwater Horizon sank, causing two large breaks in the oil pipeline at the ocean floor (about 5,000 feet below the surface). The Coast Guard originally estimated 1,000 barrels of oil a day were leaking into the ocean but the number was revised to 5,000 barrels a day soon after. The precise rate of oil gushing into the Gulf of Mexico has yet to be determined, but scientists who specialize in spill calculations have warned of a worst case scenario of tens of thousands of barrels a day, which would amount to an Exxon Valdez magnitude disaster every few days.

As of May 18th, the official wildlife death toll caused by the oil spill was 189 sea turtles, 23 birds and 12 dolphins. In actuality the numbers are certainly much higher and will get worse in the future even years after the well is plugged, which it still has not been completely. Throughout the unfolding disaster, the responsible corporations acted swiftly and decisively…to limit their liability, protect profits and pass the buck. Interestingly, most of the “solutions” to the spill attempted by BP, including the failed “top hat” containment strategy on May 8 and the “syphon tubes” installed on May 16, allowed BP to keep collecting oil and did nothing to actually stop the spill. At some unspecified point during the cleanup efforts, BP began spraying a chemical dispersant called Corexit onto the surface oil, despite the fact that dispersants only hide the appearance of oil by breaking it into tinier drops more easily absorbed by living organisms and such chemicals have also been linked to cancer and genetic mutations. BP has bought up a third of the world’s supply of dispersant, and by their own accounts have dumped at least 800,000 gallons of it into the Gulf of Mexico (as of 5/25/10). Not surprisingly, Nalco Co., the manufacturer of Corexit, has board members who are also executives at BP and Exxon. To BP’s further embarassment, on May 25 attorney Brent Coon released internal BP documents showing explicitly that BP had a policy of cutting costs at the expense of upholding optimum safety standards. On May 13th, Transocean Ltd. petitioned the Houston federal court to cap their liability at less than $27 million using an archaic maritime law from 1851. Less than a week later, Transocean informed shareholders that they would be receiving a $1 billion payout starting in July. Given the legal recognition of corporate personhood in the U.S., which allows corporations all the rights and benefits of individuals, perhaps it’s time to give them the same responsibilities and penalties as well? If any corporations are deserving of a death penalty, it’s BP and Transocean Ltd.

As callous, incompetent and self-serving as the corporate response to the disaster has been, the government’s response has not been much better. This would be expected from the Republicans, who have a long history of denial and ignorance regarding environmental issues, but most of us had more hope for Obama. His administration supported BP’s initial conservative assessment of the rate of the oil spill which even at the time contradicted the analysis from many environmental scientists. This in effect downplayed the true scale of the disaster and helped BP stall for time before taking action. In recent press conferences Obama has appeared very apologetic, accepting responsibility for the mishandling of the disaster response, yet he continues to reject the idea of a federal takeover of the situation while defending BP’s inadequate and ineffective measures. But perhaps this shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise because during the last election Obama was the biggest recipient of BP cash of all the candidates, and just weeks before the Deepwater Horizon explosion, Obama announced plans for expansion of oil and gas drilling off the coast of the eastern seaboard and Alaska. Rather than a full reversal of this decision in light of the Gulf Spill disaster, Obama has called for a 6 month moratorium on new drilling permits (enough time for people to forget?) but has not halted plans for 49 offshore drills that were approved without a full environmental review. Despite his flaws, I hope Obama doesn’t become the scapegoat because there are many guilty parties that deserve to share the blame, including the Interior Department’s Minerals Management Service division, who during the Bush administration were involved in sex, drug and bribe scandals with oil executives and may have improperly awarded safety certificates to BP and Transocean Ltd.

Given such massive failures from our government and corporate institutions, it’s more important than ever for each of us to do our part to make positive changes in the world. The largest and most lasting changes we can make must be made collectively and involves changing the way we live our lives. Because of circumstances, not all of us may be able to immediately get rid of our cars, move, or change careers, but we can all think carefully about where our money goes, and this is especially important when it comes to purchasing food. According to a study called “Food, Land, Population and the U.S. Economy”, 400 gallons of oil is required to feed the average American annually. Most of it is used for the manufacture of chemical fertilizers, and the rest goes to operation of field machinery, transportation, irrigation, pesticides, crop drying, packaging and refrigeration. By doing something as simple, easy, healthy, and enjoyable as consuming local and organics foods, you can help reduce our civilization’s petrochemical addiction which will reduce the chances of disasters such as the Deepwater oil spill from happening again in the future.

Posted in Trade Justice Blog Posts, Uncategorized.

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