“This Scares Everybody” says BP:
Top Kill Fails, Imperils Gulf;
“There are no Solar Spills”

British Petroleum’s attempt to plug the petroleum gusher a mile beneath the Gulf of Mexico through a “top kill,” pumping mud into the oil pipeline in hopes of plugging it up, has failed, according to Chief Operating Officer Doug Suttles.

The LAT quotes him as saying, chillingly, at a news conference Saturday in Robert, LA, “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.”

Worse, the best estimates of independent scientists for the amount of petroleum being released daily is now north, possibly well north, of 25,000 barrels a day.

To put this rate in perspective, it should be noted that oil companies routinely invest substantial resources to get fields going in places such as the Philippines, Indonesia and Iraqi Kurdistan that pump 7,000 to 15,000 barrels of petroleum a day.

Every 1000 Americans consume roughly 68 barrels a day of petroleum. This statistic means that what is gushing up from the BP well equals the daily amount of oil used by 367,000 Americans per day, that is, by cities the size of St. Louis or Minneapolis. Imagine all the cars and trucks filling up in such major cities every day, and the buildings using heating oil, and imagine taking all that oil and gasoline and dumping it in the Gulf of Mexico. Every day.

Although spectacular oil spills of this magnitude are relatively rare, pumping petroleum out of the ground or sea and transporting it routinely results in spills that damage the marine environment. Americans could learn a lot from the problems that beset the Persian-Arabian Gulf, where nearly two-thirds of the world’s known petroleum reserves are found. In fact, BP or British Petroleum got its start as the Anglo-Persian Oil Company when William Knox D’Arcy discovered petroleum in the deserts of Iran in 1908. BP has its origins as a colonial institution, and has had a powerful impact on both Iran and the US. The other Gulf has suffered spills and contamination through the Iran-Iraq War of 1980-1988, the Gulf War of 1990-91 and the Great Oil Spill that attended it, and many lesser catastophes ever since. Mysterious multiple deaths of marine wildlife are baffling Iranian scientists and alarming Iran’s few environmentalists. Since President Obama said initially that he wanted to reach out to Iran, maybe cooperation on this issue would be a place to start.

I was amused at the Radio Free Europe’s comments about about the politics of petroleum pollution in Iran: “The reaction of Iranian officials is notable, and arguably fits into a pattern among states with poor records of accountability. Reports on Persian Gulf pollution and threats to other natural areas suggest that local efforts provide the most effective response and that the environment is not a priority for the state generally. Environmental issues very rarely feature in the speeches of senior officials. Reports frequently suggest that low-level officials block potentially destructive projects or react to degradation at an initial and local stage, but do not always receive systematic backing from officials in Tehran. In Iran, when economic interests clash with the environment, money is given priority.”

Couldn’t we just replace “Iran” with “the United States” and “Tehran” with “Washington” in the above paragraph?

What will happen to this petroleum in the Gulf of Mexico? About 40% of it will evaporate. If a lot of it washes ashore, the ‘evaporation’ will mean fumes harmful to wildlife and humans (people are already being sickened from exposure along the Louisiana coast).

Then, most of the rest will eventually be eaten by bacteria and released as carbon dioxide. The bacteria find it difficult to munch down when the oil is clumped together, and the point of the dispersant chemicals being applied to the massive oil slicks is to scatter the petroleum into smaller concentrations so the bacteria can get at it.

There is a real danger, however, of vast underwater plumes of petroleum forming, two of which have been discovered, which cannot be reached by dispersants and so will remain a threat to underwater ecosystems much longer, coating coral and destroying other ecosystems.

Even with regard to the dispersed petroleum, the bacteria can use up a lot of the sea’s oxygen in the process of breaking it down. And, molecules will bind to oxygen, oxidizing. The petroleum has the potential of adding another set of ‘dead zones’ to the one that already stretched into the Gulf from the mouth of the Mississippi, created by fertilizer (nitrogen and phosphates), which cause phytoplankton to increase like crazy, producing a “bloom” of algae that can deplete oxygen in the water. Likewise, when anaerobic bacteria eat the algae and multiply, that process further decreases the amount of oxygen in the water.

In essence, the petroleum that does not evaporate may have effects similar to the fertilizer effluent already spilling into the Gulf from the Mississippi basin, permanently killing off a lot of life in the Gulf. Thousands of tiny fish are already washing up dead on the Louisiana shore.

The much smaller Exxon-Valdez spill killed billions of salmon and herring eggs and as many as 250,000 seabirds. Only ten percent of the oil was recovered, with most of the rest infesting the underwater sand, being degraded by only 4% a year.

You can get a sense of the size of the primary oil slick versus your city here

All that is not to mention the oil contamination of the delicate marshes along the coast. Something like three-quarters of the shrimp and two-thirds of the oysters produced in the US come from these ecosystems along the Gulf coast, and they are likely to be destroyed for the medium term. Apparently you had a choice between offshore drilling and shrimp cocktails, and you chose offshore drilling.

For the fisherman living along the Gulf, this disaster pulverizes their livelihoods at a time when the Wall Street banks have already robbed us blind with their frauds and ponzi schemes, destroying millions of jobs.

And, this calamity is only the beginning. What stretches before us, as Michael Klare argues, is an age of extreme oil, with riskier and riskier projects that radically threaten the environment. Not to mention that all burning of petroleum of fuel is degrading the environment through global warming and climate change.

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 would 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.

In contrast to the fishermen’s jobs being tragically lost in Louisiana, the tax breaks and incentives for green energy in the federal stimulus bill, if continued, could produce 200,000 new jobs in the solar field alone, and has already produced 17,000 such jobs. The Illinois legislature just produced a bill to jumpstart the move to solar in that state.

Legislation and tax incentives are key to green energy as a start-up industry facing hydrocarbon semi-monopolies that are already massively subsidized by the government and by existing energy and transportation infrastructure. We saw this phenomenon in Germany, which got ahead in the solar game in large part because the Green Party was in coalition with the SPD in the 1990s and shaped some crucial legislation favoring solar and wind.

Some 28,000 solar jobs could be created in North Carolina with the right legislation. As Elizabeth Ouzts of Environment North Carolina pointed out, “There are no solar spills.”

And, exciting developments are taking place in Denmark and Germany with regard to offshore wind turbine power generation.

If there is a silver lining in the scary and depressing Great BP Gulf Catastrophe of 2010, it is that it may finally get state and federal legislators off their duffs and legislating sane energy policy for the health of the earth.

Posted in Environment | 26 Responses | Print |

26 Responses

  1. In addition to the direct subsidies to the oil companies and automobile manufacturers you listed (highways, cleanups, etc.) you should add the indirect subsidy of most of the cost of maintaining our armed forces that seem to be primarily used to control countries where oil is located. That is a very large subsidy indeed. Another subsidy is provided by those people whose livelihood is destroyed by this negligence. Do we also count all the people, our soldiers and the civilians in other countries, killed or maimed by our imperial efforts?

    • Hear Hear! and worth repeating.
      The Big Financial cartels – of who Big Oil is a large & important facet – have _sabotaged_ (bribed) the so-called “Change” Democratic White House – and Congress – to __sabotage__ a massive, “Manhatten Project” style investment in solar energy, in order to maintain a “Profit Center” for the elites who run America… and love their interest, dividends, royalties, and capital gains checks.
      Approximately 6 sq. meters of solar panels, in sunny climates, provides enough electricity to power an average American house for a day. That’s about a 12′ x 20′ strip – far less than the size of an garage roof.
      Obviously, if that area of solar panels was doubled, there would be a surplus of energy for the average house.
      Yet we Americans ignore this simple promise of energy dependence, because propaganda from the wealthy and their corporate armies indoctrinate us to consume fossil fuels in ever more gluttonous quantites.

  2. […] “This Scares Everybody” says BP: Top Kill Fails, Imperils Gulf — Juan Cole on BPs Gulf of Mexico disaster. I continue to think this will be much bigger than anyone admits, and continue to be very frustrated at the administrations deference to BP on the whole matter thus far. There’s a lot of reasons we voted the GOP out of office. One of them was to banish the idiotic conservative chimera of industry self-regulation. […]

  3. BP has given us an ‘American Chernobyl’. Not so radioactive but certainly no less dangerous. BP’s execs should be thrown in jail. Leave them there until that blown well is capped and the oil is ceased flowing. Leave them there until the entire mess is cleaned and the wetlands restored. Leave them there until all lives that have been, are now, and will be affected are put right. What BP has done is no less a crime against humanity than any one of G. Bush’s insane wars. Hmmm, how come the Obama can’t see the failure in Afghaniscam?

  4. This is also an indictment of society’s love with technology. Real life is not Hollywood whereby scientists find a solution to a sudden impact in less than a week if not day

  5. First, it’s not British Petroleum! The company has not carried that name for many years. It’s BP. Cable news pundits and commentators are making the same mistake, assuming they will sound more authoratative if the use the “full name” of the company, and merely revealing how little study they have given to the company they are criticizing. BP dropped the “British” in their name when they merged with Amoco and, while they remained nominally British, became largely American in ownership.

    The map which displays the size of the spill to one’s home town, it should be pointed out, displays only the KNOWN extent of the spill. It does not include the underwater plumes, the extent of which are unknown at this time.

  6. Juan,
    you may be interested in an article comparing this spill to the continuous spills in the Nigerian Delta. The oil companies there know it won’t make front page news, despite the fact that whole communities lose their livelihoods, as well as access to fresh water:

    link to guardian.co.uk

    It is a shocking indictment of Big Oil. A further description of BP’s refusal to admit the scale of the Gulf disaster is an eye-opening read:

    link to guardian.co.uk

    Apparently BP think as long as they keep the scale of the disaster out of the media, then somehow things are not so bad. Obama has played right into their hands, appearing to shoulder some of the responsibility (ie blame), which they will gladly offload, as they keep trying to on to Halliburton and others, despite the fact it was their own engineers who flagged up the dangers:

    “Papers obtained by the New York Times show that issues were raised as far back as last June. The problems involved the well casing and blowout preventer, considered critical pieces in the chain of events that led to the disaster.

    On 22 June last year, BP engineers were worried that the casing the company wanted to use might collapse under high pressure. “This would certainly be a worst-case scenario,” Mark Hafle, a senior drilling engineer at BP, warned in an internal report. “However, I have seen it happen so know it can occur.”

    The company went ahead with the casing, but only after getting special permission because it violated safety policies and design standards, the New York Times reported.”

    Special permission? That would be kickbacks, presumably.

    Surely it is time to separate government and the maintenance of environmental standards from the industries who shovel money into pressure groups and senators’ election funds. Oil, Israel, Big Pharma, the banks – they are all too embedded in the government structures for independent and rational non-partisan decisions to be made. ‘Democracy’, so-called, needs a massive makeover, root and branch reform.

    • “Obama has played right into their hands, appearing to shoulder some of the responsibility (ie blame)”

      What I fear most is that republicans will cynically exploit this event to hurt democrats in the next elections. We must remember that this spill was not caused by environmentalists or liberals or democrats or even Obama. It is BP’s fault and it is the fault of republicans who spent decades undermining environmental legislation that would have prevented this from ever happening. The democrats have spent year after year proposing green technologies only to have them scuttled by republicans. The only thing that seems more terrifying than this oil slick is the thought of a President Palin. Imagine her in charge of handling this mess…
      We can’t let that happen. Obama needs our support now more than ever!

  7. Seventeen nations have offered assistance — but “the final decision is up to BP” to accept it, according to the State Department

    Adm. Thad Allen, Incident Commander: “To push BP out of the way, it would raise the question, to replace them with what?” [White House briefing, 5/24/10]

    § 1321. Oil and hazardous substance liability

    (c) Federal removal authority
    (1) General removal requirement
    (A) The President shall, in accordance with the National Contingency Plan and any appropriate Area Contingency Plan, ensure effective and immediate removal of a discharge, and mitigation or prevention of a substantial threat of a discharge, of oil or a hazardous substance—
    (i) into or on the navigable waters;
    (ii) on the adjoining shorelines to the navigable waters;
    (iii) into or on the waters of the exclusive economic zone; or
    (iv) that may affect natural resources belonging to, appertaining to, or under the exclusive management authority of the United States.
    (B) In carrying out this paragraph, the President may—
    (i) remove or arrange for the removal of a discharge, and mitigate or prevent a substantial threat of a discharge, at any time;
    (ii) direct or monitor all Federal, State, and private actions to remove a discharge; and
    (iii) remove and, if necessary, destroy a vessel discharging, or threatening to discharge, by whatever means are available.

    Obama has the authority (of course) to direct or monitor all Federal, State, and private actions to remove a discharge, but he’s married to BP.

  8. “Americans could learn a lot from the problems that beset the Persian-Arabian Gulf,”
    How could they? If they and their history buffs and educators do not even know the name of the place! PB has big guns and uncles, owns politician by the dozens and is purely motivated by profits. The leak in the Yankee-Mexican gulf is just a sideshow, the real American Vaudeville is indeed in Washington.

  9. You didn’t mention Obama’s part in ramrodding BPs licence to drill in the gulf through and how Obama allowed BP to drill without the required envrionmental study. Also the purpose of dispersmants is to sink the oil. And the oil isn’t going to just magically disappear and no the spill will change nothing as far the making people want to perserve the environment in the future. Also the “spills” are more common than you suggest.

  10. I am so glad that Obama is in charge and not Bush or McCain. This disaster could have been much worse if the government had not been taking charge from day one. People should not blame the president for BP’s catastrophe.

  11. The rising chorus of American voices calling for Mr. Obama “to become more involved” in the environmental disaster that will destroy the coastline and culture of the eastern half of the U.S. Gulf Coast (and quite possibly wrap around the Florida peninsula and lay waste to the southern half of the East Coast) is, in my opinion an expression the exasperation felt by most Americans that they, themselves are not involved in the defense of their homeland by this invader; That they, themselves are ready for action ~ ready to report for duty, Sir! ~ and crave for their leader to turn to them and say, “Follow me! We’re getting killed on this beach (couch, cubicle, computer console chair) So get off your butts and let’s start fighting back!”

    Obama’s “Katrina” ? the headline blasts in that tense, passive-aggressive tense ( j’Accuse? ) ending with that wimpy, weasel ? rhetorical that supposedly makes it OK to label, I daresay all but libel someone with all kinds of negative JuJu. But they’ve got it all wrong, Juan. This is not Mr. Obama’s “Katrina” moment — this is the President’s “9/11” moment… That crisis = opportunity that Mr. Bush had, and squandered ~ when the whole nation (yea, and much of the world as well) was spontaneously flying American flags, and would have followed him to Hell and back; that precious moment when Mr. Bush responded with, “My fellow Americans… Go Shopping.”

    NOW IS THE TIME for Mr. Obama to tell the American people: “YOU can do something about this. Stop using OIL. Stop using it whenever and where ever you can. Stop using petroleum products. We can change. YES WE CAN!” Not unlike Goebbel’s Sportpalast speech of 1943 : “Two hundred years of American history are in danger. Do you believe in the final total victory of the American people? Are you, the American people willing to work 10, 12 and if necessary 14 hours a day, and to give everything for victory? Do you want total war? If necessary, do you want a war more total and radical than anything that we can even imagine today?

  12. I’ve disliked BP ever since I read a book about their adventures as Anglo-Persian Oil Company. Boy, did they treat the Iranians and Iran’s political leaders badly. It’s nice to know they are still arrogantly blundering on.

  13. All I can say is, the person at BP, in charge of containment and cleanup in Prince William Sound after the ExxonValdez disaster, was none other than Tony Hayward.

    Need I say more? He is a crook, and a liar, and the company is only looking at some 20 years of litigation, to finally pay peanuts to whomever was/is/will be, damaged in the Gulf.

    Obama is a conspirator, to let BP get away with this.

    Just listen to Mike Williams’ testimony on 60 Minutes a couple weeks ago. Exhibit A, if they let him live. Not a defective Blowout Preventer . . . a damaged one, from an accident, and then the coverup by BP personnel. Broken parts came up the pipe, were shown to the BP supervisor, and he said go forward anyway.

    Review the record about BP’s failure in PWS to have containment equipment and personnel (they had fired the competent ones, and the vessel was in drydock, iced in). And then, they lied about it. Then a Repub-led Supreme Court cut the punitive damage award by 90%, 19 years later. Justice? Wow. Wait until they get finished with the Gulf litigation, if the East Coast is still functioning. Acid rain? Just watch. Black, acid rain, and benzene in your noses. Hurricanes are powerful items, and they sweep up water from the sea. Oil sheen, come aboard for a ride into your own clouds.

    And the 3 huge plumes, hunkering under the surface like Oil Submarines, or Great Black Sharks, ready to strike the Alabama and Florida coasts soon.

    BP supplies our military with 80% of its fuel needs, and the company gave the Obama campaign almost a million dollars for his presidential run.

    Who is the fool? My shrimp, and Gulf peoples’ livelihoods and lives.
    It’s too late for containment, but not too late for criminal prosecutions. Got to stop the crimes somewhere, eh?

  14. If you think this is bad (and it is!), check out this report on Russian scientists’ assessment and predictions of what could transpire.
    According to them, the oil itself is “less” of a danger than the dispersant being used, Corexit 9500.
    link to eutimes.net
    If this is true and has a chance of happening, surely the world (and not just the US) stands at the gates of hell: “Let’s go shopping!!!”

  15. If the spill isn’t checked soon this will become like the Iran Hostage Crisis. Complete with a 0n-going tally of days presented over Fox News while Obama bleeds political support daily.

    We all know how poor his intuition & instincts are now, given his catastrophic timing on planning to increase offshore drilling.

  16. Throughout many articles I’ve read including this one and throughout the comments, there is the impression that many progressive people think we can just switch to solar or wind renewable energy. I fully support renewable sources and want to curtail our addiction to oil. But I am also an engineer who has to pay attention to facts.

    Renewables only help us produce electricity. They are a partial alternative to new coal fired power plants. Even the strongest advocates of wind and solar agree that no more than 30% of our electricity can be generated with wind and solar because these sources of energy are not controllable. People don’t want their lights to go out or businesses to shut down because the wind hasn’t blown for a day or two. We need new technology to STORE electricity if renewables are to play a larger role. Today’s battery technologies don’t measure up to this task. Where will the other 70% of our power come from? Given that hydro-electric has already been fully exploited, our choices are coal, nuclear, or oil. Not much of a choice.

    Electric cars and trucks, while starting to come to market, have limited range and speeds unless you are willing to spend six figures for your car and replace a very expensive battery pack after every 1000 charges or so. Or live with a constant reduction in range. There is no alternative fuel to oil for these vehicles except for a very limited amount of biofuels. Producing these fuels takes valuable farm ground, lots of fertilizer (made with oil), water, and diesel powered tractors. There is promising technology but none is close to ready for economic exploitation.

    There is no alternative to oil for aviation, period.

    So, if you regularly drive, which almost all of us do, and you fly, which most of us do at least once a year, you are part of the addiction problem. An addiction is just that. If you give it up, you will suffer immense pain.

    What we need is serious research. It needed to happen back in the Clinton and Bush eras. Instead we all (I didn’t) rushed out to buy the latest gas guzzling SUVs during those eras. Is it too late now? I don’t know. But monsters like BP, Exxon, Chevron, and others have been empowered by this total dependance on oil and oil based products.

    As peak oil approaches, producing more oil will carry increasing environmental and political risks. Where are the breaking points. Have we hit one already in the gulf?


  17. The long term answer is not electric vehicles or alternative fuels. It is to develop and use a multitude of renewable energy sources. It is also to rework our society so that less energy is needed altogether. Foodstuffs and manufactured goods produced with less energy consuming machinery; those same goods produced locally so that less energy devouring transportation is required to get them to market.
    In short, less globalization.

  18. The answer to the Gulf of Mexico oil crisis is simple. It starts with legislation. We need to require mandatory relief wells to be dug by all companies doing transoceanic drilling in the world. We have large oil reserves, and oil is part of our future. We cannot move forward without learning from this incident. Relief wells should be required to be dug prior to production wells. The future of the oil industry is in our oceans. Two-thirds of our planet is covered by seawater. If we do not learn from this disaster, we will be doomed to repeat it. A relief well is analogous to a safety belt in an automobile. We cannot blame the oil industry for this disaster, we must learn from it and legislate it. It is our fault for not having the foresight to protect our oil reserves and lands. We must move forward and create industry wide standardization from this that allows safer drilling worldwide. It may raise oil prices and affect the industries bottom line, but as we move forward into deeper and more challenging transoceanic drilling it is the most conservative, logical, and responsible option that exists from an engineering standpoint. We cannot afford similar disasters in our future from an ecologic, financial, and social standpoint. It is imperative that we move into our future dependence on oil with responsible foresight, and that we learn from our irresponsibility here by not requiring mandatory relief wells in drilling in our waters off the Gulf of Mexico.

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