It’s hard to grasp the awesome scale of the catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico caused by the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster. It is definitely the US’s biggest ever environmental disaster—and may be the worst in world history.
Oil has been leaking into the Gulf for over two months—and will not stop until BP finalises a relief well in August. Oil firm BP first claimed that a “mere” 1000 barrels a day had poured into the ocean.
Now the US government estimate is up to 60,000 barrels a day. BP’s recovery program is siphoning off about half this amount. But a third of what it captures is simply being burned off.
The reason for the different estimates on how much oil has leaked is money. Under the US Clean Water Act, BP could be fined up to $4300 for every barrel of oil gushing into the Gulf. If its lower estimates are accepted it will save BP millions of dollars.
The region’s fishing industry will be destroyed. The full effect of the spill on fish, birds and marine mammals will not be known for generations.
Oil is pouring into the deep currents of a semi-enclosed sea, poisoning the water and depriving it of oxygen so that entire classes of marine species are at risk of annihilation.
Why did it happen?
The cause of the oil spill is simple—the pursuit of profit at all costs.
The explosion on the Deepwater Horizon rig came after a “blowout preventer valve” failed to work.
BP has known of the problems with rigs’ preventer valves for ten years—but wouldn’t spend the money to fix the problem.
In June 2000, the oil giant issued a “notice of default” to Transocean, the operator of the rig that blew up in the Gulf.
The dispute was precisely over problems with a preventer valve, which Transocean acknowledged at the time did “not work exactly right”.
Transocean neglected to install an acoustically triggered shutoff valve costing $500,000 on Deepwater Horizon that could have stopped the flow of oil.
Norway and Brazil have made the backup safety valves compulsory, but US regulators have refused to do the same. In 2009 BP spent nearly $16 million on lobbying the US government.
BP was rushing as it was leasing the rig for half a million dollars a day.
BP workers described the well as “troublesome” in the weeks leading up to the explosion.
The day before the explosion there were three “sudden loud noises as bursts of pressure had been released”.
Pressure tests had shown a “disturbing imbalance”.
Mike Williams, Deepwater Horizon chief electronics technician, said a BP manager pressured workers to speed up the drilling on the rig before it exploded. Eleven workers are now dead as a result.
The latest disaster is merely an extreme case in an industry where accidents and pollution are routine. In January a tanker collided with two barges at Port Arthur, Texas, dumping 13,000 barrels of oil into the gulf. Last year there was a blowout similar to that in the Gulf involving a drilling rig off Western Australia. It leaked oil for 11 weeks, forming an oil slick extending to Indonesia and East Timor.
BP has a sordid history when it comes to safety. Last October it was fined $87 million for failing to correct safety problems discovered after a 2005 explosion that killed 15 workers at BP’s Texas City refinery.
Obama and oil drilling
BP and its subcontractors were able to drill because the US government, under George Bush and then Barack Obama, encouraged them.
Obama says BP will pay “every cent” of the clean-up cost. But it was his administration that last year intervened to support the reversal of a court order that would have halted offshore oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico.
Obama’s interior secretary Ken Salazar named an example of an important project that must be allowed clearance—BP’s Deepwater Horizon.
Oil drives the global capitalist economy, and the competition for this “black gold” breeds conflict and corruption.
A handful of massive corporations and producer countries control the industry, backed to the hilt by powerful states—and they are willing to organise coups and wars in the pursuit of profit and power.
Even on its very best day, the oil industry is a series of violent, toxic horrors. Drilling, shipping, refining and burning oil is destroying the planet—at the local level through poisoned air and water, and globally by fuelling climate change. The disaster in the Gulf is yet another reason why we urgently need to end our addiction to fossil fuels.