7 questions about the BP oil spillHome » Blog » Annabel McAleer » 7 questions about the BP oil spill
As the BP oil spill into the Gulf of Mexico flows into its sixth week, losing around 150 million barrels of oil so far, the NZ government has announced off-shore oil exploration will begin on the East Coast. Here are seven things you should know about the BP oil spill.
1. How did it happen?
The billion dollar question. The short answer is that BP was drilling for oil in such deep ocean that when an accident happened it was beyond their technical ability to stop the flow of oil.
This infographic, via the Visibly Shaken blog, sums it up pretty neatly.
Below, a great infographic from The Times shows exactly what the problem was: a deadly combination of failed cement, insufficiently pressured drilling mud, and a BOP (blowout preventer) that couldn’t handle the strain.
Click to enlarge:
2. How bad is it?
Bad. Real bad.
The blast itself killed 11 workers. Since then, about 800,000 litres of oil a day has been pouring into the Gulf of Mexico. That's more than 23 tanker trucks full of oil—every day.
The oil has been spilling for 45 days. An estimated 150 million barrels of oil have been spilt into the ocean.
It's worse than the Exxon Valdez oil spill, and is being called the worst US environmental disaster in history.
And not that we care too much, but it's bad for BP too: it's lost US$75 billion in value. Other companies involved in the spill, including Halliburton, have lost at least 30 percent in value.
Oil is starting to wash up on beaches in Florida and Alabama, and hurricane season is beginning, which could spread the oil much further.
Dead animals are washing up onshore too, and some species are at risk of extinction. Commercial fishing in the area has been banned for now, but around 80 percent of US wild seafood is harvested in the region. The chemical dispersants used to break up the spill could have a long-term effect on the food chain.
3. What's being done to fix it?
Lots of things have been tried … but nothing's worked so far.
Booms have been laid to contain the spill: very poorly, according to this explative-laden rant from an industry insider.
First BP tried the 'Top Hat' containment system. That didn't work, so it came up with the 'Hot Tap' method instead. As Jon Stewart says, "You're not coming up with new ideas, you're just scrambling letters around!"
Last weekend BP's 'Top Kill' mission failed, in which engineers injected mud at high speed into the well. Next there was the 'Junk Shot', an unbelievably idiotic manoeuvre that is just the way it sounds: shooting junk like golf balls and bits of car tyres into the pipe, hoped to work in a similar manner to clogging up a toilet. (So now we can blame BP for the Great Pacific Garbage Patch?)
Now they've got robot submarines cutting into the pipe in order to insert a containment cap—a risky procedure that could temporarily increase the amount of oil escaping.
BP has also poured more than 2,500,000 litres (repeat: 2.5 million litres) of chemicals into the spill. By using dispersants to break the oil into smaller droplets, BP is thought to have made the problem worse. It's using 'Corexit', made from petroleum distillates and propylene glycol, which scientists say is more toxic and less effective than other dispersants (and it's banned in the UK because it is harmful for marine life). The US government eventually ordered BP to cut its use in half. (For more on this, read 'Chemical dispersants 101' at Treehugger.)
Basically, no one knows how to stop it. Which may explain why an erstwhile newspaper such as the NZ Herald is asking its readers what should be done. Presumably BP executives are Googling for solutions. Unfortunately the Herald moderators didn't approve my suggestion (it involved a spinning wheel of dolphins screwing themselves into the pipe), although Good designer Su Yin's catchy slogan ("Grab a Tuffy and get a grip on little messes") is proving popular.
There's also the Unity Wave of focused intention, which asks people to think very hard about stopping the spill. It seems to stand as much chance of working as anything BP is doing.
4. Whose fault is it?
BP's … although the company is trying to shift as much of the blame as possible, and is still denying the existence of several undersea oil 'plumes'.
There's certain to be court appearances aplenty, but ultimately BP will have to pay. The eventual fine, likely to be in the billions, will be measured on a per-barrel, per-day basis. This may explain BP's use of chemical dispersants, which reduce the oil's buoyancy and make it harder to track the spill.
I highly recommend these two articles about BP's choices in the lead-up to the disaster:
- 'Back to Petroleum' in Foreign Policy talks about BP's "decade-long greenwashing campaign", its "fighting against safety measures that might have prevented the horror in the Gulf" and its decision to save US$500,000 and not install the remote-control shut-off switch that could have prevented the whole spill from happening.
- 'Documents Show Early Worries About Safety of Rig' in the NY Times reveals documents that show that "in March, after several weeks of problems on the rig, BP was struggling with a loss of 'well control'. And as far back as 11 months ago, it was concerned about the well casing and the blowout preventer".
5. What does it look like?
Mind-blowing. There's an amazing collection of photos on the Boston Globe's website that are well worth checking out—they tell the story better than more words can.
Update: Some new pictures of the effects on birdlife were uploaded on June 3. Be warned, they are really upsetting.
Philippe Cousteau Jr, the grandson of Jacques Cousteau, filmed this underwater video with ABC News. He describes what he saw as "one of the most horrible things I’ve ever seen underwater".
Update: How big is it? Here's how it would look if it had happened in Wellington—it would stretch from Wanganui almost down to Kaikoura.
6. Can we laugh about it yet?
Why yes, yes we can. In a satirical and deeply black way, of course.
- Greenpeace is running a campaign to rebrand BP. The entries so far for a new BP logo are here.
- You can follow BP's global PR on Twitter. It's fake, and very twisted. Sample tweet: "Utterly confused as to the difference between the dome and the top hat, but barreling forward with it anyhow. #bpcares"
- Treehugger has a list of the best pranks and satires.
7. What can I do?
Most actions seem hopelessly inadequate, but there are a few things you can do.
- Boycott BP. That means not buying petrol from any BP-branded outlet, plus Gasoline Alley (aka GAS) and all Pak n Save and New World outlets.
- Sign the Repower America petition. BP is refusing to share information that would assist in the response to the Deepwater Oil Disaster, and the petition asks that BP make public all data that would help scientists, the government and the public understand how much oil is flowing into the Gulf and how best to respond to it. (It accepts a NZ postcode.)
- Donate your hair. US-based Matter of Trust is using hair (and fur from pet-groomers) to mop up the spill. We don't know of any NZ hairdressers gathering hair to donate, but we've heard of wool being used to help clean up oil spills before. Anyone know any local farmers with a few barrels of wool to spare for a good cause?
- Donate your money. Want to help out financially? The US National Wildlife Federation is taking donations to help rescue otters, sea turtles, pelicans and 400 other species that live in the region.