BP's Gulf of Mexico oil spill: the crude facts of an oil disaster
BP's belching oil well in the Gulf of Mexico comes at the worst possible time and place. Its effect will be devastating, says Geoffrey Lean.
Yesterday was supposed to be a day of green glory – rather than sticky black torment – for BP. For the company behind what may prove to be the world's worst-ever oil slick was expected to receive an award for "outstanding safety and pollution prevention performance" in its offshore operations, at a lunchtime ceremony in Houston. Instead it spent the day desperately trying to stop the oil that was gushing out of its deep underwater well from devastating the ecology and economy of America's gulf states – and attempting to defend its reputation against almost universal excoriation.
BP Exploration and Production Inc was one of three shortlisted companies (one of the others was ExxonMobil, famed for the 1989 Alaska Exxon Valdez spill, until now America's worst) for the US Government's Safety Award for Excellence, due to be presented at the Offshore Technology Conference. This would have been almost exactly three years after the oil giant's newly installed chief executive, Tony Hayward, pledged to "focus like a laser on safe and reliable operations"
Yesterday a humbled Mr Hayward was in the neighbouring state of Louisiana, confessing that the company was preparing for a "worst case scenario". It is as well that it is, for the consequences of the blow-out at its well under the Deepwater Horizon rig, some 48 miles out in the Gulf of Mexico from the mouth of the Mississippi, could dwarf the devastation wreaked 21 years ago across the country in Alaska's Prince William Sound.
Experts are warning that the rate at which the oil is pouring out from the mile-deep well could soon increase 10-fold, that one of the world's richest fisheries could be ruined for years, that Louisiana's vital wetlands could be destroyed, and that the slick could even work its way around the Florida peninsula to blacken its way up the American East Coast.
"Worst case scenarios almost never happen," Professor Robert Thomas, of New Orleans' Loyola University, was quoted as saying yesterday. "In this case, almost everyone I have known with technical knowledge of oil spills – people who have worked in the industry 30, 40 years – say it is upon us." Others talk of a "Gulf Coast Chernobyl".
Its not the size of oil spills that matters most, but when and where they happen. The one from the Exxon Valdez does not even rank among the world's 30 biggest, but it spread through one of America's richest and most fragile natural habitats. This one – though it has yet to equal the numbers of gallons spilt in Alaska – is already looking even worse.
It, too, has happened in a particularly important and vulnerable area, and the winds have blown it with unerring accuracy towards the most sensitive spot of all, at the worst possible time of year. Nearly three-quarters of all US waterfowl – and all its 110 species of migratory neotropical songbirds – use Louisiana's three million acres of wetlands to rest or nest.
During these very two weeks, 25 million songbirds can cross the Gulf each day, mostly making their first landfall in the wetlands. Worse, this is the most vital season for the Gulf's fisheries, which also largely depend on them. Oysters have just started to reproduce, speckled brown trout have started spawning, shrimp have just begun to grow, to name but a few. Nine out of 10 of all the region's marine species rely on wetlands at some point in their life cycle, and these are mainly in Louisiana.
The state produces more fish and seafood than anywhere in the US, outside Alaska. On Sunday its government banned fishing in the areas affected by the slick, and no one knows when it will resume. Some local shrimpers are gloomily predicting that it will be seven years before they can set to sea again; others that they will be out of business long before then. "What do we do?" asks 55-year-old Bernel Prout in the fishing community of Venice. "Go on welfare, I guess. Food stamps."
And there is an even worse prospect – that the wetlands, 40 per cent of the US total, may perish altogether if the slick gets really big. Already, as Professor Denise Reid, of the University of New Orleans, puts it: "They are hanging by a fingernail." Some 24 square miles of them are lost every year, deprived of sediment by engineering works upstream, cut up by oil companies, eroded by the wakes of boats, and poisoned by agricultural pesticides. Recent hurricanes, including Katrina, have also swept large chunks away.
The concern now is that grasses that hold the whole system together could be smothered by the oil and die: without them all that would remain is mud, to be washed away within a year. And the wetlands are not just vital for fish and fowl, but provide a vital buffer against storms and hurricanes: if they had been healthier, it is accepted, Katrina would probably have been less damaging.
It would take a lot more oil than is now in the water to kill all the grasses, but it could be on its way. No one knows exactly how much has so far flooded out from the deep well – though estimates are increasing all the time – but we may have seen nothing yet. Experts are worried that it is only being held up by kinks in the crumpled pipe that used to bring it to the surface. A confidential, leaked report from the US Government's National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration warns that "if the pipe deteriorates further, the flow could become unchecked", growing 10 times greater.
"We will fix this," Mr Hayward promised – but no one has ever before attempted such a task. The pollution is coming not from a wrecked tanker, with a finite amount in its hold, but from a belching underwater oil volcano, with a vast reservoir to drain, at depths where the water pressures are so great that no diver could operate. BP first tried robotic submarines, but without success – even though they have arms and controls so precise that, as one expert put it, "they could give you three stitches on your forehead".
Another plan is to drill a new well, but that could take three months. So BP is concentrating on constructing huge steel boxes to drop over the leaks. Such measures succeeded in stopping leaks in shallow waters after Katrina, but have not been tried at depth.
Once out, the type of oil involved is hard to clean up. Deceptively named "sweet crude", it is particularly nasty stuff, thick and full of chemicals that do not degrade easily. It is hard to burn off or disperse – and does not easily evaporate. Once on land it would cover everything in a sticky goo and be hard to clean up. Oil from the Exxon Valdez is still around more than 20 years later and that washed onto stony shores, which are much less vulnerable than Louisiana's mud and grasses.
Yesterday's award ceremony was hastily cancelled and already the accusations against BP are coming in from all levels – from President Obama to local people, viciously hit again even as they recover from Hurricane Katrina. The company was too slow to act, and underestimated the seriousness of the disaster, the recriminations say. And they point to how BP lobbied vigorously against stricter safety measures, insisting that a disaster like this could never happen and that, even if it did, "no significant adverse impacts" could be expected because it would respond so well.
It will, one suspects, be many years – longer even than it takes for the local economy and ecology to recover – before BP ever again is close to getting its hands on an award for preventing pollution at sea.