Learning from the BP Oil Spill
At approximately 9:45 pm on 20 April 2010, methane gas under extremely high pressure short out of the drill column at the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig in the gulf of Mexico. When the gas reached the platform on the oil rig, it ignited, killing eleven British Petroleum workers.
But that was just the beginning of the disaster. For nearly three months, crude oil gushed out of the wellhead at a rate of at 210, 000 gallons per day while BP workers tried frantically but unsuccessfully to contain the leak. Meanwhile, the resulting oil slick spread out over a radius of at least 2,500 square miles, polluting the coastlines of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida and killing thousands of species in what was already an extremely delicate ecosystem.
Finally, on 15 July, 2010, BP workers said the leak had been contained through the installation of a cap, although it is by no means certain that this will work as a permanent solution.
By far, this has been the worst environmental disaster in American history, prompting dozens of scientists and politicians to ask what they can learn from the tragedy. Unfortunately, however, the real lessons we should be learning seem to have evaded the experts. The very same shortcuts and foolish decisions that led to the disaster in the first place continue to be perpetuated.
A Legacy of Negligence
It is no secret that BP has had a legacy of taking shortcuts. In 2005, one of BP’s oil refineries in Texas had an explosion that killed 15 workers. BP was fined $87 million after an investigation found that the explosion was largely the result of negligence.
Even after the Texas disaster, BP continued to try to cut corners in order to maximize their profits. Lobbyists on BP payroll worked closely with President Bush and vice President Cheney, who were virtual puppets of the oil industry. As a result of their efforts, legislation was suppressed that would have required deep water rigs to be fitted with devices that could be used to cap the wellhead in the event of a leak. Similarly, the Federal Minerals Management Service, who had the job of overseeing the oil industry, enjoyed a cosy relationship with BP, from whom they received free trips, tickets and other gifts.
In the wake of the Deepwater Horizon disaster, a congressional subcommittee found that BP engineers had been true to their reputation for taking shortcuts. For example, they chose to only install six of the twenty-one recommended devices for centering its pipe in the drill hole. This may have led to the natural gas shooting up the pipe and exploding on the surface. One astonishing email discovered from a BP engineer from April 16, said, “Who cares, it’s done, end of story, will probably be fine.” Four days later the explosion occurred.
The Cleanup Scandal
It would be nice to be able to say that BP has learned from their mistakes and are now putting safety above profit. Unfortunately, this is not the case. The most scandalous shortcuts were actually those that occurred in the wake of the explosion.
BP cleanup crews have used special chemicals to break down the oil particles in the water. This is a necessary and appropriate part of returning the gulf to normal. However, among the many chemical dispersants that BP could have chosen, they selected a high toxic chemical known as Corexit. After airplanes dumped over 700,000 gallons of Corexit into the gulf, everyone felt better because the oil was no longer visible. However, it was not widely advertised that Corexit actually creates poisonous plumes under the water that are hundreds of square miles wide, which kill all life in their path at 3,000 feet below sea level. In these plumes – which are currently estimated to be about the size of Delaware and Rhode Island combined – nothing that requires oxygen can survive. J. Speer-Williams described these plumes in his article, ‘Corexit is Killing the Gulf’:
“These plumes are hundreds of square miles of poisonous, oily micro-particles that go unseen by satellites, cameras, and the naked eyes of the world. They kill all life in their path at 3,000 feet below sea level. This is death to all life within the fragile Gulf Coast ecosystems that are impacted by these Corexit plumes. Plant, animal, and marine life will die as these oily, Corexit plumes slip their broken oily gunk well under protective booms…
Crabtree’s justification for such an insane, criminal act was that their Corexit would drive the oil well below the water’s surface, thus keeping it away from coastal shorelines. So instead of removing the oil, BP decided to make the oil even more toxic, and drive it deep into the ocean where it can never be retrieved, but will kill all marine life in its path.
The strange thing about it is that Corexit ranks far above other dispersants in toxicity and far below them in effectiveness in handling this type of crude. A product called Dispersit, for example, is nearly twice as effective and between half and a third as toxic as Corexit, according to data from the Environmental Protection Agency. As Paul Quinlan has observed in the New York Times:
“Of 18 dispersants whose use EPA has approved, 12 were found to be more effective on southern Louisiana crude than Corexit, EPA data show. Two of the 12 were found to be 100 percent effective on Gulf of Mexico crude, while the two Corexit products rated 56 percent and 63 percent effective, respectively. The toxicity of the 12 was shown to be either comparable to the Corexit line or, in some cases, 10 or 20 times less, according to EPA.”
So why did BP choose Corexit in the first place? If one knows anything about BP, the answer should come as no surprise. BP is buying the chemical from Nalco Co., whose current leadership includes executives from BP. The more effective and less polluting dispersants are made by Nalco’s competitors. “It’s a chemical that the oil industry makes to sell to itself, basically,” said Richard Charter, a senior policy adviser for Defenders of Wildlife.
As soon as the explosion occurred, Obama knew the American public wanted to see him take charge to prove his leadership. He reacted by issuing a six month moratorium against deep water drilling in the gulf even though up to this point he had been calling for more offshore drilling. Although a federal judge subsequently overturned the moratorium, thirty-three rigs remain idle, leaving thousands of workers unemployed.
This type of sacrifice might have been necessary if it could really benefited the environment. Yet as we have already seen in the discussion of Corexit, protecting the environment is not on the agenda of the people at the top, even while they fastidiously work to cultivate the impression of being ecologically conscious. The same is true of the American federal government, for at the same time as overacting and shutting down the drilling projects in the Gulf, they have allowed other deep water oil drilling projects not merely to continue, but to move forward with the same thin scrutiny of Deepwater Horizon. Moreover, by idling the rigs in the gulf, America has been forced to buy more oil from foreign companies which are subject to far less regulation and which therefore pose a far greater risk to the world’s ecology. Barrels of oil from these foreign companies must then be shipped to America, and this is a process which again posses more risks than normal offshore drilling.
The federal government’s solution, like BP’s cleanup efforts, have actually occurred to the detriment of the world’s ecology.
The Conservative Solution
The oil spill disaster forces us to examine the appropriate relationship between government and business. It is customary for conservatives to fall into the camp of calling for less regulation, with liberals favouring more regulation. However, the debate over regulation doesn’t delve deep enough. We must first ask the prior question: what is the appropriate role of government?
While space does not allow a thorough survey of the Bible’s teachings on this subject, few Christians would disagree that one of the roles of government is to protect private property. Put simply, it is the job of the state to ensure that people cannot drive off with my car, break into my house, steal my possessions or unlawfully come and help themselves to my land. Unfortunately, modern governments are often the perpetrators of theft themselves. Under the redistributive system, the very institutions that ought to be the guardian of private property, succumb to the temptation to plunder. While unreasonable taxation is probably the most obvious example of this, much government regulation implicitly asserts ownership over private business, personal investments and personal property.
Not only does the government have a God-ordained responsibility to protect my own possessions from burglary, but it must also protect those lands and resources that have historically been available to the public. An example of this would be the common forests that exist in pre-Norman England, which supported the livelihoods of thousands of peasants. If Robin Hood had gone into the forest and exploited it for himself, burning down trees or making it impossible for ordinary people to hunt, it would have been entirely appropriate for King John to introduce regulations. Instead, the king claimed the forests as his own and outlawed those who had historically had access to it.
Common lands and resources today are the oceans, designated hunting grounds, rivers, the beaches, even the air. If someone begins polluting the air, he is in a very real sense stealing property that belongs to everyone. If someone pollutes a river upstream, he is stealing the property that belongs to everyone who lives downstream. In such situations, the most conservative thing for government to do is to step in and introduce appropriate restrictions.
The same logic applies to the disaster in the Gulf. The direct livelihoods and resources which support hundreds of people – from fishermen, coastal dwellers, to people working in the tourist industries – are always at risk when oil executives cut corners to maximize profits. Additionally, a countless number of supporting industries are indirectly affected by the results of an oil spill such as recently happened in the Gulf of Mexico. The American governments has a God-given responsibility to ensure, as much as is humanly possible, that such disasters do not occur again and that we remain good stewards of the earth.
Unfortunately, however, this point does not seem to have been grasped by either the American lawmakers or the executives at BP, all of whom continue to put politics and profit above wisdom and stewardship.