With the Gulf oil spill continuing to make news—and the magnitude of the disaster only beginning to sink in—we asked two WVFC journalists for their perspectives on the situation. Here, Diane Vacca—who earlier this year interviewed Louisiana Gulf Coast shrimper Margaret Curole about the spill—offers an incisive look at BP and the chain of corporate and governmental decision-making that led to the damage at the Deepwater Horizon oil well. Tomorrow, Kathleen Rogers explores the ecological dimensions of the oil spill, and what it might mean for the future.   –Ed.

In another place and a different time, the gusher would have been a wildcatter’s dream: black gold, spewing forth with no end in sight. But BP’s runaway Macondo oil well is more like Pandora’s box. When opened, it released nothing but evil into the world, killing, maiming or sickening the denizens of the affected area of the Gulf of Mexico. The environmental devastation is incalculable at this point, and so is the cost measured in lost business and jobs, because no one knows how long it will take the Gulf to recover. Moody’s Analytics estimates the Gulf Coast region will lose 17,000 jobs and $1.2 billion in economic growth this year. Rather than enrich BP and its investors, the oil well, which was over budget long before the spill, has become a multi-billion dollar liability that may bring down the company.

Many of the attempts to limit the spill’s lethal reach have either been ineffective or had unintended consequences. The booms deployed to protect the shore are no match for the amorphous goop as it spreads over 44,000 square miles of the Gulf and reaches into the marshes and onto the beaches. The dispersant—1.84 million gallons applied to date—is intended to break up the oil into degradable droplets in order to prevent it from reaching shore, but makes the surface slick impossible to contain and spreads the petro-toxins throughout the water column. Mixed with oil, the dispersant is more toxic to fish and other marine life than undispersed oil. Was this unprecedented experiment in toxicology necessary to protect the beach, or to obscure the gargantuan extent of the spill? Daily burns of about 8,000 barrels a day necessarily roast turtles, dolphins, and any other animals near the surface, besides producing tar and ash that further contaminate the water and infect the food chain. Burns release noxious gases and particulates, thus fouling the air as well.

With the benefit of hindsight and investigation, we now know that the Gulf oil spill was predictable, if not inevitable. Every day seems to bring more news of BP’s negligence and the failure of the Minerals Management Service (MMS) to enforce its own regulations. Just this past week, a BP employee testified before a federal investigatory panel that a few days before the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded (see right), he had reported a leak in a device connected to the blowout preventer—the failsafe backup that nevertheless failed to shut down the well after the explosion—but he received no response from BP and no order to stop drilling, as the MMS requires in such a situation.

Other companies contracted by BP, such as Transocean, the rig owner, may share some responsibility for the disaster. Testimony in July included the information that the Deepwater Horizon had had power outages, computer failures, and 390 overdue maintenance problems.

The New York Times reported that back in June 2009, the concerns of BP engineers about unsafe well casings were ignored by the company. In March of this year, the well was jolting the rig with gas “kicks” and the blowout preventer was leaking. By April, there was a dangerous buildup in the well’s pressure and problems with the cement, but the MMS allowed drilling to proceed, permitting crucial safety tests to be bypassed or delayed. On April 20, the day of the explosion, the drilling project was 43 days behind schedule, resulting in a cost overrun of more than $21 million. BP, anxious to complete the drilling stage, had devised a new plan for sealing the well that was deemed too risky by the workers on the rig. BP overrode their objections.

The Deepwater Horizon had 126 people aboard the day of the explosion, employees of several different companies. Only eight worked for BP.

These companies had competing interests, and at times one’s loss was another’s gain. For example, BP paid Transocean close to half a million dollars per day to lease the rig, so the oil company justified cutting corners in order to finish the drilling stage of the well quickly: BP’s savings would be Transocean’s loss. The prime case of conflict of interests is the MMS itself, which was charged with both regulating the oil industry and collecting revenue from it. The agency was second only to the IRS as a generator of federal income, collecting $13 billion yearly in oil and gas royalties, the bulk from offshore production. (Since the spill, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar has renamed the agency and split off the regulatory and enforcement arm from the revenue-collecting one.)

BP and the Minerals Management Service made a pretty couple, literally and figuratively in bed with each other. Agency employees, most of whom had worked in the industry, accepted gifts, did illegal drugs, and were guests of oil and gas companies, riding the company plane to many excursions and events. Oil company workers did the agency a favor by filling out inspection forms in pencil so that inspectors had only to write over them in ink before submitting them.

Despite BP’s abysmal record—the worst in the industry—MMS continued to grant the company exemptions from its own regulations. The agency relieved BP of the requirement to produce an environmental impact analysis before drilling in deep water because the MMS five-year plan, written under the oil-friendly Bush administration, deemed minimal the chances of what it called a “large” spill:” 4,600 barrels. That figure is dwarfed by current estimates, which put the total number of barrels spilled into the Gulf at a lowball 2 million to as many as 8.5 million

“Deepwater spills would either be transported away from coastal habitats or prevented, for the most part, from reaching coastal habitats by natural weathering processes,” the MMS plan states. Clearly BP, with no strategy for dealing with a catastrophic deep-water oil spill, was matched by the regulatory agency that could not foresee even the possibility of one. Even as the Macondo well continued to vomit crude oil into the Gulf, BP’s Atlantis production rig, among the largest in existence, was pumping oil 150 miles from the Louisiana coast and from a depth of almost 2,000 feet greater than the Deepwater Horizon had. The Atlantis rig continues to produce unabated, despite findings by Congress that as much as 90 percent of its underwater equipment lacks the required engineering certification, which BP itself admits could give rise to “catastrophic” results.

With BP’s history, what rationale has enabled the “regulators” to trust the most egregious offender of safety and environmental safeguards to police itself in the riskiest kind of drilling— in the extremely deep water that poses tremendous challenges and where we have the least experience? Even the sketchiest and most cursory look at some of that history reveals an appalling disregard for anything beyond the bottom line.

While the gusher was spewing oil into the Gulf, BP was unaware that its refinery in Texas City, TX, was belching as much as 538,000 pounds of untreated toxic chemicals into the air for 40 days in April and May, way beyond the legal limits. Five years earlier, an explosion at that same facility killed 15 and injured 170. The following year, 267,000 gallons of crude spilled into Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, from 16 miles of corroded pipeline that BP neglected to repair. Seventy-one million dollars in fines and criminal settlements for the Texas refinery explosion weren’t enough to convince BP to mend its neglectful disdain for its workers and the environment. The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) slammed the company last year with an $87 million fine—the largest ever—for failing to correct the safety violations at the refinery. This past May, BP’s Alaska pipeline spilled about 200,000 gallons. In the last three years alone, BP has accumulated 760 citations for safety violations “committed with plain indifference to or intentional disregard for employee safety and health,” according to the Center for Public Integrity. Since 2005, thirty-two people have died.

These are not honest mistakes. Clearly, BP considers the loss of lives and multi-million dollar fines as costs of doing business, a small percentage of the $239 billion revenue (and $14 billion profit) the company wrested from the earth in 2009.

Yet there’s still more blame to go round. Congress bears its share, having approved budget cuts during the Bush years that reduced staffing at the MMS by 15 percent. And in an attempt to cajole at least a few Republican legislators to vote for his climate legislation, President Obama reversed his campaign stance and justified a dramatic increase in offshore drilling, declaring 18 days before the disaster that “oil rigs today generally don’t cause spills.” The irony is painful. The climate legislation is dead and we are suffering with the worst ecological disaster in American history.


Tomorrow: Kathleen Rogers on the ecological dimensions of the oil spill, and what it could mean for the future.

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