As hurricanes go, this weekend’s Bonnie was a bust.  And according to British press reports, BP CEO Tony Hayward is on the way out–to be replaced by the smoother, more diplomatic Bob Dudley (behind Hayward at right), who has been leading cleanup operations in the Gulf.  Could it be that BP’s future is finally beginning to brighten?

Not likely. If the company’s board of directors thinks a round of figurehead musical chairs will suddenly make them appear trustworthy, they may be disappointed.  BP has made so many misleading and inaccurate statements, it could be extremely difficult to shake their negative image.

And while Bonnie fizzled out, the coming hurricane season will inevitably bring truly violent storms that will stir up and distribute BP’s spilled oil, depositing it far beyond the shores of Louisiana, Mississippi and Florida.  The Gulf of Mexico still holds most of the spilled oil–an estimated 180 million gallons of it–in a relatively confined area.  Some of the oil sits on the surface, but most of it hides in large, streaming underwater plumes, deep within the ocean.

Some experts are predicting that the storms will eventually carry the petroleum through the mid-Atlantic region, even up to the New York metropolitan area, depositing the oil in the form of vapor and rainwater contaminants.  That means that throughout the eastern seaboard, the groundwater supplies, the air, the food crops, and the land itself would be contaminated with this immense volume of oil, which will become embedded in the ecosystem for years and years to come.  Crude oil is toxic to humans; our health will be adversely affected, in the same way that we are now affected by the pervasive accumulation of mercury in fish.  But at least we can choose to limit our exposure to mercury by avoiding certain fish; the oil will be in everything.

How did this happen?

We know of several, ill-advised shortcuts that BP took to save money and speed up the drilling on its Deepwater Horizon well.  Rig workers had disabled the sound and lights from the alarms that would indicate the presence of fire or dangerous gases.  And soon after the well was initially completed, just days before the explosion, BP refused to conduct a “Cement Bond Log” test, which was scheduled to be performed by the testing company Schlumberger to ensure the integrity of the cement cap on the well.  In the end, BP simply told Schlumberger to go home, saving $118,000 and forgoing the essential test that would have exposed any flaws in the cap, which could have been repaired before the well blew up.  BP also failed to circulate potentially gas-bearing muds out of the well to prevent the explosion of these gases.  In addition, BP chose to use just a single layer of pipe inside the bottom of the well instead of the standard double layer.  The two-part tube includes a liner and a separate outer casing, which is strongly advised for use in wells under extreme pressure, like the Deepwater well.  Finally, the blowout preventer was seen leaking hydraulic fluid days before the explosion.  It was never fixed, even though federal regulations mandate shutting down the well until the blowout preventer is repaired.

It’s possible that if even ONE of these steps had not been skipped, the well would not have exploded, and we never would have discovered any of the other irresponsible decisions BP made along the way.

The oil slick, including underwater plumes. (Photo: Jesse Allen, NASA)

Once the explosion occurred and the crude began to gush into the Gulf, BP continued its shortsighted actions.  In the weeks following the spill onset, BP dumped almost two million gallons of chemical dispersants, which have been banned in Europe for more than a decade.  These dispersants, made from potent toxins and known carcinogens, are now mixing with our air and groundwater.  And some assert that BP knew the dispersants wouldn’t eliminate any oil; because they push the oil down below the surface of the ocean, they simply make the spill appear more benign.  Their use of dispersants also reduced the efficacy of any potential skimming of oil from the ocean surface.

Given the toxicity and vast amount of the dispersants applied, combined with the potentially widespread oil contamination of our air and water supplies, BP’s ultimate liability now soars beyond the scale of comprehension.  And unfortunately for BP shareholders, scientists can now “fingerprint” microscopic bits of oil, distinguishing traces of Deepwater Horizon oil from other petroleum residue in our environment, making it far easier to identify BP as the cause of many potential health problems in the future.

$20 billion sounds like a lot of money.  And it is, if all you have to do is compensate some Gulf Coast fishermen.  But BP’s liability will extend far beyond the scope of shrimp in the bayou.

And because BP comprises such a large share of the U.K. economy, England now has its own Too Big To Fail dilemma, which resembles our 2008 financial crisis: an esoteric, complex business developed, in which greed trumped risk management.  Sadly, the forces at work in the massive oil spill, like the ones that created the Wall Street meltdown, remain in place–namely, that the regulating agencies are headed by professionals from the industry they purport to oversee.  That inherently corrupt structure, combined with our knee-jerk, pro-business bias, leaves us where we are today, with no real lessons learned.  Yet.

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  • karen (mommy Wommy) July 26, 2010 at 7:26 pm

    great writing