From the Belly of the Beast: BP Gulf oil gusher's damage toll continues to mount

Two months after the April 20 explosion on a BP-leased Deepwater Horizon oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico triggered the greatest environment disaster from a single incident in US history, the oil keeps gushing. Along the shoreline encompassing the US Gulf states, oil creeps up further and further from the gusher itself. The fertile seafood beds and fishing grounds along the Louisiana coast have been destroyed, along with the livelihoods of tens of thousands.

For these people, the damage is not only economic. Mireya Navarro reported in the June 17 New York Times: “Beyond the environmental and economic damage, the toll of the mammoth spill in the Gulf of Mexico is being measured in hopelessness, anxiety, stress, anger, depression and even suicidal thoughts among those most affected, social workers say.”

The oil that has already penetrated into the marsh grasses in the wetlands, which harbour the seafood beds, is impossible to clean up. As the oil sinks into the roots, these grasses are dying. The roots hold together the “barrier islands” off the Louisiana coast that mitigate the power of hurricanes. If these formations disappear, the next storm to hit will cause considerably more damage.

A huge plume of oil droplets underneath the Gulf surface is slowly edging toward Florida. Dead fish surface kilometres from shore. The coastal wetlands are a key stopover for 75% of all migratory US waterfowl. Since the Gulf is one of two spawning grounds for Atlantic Bluefin tuna (the other being the Mediterranean) fishers as far north as Canada are worried.

Meanwhile, the Obama administration continues to approve new drilling permits. Since June 2, the government’s Minerals Management Service (MMS) has signed off on at least five new offshore drilling projects with minimal or no environmental analysis, in spite of laws to the contrary. These waivers of environmental studies are routine. The MMS was supposed to have been “cleaned up”, according to President Barack Obama. Two of the new permits are for wells deeper than the BP gusher some 1.5km below the surface. Chevron was given the go-ahead for a well 2.05km deep, and ExxonMobil for one 2.12km deep. These depths are just to the sea floor. The actual drilling commences there, and goes many kilometres into rock below that.

New danger

Scientists are now becoming alarmed by a new danger. Methane gas is spewing at a high rate along with the oil. The Associated Press reported June 18: “It is an overlooked danger in the oil spill crisis: the crude gushing from the well contains vast amounts of natural gas that could pose a serious threat to the Gulf of Mexico’s fragile ecosystem. ‘The oil emanating from the seafloor contains about 40 percent methane, compared with about 5 percent found in typical oil deposits’, said John Kessler, a Texas A&M University oceanographer who is studying the impact of methane from the spill. That means huge quantities of methane have entered the Gulf, scientists say, potentially suffocating marine life and creating ‘dead zones’ where oxygen is so depleted that nothing lives. ‘This is the most vigorous methane eruption in modern human history,’ Kessle said.”

It was a methane “bubble” that caused the explosion on the oil rig in the first place. Methane is highly flammable — it is the gas we use in our kitchen stoves. It apparently is in the oil underneath the gushing well, and in the surrounding rock. Some scientists say another methane explosion is possible.

Compounding the danger to marine life below the surface are two other factors. One is that the oil droplets in the plumes are being eaten by bacteria, which use up oxygen in the process, which can further suffocate marine life. The other is the use of toxic dispersant to break the oil into droplets before it can rise to the surface where it can be seen. Out of sight, out of mind. Over 4.9 million litres of the stuff has been dumped, with more being pumped and sprayed into the Gulf every day. While the chemical has been banned in Britain because it has been shown to be poisonous to some sealife, its full impact remains unknown.

On a humorous note, a BP spokesperson went on CNN to explain why there just couldn’t be the underwater plumes of droplets of oil mixed with methane and water, one measuring 56km long, that scientists have detected. Everyone knows, he said, that oil is lighter than water, so it floats and couldn’t be under the surface. Everyone knows that water is heavier than air, too, so there can’t be clouds in the sky. Mists and fine droplets have their own dynamics, BP notwithstanding.

When the Deepwater Horizon rig first exploded, BP and the government said that 1000 barrels of oil a day were leaking. Then they said that the number was 5000. That was the official government figure for three or four weeks. Then the estimate went up to between 13,000 and 19,000, then 25-30,000, then 45,000 then 60,000 and now 100,000. This last figure was estimated by independent scientists way back in early May, but was dismissed by BP and the government. Only the very gullible believe BP or the White House figures any more.

The US Coast Guard keeps referring to the thick, redish oil on the surface as a “rainbow sheen”, conjuring up images of oil from car traffic a few microns thick on mud puddles. Obama ate some seafood in New Orleans to show that everything was hunky-dory. The governors of the Gulf states chime in that tourists should “keep on comin’, the water’s fine”. But tourism is way down, as many don’t buy such malarkey.

Drilling moratorium in doubt

On a more serious and dangerous note, these governors are demanding that Obama lift the temporary moratorium on deep water drilling, accusing him of killing the one big industry left standing now that fishing and tourism are in crisis. A federal judge has thrown out the moratorium and its status is in doubt. The full extent of the danger has just begun to come to light.

Naomi Klein wrote in the June 19 British Guardian that “the initial exploration plan that BP submitted to the federal government for the ill-fated Deepwater Horizon well reads like a Greek tragedy about human hubris. The phrase ‘little risk’ appears five times.

Even if there is a spill, BP confidently predicts that, thanks to ‘proven equipment and technology’, adverse effects will be minimal. Presenting nature as a predictable and agreeable junior partner (or perhaps subcontractor), the report cheerfully explains that should a spill occur, ‘Currents and microbial degradation would remove the oil from the water column or dilute the constituents to background levels’. The effects on fish, meanwhile ‘would likely be sublethal’ because of ‘the capacity of adult fish and shellfish to avoid a spill and to metabolize hydrocarbons’. (In BP’s telling, rather than a dire threat, a spill emerges as an all-you-can-eat buffet for aquatic life.)”

Congressional committees have tried to distance themselves, calling upon BP and other oil executives to testify. John Broder noted in the June 16 New York Times, “Although most of the Congressional fire was aimed at BP … the other executives came under criticism as well, particularly for the response plans that they prepared for a major spill in the gulf. The five companies [BP, Exxon, Chevron, Shell and Conoco Phillips] submitted virtually identical plans to the government regulators and to the committee. The 500-page document, prepared by a private contractor, refers to measures to protect walruses [which haven’t inhabited the Gulf of Mexico for 3 million years] and gives a phone number for a marine biologist who died five years ago…

“Mr. Tillerson [chief executive for ExxonMobil] admitted that the only way to deal with major spills was to keep them from occurring. ‘The point is,’ Mr. Tillerson said, ‘we have to take every step to prevent these things from happening, because when they happen we are not well equipped to prevent any and all damage. There will be damage. There is no response capability that will ensure that you won’t have an impact.’ “

Tillerson’s attempt to minimise that impact, the scale of which this catastrophe is only beginning to demonstrate, underscores his admission that none of the oil companies have a plan to deal with such leaks. The technology simply doesn’t exist to do so at deepwater drilling sites. However small the odds are that another Deepwater Horizon will occur soon, when it does the result is so devastatingly huge as to make the odds meaningless. Such drilling must stop.

[The title of this regular column, “From the belly of the beast”, was how the great Cuban fighter against US imperialism Jose Marti, signed his letters to friends back in Cuba when he was in the US.]