The Deepwater Horizon disaster will probably be remembered as the most severe environmental catastrophe of the early twenty-first century—an accident that would have been as easy to prevent as it is now difficult to clean up.

Every oil or gas rig ought to be able to anticipate and respond to the kind of problems that led to the spill (gas “kicks,” equipment malfunctions, operator errors). These are routine problems encountered by every drilling operation, but that does not mean they should be taken lightly. BP’s deep-sea well obviously posed a big risk, and it should not have been drilled without contingency plans, proven shutoff methods, and backup equipment ready to be used. Blowouts happen even in well-developed and comparatively stable oil and gas fields, and recent years have seen several underwater blowouts off the coasts of Mexico and Australia. Deep-sea wells are often under such immense geological pressure that oil oozes out of natural seeps in the sea floor against the pressure of five thousand feet of ocean (measured in tons per square inch). Which means that this kind of drilling is like punching a hole in a pressurized propane tank.

In the case of the Deepwater Horizon, all that pressure was released straight up through the borehole, destroying the rig, killing eleven members of the crew, and pumping millions of gallons of crude oil and natural gas out into the Gulf of Mexico. The toxic slick has now spread across millions of acres of fisheries and coastline and has yet to be contained. The “top hat” system installed on June 4 (and briefly disabled three weeks later by one of BP’s underwater robots) is collecting only about a tenth of the well’s output—now estimated to be between 800,000 and 1.8 million gallons per day.

BP’s entire drilling operation was shoddy. The seals on the blowout preventer—the device designed to keep oil and gas from spurting out of the well—disintegrated a month before the accident and were never repaired. The control pods failed. Another device, known as a “blind shear ram,” lacked enough hydraulic power to cut through the riser pipe and stanch the flow. There was no acoustic failsafe switch, a device that could have triggered the blowout preventer and shut off the well even after electrical power had been lost (though of course this would have helped only if the blowout preventer had been in working order to begin with). There was no backup blowout preventer, and there was no spill-response team on standby. Shortly before the blowout, a crew from the well-regarded engineering firm Schlumberger was sent back to shore without having conducted its scheduled testing on the borehole. BP’s representative on the rig ordered the Transocean drilling crew to remove some of the heavy drilling mud from the borehole and replace it with lighter seawater—action that would have allowed BP to begin producing oil and gas sooner, but also left the well unable to contain the high-pressure oil and gas.

The problems that led to this disaster weren’t limited to the rig, but extended into corporate and government offices. Federal law requires contingency plans for all oil and gas drilling operations, whether on land or off the coast. BP’s spill contingency plan, filed in 2009, contained some absurdities. One of the experts listed as a contact in the spill plan, a wildlife biologist and university professor named Peter Lutz, died five years before BP prepared the document. Had he still been alive, Dr. Lutz’s role would have been to evaluate the effects of contamination on wildlife. He might have been surprised at some of the species BP expected him to evaluate: the company’s contingency plan listed walruses as possible victims of an oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. The federal government’s Minerals Management Service apparently read the plan and approved it, despite the flagrant errors and unfounded assumptions about how much oil might be released, where it would go, what it would damage, and what cleanup measures would be necessary.

This sort of bad planning led to great confusion in the first days after the blowout. There weren’t enough personnel, boats, or equipment available. Thousands of feet of containment boom offered by the state of Maine sat in warehouses for six weeks because nobody sent trucks to pick it up. Bad planning also led to embarrassments such as the simultaneous use of containment booms, which are supposed to keep oil from spreading, and dispersants, which are supposed to help the oil dissolve. Oil that is treated with a dispersant cannot be contained by a boom. Furthermore, the dispersant Corexit 9500 (manufactured by BP, and applied by the hundreds of thousands of gallons) was revealed to be nearly as dangerous to aquatic life as the oil it was supposed to dissolve.

Having failed to prevent or prepare for the blowout, BP has had to spend the past three months improvising. The company has tried to make techniques used on land or in shallower water work under very different and far more difficult conditions. Engineers have had to build some equipment from scratch. All this planning, engineering, and manufacturing, which could take months, should have been done last year, before drilling started.

“No one could have foreseen this” is a shabby excuse. Blowouts do happen. Thousands of books have been written on oil-rig safety, and many of the safety measures or redundancies that could have saved the Deepwater Horizon are mandatory on oil rigs off the coasts of other countries. Acoustic switches used to be mandatory on drill rigs in U.S. waters, until the Bush administration dropped the requirement, and they are still required by most other countries that regulate drilling.

That BP cut corners on drilling and emergency measures should come as a surprise to no one. The corporation has the worst safety record of any major oil producer operating in the United States. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) cited BP for 760 “egregious and willful” safety violations in the past five years alone. These incidents include the March 2005 explosion of a petroleum refinery in Texas City that killed fifteen employees and injured more than one hundred seventy. Several additional BP facilities have been cited in recent years for safety violations, including an oil refinery outside Toledo, Ohio, which, in March 2010, was slapped with $3 million in fines for forty-two violations.

The company’s attempts to cover its tracks have not helped its reputation in the wake of the spill. The famous live video feed of the oil well was set up only after BP faced accusations that it was hiding something. Among the documents BP turned over to the House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming was an internal memo that summarized its engineers’ calculations of the well’s possible flow rate. BP was well aware that the rate could reach sixty thousand barrels (over 2.5 million gallons) per day, even as it told the government and the public in late April that it believed the well was releasing only a thousand barrels per day.

BP’s reputation and financial position may never fully recover. The corporation’s stock price plunged 15 percent on June 1 after it was announced that the “top kill” measure had failed. By late June, its stock had lost well over half its mid-April value. BP and its stockholders have lost billions of dollars. Two decades ago, Exxon-Mobil was nearly destroyed in the aftermath of the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill. To its credit, the company learned from that incident: it made expensive repairs and undertook new preventative measures. Exxon-Mobil now has the most rigorous safety policies and the best safety record of any petroleum producer in the United States. During the same five-year period in which BP racked up 760 OSHA violations, Exxon was cited exactly once. This is the sort of transformation BP needs to start making immediately—and not just for its own sake.

What’s happening now should also force the government to change its ways. In the history of environmental reform, tough regulations often follow disaster. One of the inspirations for the Clean Water Act of 1972 was the Santa Barbara oil spill in 1969, when Union Oil’s Platform A spewed crude oil onto the California coast for ten days. The Oil Pollution Act of 1990 was a direct response to the Exxon Valdez disaster. Offshore drilling is safe only when there are consistent, legally enforced measures to manage the risks involved. The federal government needs to require oil producers to take environmental concerns much more seriously—even when that means spending more money and slowing down production. 

Related: Obama's Double Bind and Muddle in the Gulf, by E. J. Dionne Jr.

Tom Speight is an environmental scientist and certified hazardous materials manager who works on assessment and cleanup projects.
Also by this author

Please email comments to [email protected] and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Published in the 2010-07-16 issue: View Contents
© 2024 Commonweal Magazine. All rights reserved. Design by Point Five. Site by Deck Fifty.