Sunday, 6 June 2010

Reality of Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill

After weeks of unrelenting efforts by President Obama to pretend that the "worst ecological disaster in American history" is a British plot against the American people. (He pronounces "British Petroleum" the way someone in a pointy white hood would pronounce a word meaning "member of the African-American community".) Some more facts emerge:

There was a worse oil spill, Itxoc 1 on the Mexican side of the Gulf of Mexico in 1979, which American politicians, media and public appear to remain unaware of to this day. 150,000,000 barrels before it was capped, according to BBC Newsnight, which may have meant gallons, see comment below (they read off autocues: a BBC script would have the right thing written on it ) Other sources state something like 9,000,000 barrels over ten months. Flow rate estimated somewhere from the same as, to double that, of Deepwater Horizon, which has already been cut by more than half and should be sorted within another two months, so even if flow rates the same, it cannot be more than a third as bad as Ixtoc 1, which is rated as the third worst oil spill in history.

After the Amoco Cadiz disaster on the French coast, in 1978, the American owners didn't pay a cent in compensation until forced to, by legal action from the French Government, in 1990. BP were settling reasonable claims from ordinary citizens within a fortnight: Presumably, Mr Obama must think they should have paid in advance of the disaster? The Deepwater Horizon leak would have to go completely uncapped for 90-120 days to equal the amount of crude spilled by the Amoco Cadiz. Although the French succeeded in getting compensation, Medawar is not aware of anyone in the (British) Channel Islands getting any change out of Amoco at all, although Herm in particular suffered a lot of contamination. Medawar remembers that every shop on Guernsey at the time ran out of lighter fuel, as this was the only available solvent that got the stuff off people's skin. Most annoyance they'd suffered since the Nazi occupation.

19,000 barrels is roughly one sixth of the average daily amount of crude that American companies have spilled as a matter of routine (hence, no clean-up) in the Niger Delta for the past twenty years. It's only bad when the oil hits American beaches, not when it's in an African town's drinking water and soaking into their fields. The far right in America were trying to pretend, during the elections, that President Obama was rather more African than African American. If Obama was even 1% African at heart, this murderous hypocrisy would haunt him, but it does not.

All of these spills put together are smaller than the 1991 spill in the Arabian Gulf during the first Gulf War. The fishermen of Dubai, at least, were still in business the last time Medawar wandered past and someone attempted to sell him counterfeit mineral water. (Nice try.)

The Daily Mail reports that one television crew from New York sat in a bar in Louisiana bitterly complaining that they'd been forced to spend several days in a boat until they got an oil slick that looked scary enough to be broadcast. Which will put older British readers in mind of the TV Newsroom satire "Drop The Dead Donkey". (The clip is from : Series 2, episode 1. The relevant bit is 15-16 minutes in.)

America, meanwhile, is no longer an economic superpower, far less the "hyperpower" of some fevered political imaginations in Washington DC, and it will do well to even survive the rest of this very troubled century without allies. Having the President go on TV every other night to reiterate his contempt of the ally whose soldiers have been fighting along side America's in Afghanistan for nine years now, is sending a clear and strong message to ALL of America's allies that it's probably best not to bother.

Update: The Governor of Mississippi has stated that so far, the press coverage , and Federal Government hype, of the oil spill has done his state more economic damage than the spill itself.
People may argue with him, but the presentation has indeed been more in the spirit of Damien Day than Lord Reith.


Anonymous said...

um, your figures for the Ixtoc 1 spill in mexico, 1979 are off, by far.

It was not 150 million barrels, but approximately 150 million gallons. Actually most sources place it at 3.3 million barrels, whihc is around 138 million gallons.

very credible reports from independent, (meaning not BP or the Govt) have concluded that the spill rate is atleast 1.1 million gallons a day and possibly as much as 4 million gallons a day... meaning that there is at least 50 million gallons spilled so far, and possibly 200 million which is of course, a greater volume than the Ixtoc 1 -
here's a link to one of many available online sources that contain this information

not that it matters, really, other than as a debate point among abstract political bickerers. Any amount of oil is a problem, and the damage regardless of the numeric value, has been, and continues to be, done.

Medawar said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Medawar said...

Medawar puts his own corrections, above, which are not quite as favourable as anonymous's. Conversion to gallons is to be avoided, as Americans use different sized gallons to everyone else, except Canadians. That is partly why the industry sticks to barrels.

It's beyond dispute that the Niger Delta is in a worse state than the Gulf of Mexico.

It's also a matter of record that BP are already paying up and have not failed to meet a single bill, whereas Amoco paid nothing till forced, twelve years later, and then only to the French, so far as Medawar knows.

America should watch out for tanker captains taking advantage of the disaster to flush their ballast tanks where they shouldn't: this may not add much to the volume of oil but could lead to contamination in sensitive habits and commercial beaches that the original disaster would have left untouched.

The Amoco Cadiz contamination was not confined to Brittany, but the main site apart from that was the Channel Islands.
It's never quite so uniform as the huge brown stain on the TV maps suggests: within that there will be clear areas, and sometimes, as with Herm, quite a large amount of oil may hit somewhere outside the immediately-affected area, especially if there's a strong tidal race between islands to stretch the slick out.

Blame-wise, the Amoco Cadiz disaster was the most easily avoidable, because the captain of the supertanker refused to let a salvage tug take him in tow, in case the tug's owners sought to claim a salvage fee and not just a towing fee.
This falsely presented the tug captain as something very close to a pirate, which was as libelous as Obama's rhetoric today.

Anonymous said...

amoco and bp are the same company.

Medawar said...

Amoco and BP are indeed now the same company: they weren't in 1978.

BP has since also absorbed Atlantic Richfield ("ARCO") and part of Standard Oil. This is why it now calls itself BP and not "British" Petroleum.

BP's performance, flawed as it is, is definitely better than Amoco managed as an independent American-owned company. Mr Obama's furious demands that BP pay up, etc, suspend dividends and so forth to make sure it can pay, divert attention from that fact that BP has already paid a lot of the bills, and has $5bn of cash to hand to pay the rest.

Amoco, on the other hand, took twelve years and a prolonged court case to pay anything: because they thought that they'd manage to shift all the blame for the Amoco Cadiz disaster onto the captain of the salvage tug.

The predictable failure of this transparent exercise in scapegoating was 90% of the reason why BP was able to acquire Amoco.

The one thing that is shocking about BP's performance, is that it is better than any American company has ever managed in similar circumstances abroad, and we are still being furiously told that it's so bad that it's a cause for great and terrible rage.

This is completely and utterly destroying America's reputation, not merely in the UK, but in almost any country where the news is being followed and people think it through.

PS: ARCO didn't have an environmental disaster, but their North Sea operation in particular was so badly managed that it struggled to make much profit, especially compared to smaller independent companies with neighbouring fields. We don't know how close they came to an accident, but poor management is usually a factor, and good management can usually make a profit out of oil and gas!

PPS: Medawar has heard the inevitable eyewitness account from Deepwater Horizon, which described the control room being penetrated by debris in the first explosion, just like Piper Alpha.

There simply must be more focus on control room survival, because nothing else is going to survive if control is lost. It was one of the great tragedies of the late 20th century, that the Piper Alpha rig was built with the right idea, and then modified without a thought to maintaining the segregation of risky functions.
They knew how to build a safer rig, in 1976...