Magazine article New Internationalist

That Petrol Emotion

Magazine article New Internationalist

That Petrol Emotion

Article excerpt

In the days after the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, killing 11 workers and unleashing the pent-up hydrocarbon reservoir of Miocene rage it was tapping, the full impacts of the disaster were largely unknown. Nearly a month on, there were still doubts about the degree of devastation that would ultimately ensue. BP CEO at the time, Tony Hayward, infamously asserted in late May that 'the environmental impact of this disaster is likely to have been very, very modest.'

BP already had an atrocious health and safety record in the US - even by industry standards. The company was still being rapped for continuing violations at its Texas City refinery - the site of a 2005 explosion that killed 15 workers and injured over 100. It was facing record fines over leaks and poor maintenance in Alaska where two major spills in 2006 led to widespread concern about the expansion of oil exploration in the fragile Arctic. In 2006, Senior Group Vice President John Mogford said of Texas City: 'If we've learned one thing from this tragedy, it's the need for humility.' How the company has operated since, however, reeks of corporate hubris.

Off the deep end

The US was, and still is, a crucial market for the company. BP was therefore keen to demonstrate to the American public and officials that it had learned the lessons of the past. But it was also hoping to win greater market share in the US by expanding its operations in Alaska's North Slope, as well as its hugely successful deepwater finds in the Gulf of Mexico. The ill-fated Deepwater Horizon had previously drilled BP's massive Tiber oil field in the Gulf seven months earlier - one of the deepest wells ever drilled and containing an estimated six billion barrels of oil. In 2007, hobbled by its spate of disasters and poor image in the US, newly installed CEO Tony Hayward recanted his predecessor's much lauded commitment to end the company's financial support to politicians and parties.

BP's policy reversal on buying political favours paid off big time. Despite an atrocious safety record, the company was able to secure permits to expand its Arctic operations in the Beaufort Sea and become the largest leaseholder in the Gulf of Mexico, including its infamous Macondo prospect that was being drilled by the Deepwater Horizon when it blew up.

The timing of this disaster was certainly problematic for President Obama, who only a few weeks before the disaster had announced a massive expansion of offshore oil exploration in the US. During the presidential campaign, he was vociferously against drilling, yet after assuming the presidency he made a dramatic u-turn. Obama had been one of the top recipients of BP 'donations' in the previous year. On 31 March 2010, the now US President Obama announced that he was opening up 167 million acres of untapped seabed for potential exploration and production. Three weeks later, a deepwater rig exploded.

The other cleanup operation

The US government was quick to respond to concerns about a potential ecological disaster. Just one day after the explosion, US Coast Guard's Rear Admiral Mary Landry confidently told ABC News: 'We've been able to determine there is nothing emanating from the wellhead.' A few days later, after it became obvious that oil was in fact gushing out of BP's deepwater well, the official estimates by the White House, the Coast Guard and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration all echoed BP's paltry 1,000 barrels a day estimate. This despite experts having access to live video of the leaks as well as data about the reservoir, water temperature and conditions that could have helped them make a far more educated assessment.

As the weeks went by and NASA satellite images revealed an enormous amoeba-like hydrocarbon sludge swelling daily, we were inundated in the media and official sources with technical information of the cleanup operations replete with military language like 'command centre' and 'top kill', spreading the impression that things were getting done. …

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