The Deepwater Horizon drilling platform exploded April 20, 2010, killing 11 men and opening the wellhead. All safety devices failed, and since then at least 810,000 litres of oil has been spilling into the Gulf of Mexico every day. Some estimates run as high as 11 million litres a day, however.
The first attempt to halt the flow, using a massive cofferdam, failed. However, a new attempt, using a pipe inserted into the damaged wellhead pipe, seems to be working, and is drawing off about 480,000 litres of oil from the leak. While this is good news, it still leaves at least 330,000 litres a day to spill into the Gulf, perhaps far more if some scientists are correct in their estimates of the volume of oil leaking out.
In the meantime, the CEO of BP has stated: “The Gulf of Mexico is a very big ocean. The amount of volume of oil and dispersant we are putting into it is tiny in relation to the total water volume.” Which completely misses the point, really. It is possible this is the start of a campaign to publicly minimize the damage, perhaps in preparation for fighting the expected tsunami of damage claims. Or it could simply be ignorance.
In the meantime, with Coast Guard approval to deploy oil dispersants underwater, the massive slick appears to be breaking up. While tarballs and some isolated slicks are washing ashore on barrier islands, the coast itself has yet to be assaulted with the massive slick lurking offshore. A slick that may be far larger than anyone first thought. Recent undersea imagery has shown vast “plumes” of oil drifting in the water, with a far greater volume underwater than is seen on the surface. Some researchers are warning these miles-long columns of oil could poison and suffocate sea life across the food chain, with damage that could endure for a decade or more.
The slick has spread far enough that there is now a concern it could find its way into the Loop Current, a warm ocean current that winds its way through the eastern Gulf of Mexico and then along the Florida Keys. There is a real threat that, even if the flow of oil is stopped, some of what has already been released will end up in the very ecologically-sensitive Florida Keys, home to the third-longest reef system in the world.
British Petroleum has reported their outlay so far for the cleanup has topped $650 million. Which is just over 10% of their first-quarter profits for 2010. Significant, but not crushing. It remains to be seen how cooperative they will be about paying for the ongoing damages to fisheries and livelihoods. The US government, however, has demanded BP commit to paying the full costs.
As this disaster continues to unfold, it is crucial people do not lose sight of the bigger problem, and they never let BP off the hook. The problem is our addiction to oil, and hopefully this disaster will make us all think a little bit more about that before we hop in our cars for a trip to the corner store.