Almost five weeks ago, on April 27, 2010, an explosion on the drilling rig Deepwater Horizon killed 11 men, and unleashed the worst environmental disaster in American history.
At first, the amount of oil leaking from the devastated drilling platform was estimated at 5,000 barrels of oil per day, though later some scientists estimated much higher numbers, upwards of 70,000 or more barrels a day. Official estimates provided recently peg the spill at 10,000 – 19,000 barrels a day, (1.6 to 2.7 million litres a day) though some estimates are still running much higher.
BP has tried many schemes to stop the flow of oil from the wellhead, deep beneath the ocean’s surface, and so far, all have failed. The cofferdam, the siphon, and now the top kill combined with a junk shot. The top kill was supposed to plug up the flow of oil in the well itself by injecting heavy oil and mud into the pipe. At the same time, they also tried a junk shot, which involves shooting a mix of heavy oil, golf balls and fiber into the blow-out preventer at the top of the well in order to plug it, too. Their next idea is to lower a cap over the blowout preventer and then shear off the pipe. They will then attach a cap and pipe to siphon oil off to a waiting surface ship. This concept is fraught with danger, however. Cutting off the 15 meter tall blowout preventer will temporarily increase oil flow in the Gulf by 20%, and if BP engineers and their underwater robots fail to cap the pipe, then the situation will just get that much worse.
As they are trying to cap off the pipe, at the same time BP has to deal with the cleanup. Oil is washing ashore along with dead and dying sea life, including shorebirds and sea turtles. The entire Gulf coast, with its vital wetlands, is at risk.
Out in the water, the fishermen who were first put out of work by BP, and then hired to help with the clean-up, are starting to get sick. BP has so far failed to provide adequate safety equipment and training to its impressed workforce. Corexit, the oil dispersal agent being used by BP, is banned in BP’s native Britain. It has a warning about the toxic fumes, yet the workers do not have masks. Some of the workers have even stated that they were warned they would be fired if they wore masks. This is one of the reasons why the American Environmental Protection Agency has ordered BP to stop using Corexit. So far, BP is refusing.
While the American Government is becoming increasingly frustrated with the slow pace of BP’s operations, there is little they can do. When it comes to dealing with oil spills, the oil companies are really the only game in town. American armed forces have conceded that they have neither the skills nor the equipment to deal with this sort of disaster.
And disaster it is. This spill has now far surpassed the Exxon Valdez, previously the worst oil spill in American history, and while it isn’t yet close to the Ixtoc 1 or Kuwait spills, it is still catastrophic. The most certain plan to deal with the leak, the drilling of a pair of relief wells, isn’t going to be accomplished until August. At 1.6 million litres a day, that’s another 96 million litres of oil into the Gulf of Mexico.
As always, this crisis should provide us with the opportunity and the motivation to reexamine our energy choices, and take a fresh look at our energy future. It will take time, money, and commitment, but the need to replace fossil fuels with something more sustainable, and far more benign, is growing more urgent than ever.