Deep Trouble in the Gulf of Mexico 'A Disaster of Epic Proportions'
Part 2: Lawsuits Already Being Filed
The consequences could also be devastating out at sea. Several sperm whales were already sighted off the coast last week. "The area of the spill is important habitat for endangered sperm whales, many species of threatened and endangered sea turtles, the Gulf's mysterious whale shark population, and is close to blue fin tuna spawning grounds," writes Aaron Viles of the Gulf Restoration Network in nearby New Orleans in a recent blog post. "This is an environmental disaster of epic proportions."
Who is to blame? President Obama, who on Sunday described the oil slick as a "potentially unprecedented" environmental disaster, has announced that BP will be held responsible for all damage. But the British oil company has blamed the accident on the Swiss company Transocean, which operated the Deepwater Horizon for the oil giant.
Lawsuits worth billions are to be expected. Fishermen, injured oil workers and the families of the victims are already filing lawsuits against the oil companies. One of the plaintiffs is Natalie Roshto, the wife of oil worker Shane Roshto, one of the 11 workers killed in the accident.
Roshto's suit alleges that Transocean and BP violated several regulations of the US Coast Guard and the Minerals Management Service (MMS), the government agency in charge of oil exploration. The suit also names oilfield services company Halliburton as a defendant, and alleges that, prior to the explosion, employees of the company were "engaged in cementing operations of the well and well cap," and that the work was done "improperly and negligently."
Halliburton denies the allegations, but it did confirm that it was working at the borehole. Cement work at underwater boreholes is considered problematic and is believed to have caused explosions in the past. Gas under high pressure can flow out of the borehole through cracks in the cement and ignite.
Last year, the MMS proposed new safety regulations for offshore drilling projects, after a study had documented numerous accidents. But many oil companies, including BP, criticized the new regulations for being too extensive. BP made it clear that it believed that the "voluntary programs" in the industry were very successful.
But BP itself has been involved in other incidents in recent years. Some 15 workers died in an explosion at a BP refinery in Texas in 2005, and BP was ordered to pay a fine of $87 million. There are now questions as to whether there were also irregularities at the Deepwater Horizon. The oil rig apparently was missing an additional safety system -- which is not, however, required in the United States -- which activates a device called the blowout preventer, a safety valve that can essentially cut off the flow of oil directly above the borehole.
"BP is already snake bit when it comes to safety issues," Robert Bryce of the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research in New York told Time magazine. "This is another bad blow." Offshore oil drilling is "ultra-high stakes gambling," says the energy expert. "Accidents like this are not only bad PR for the companies that are involved, they're extremely bad business."
But how dangerous is drilling for oil at depths of 1,500 meters exactly? The Deepwater Horizon, built in 2001 for $600 million, was one of the world's most advanced oil rigs, and it held the record for the deepest oil well. Engineers had driven the drill head more than 9 kilometers into the Earth's crust. But unpredictable currents, extreme pressure and low temperatures make such endeavors almost as difficult as a second Moon landing.
"Big Oil has perpetuated a dangerous myth that coastline drilling is a completely safe endeavor," says US Senator Robert Menendez. "Accidents like this are a sober reminder just how far that is from the truth."
Hopes that the leaks could be quickly plugged had largely evaporated by the end of last week. Experts said that it would be nothing short of a miracle if the blowout preventer could be activated with the help of remote-controlled underwater robots.
As an alternative, BP is now having three giant containment chambers built in the coastal town of Port Fourchon. They are designed to be placed over the leaks on the ocean floor, so that the oil can then be diverted to the surface in a controlled manner, where it can be pumped into tankers.
Experts have also begun to drill a relief well at an angle into the ocean floor, which could relieve the pressure and allow the existing well to be capped. The engineers hope to be able to enter the borehole of the Deepwater Horizon from the side, which would allow them to force cement into the boreholes and stop the flow of oil.
Just Like Katrina
But all of these solutions will take far too much time. Months could go by before all the leaks are plugged.
Until then, the only option is to contain the oil slick. More than 1,000 volunteers are fighting to skim off the oil from the ocean surface, dissipating it with chemicals or simply burning it at sea.
In Venice, one truck after another arrives at the harbor, their beds constantly filled with more oil booms. Bundles of fine plastic material called "pompoms," which are supposed to absorb the oil, are stacked at the piers, ready to be used in stormy seas. Meanwhile, the mood of despair among locals is starting to become flecked with anger.
"It's just like what we saw with Hurricane Katrina," John Tesvich of Venice, a fourth-generation oyster farmer, told USA Today. "At first, it was just another storm, just like this was just another oil spill. But by the time they realize how bad it really is, it's too late."
"Why is the response taking so long?" the 53-year-old oyster farmer asks. "Why can't they stop this?"
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
- Part 1: 'A Disaster of Epic Proportions'
- Part 2: Lawsuits Already Being Filed