Deep Trouble in the Gulf of Mexico: 'A Disaster of Epic Proportions'

By Philip Bethge

Part 2: Lawsuits Already Being Filed

Photo Gallery: Habitat at Risk Photos
AFP

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.

Voluntary Regulations

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.

'Dangerous Myth'

"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

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1. My Name is Ozymandias...
plotinus 06/03/2010
' In the late 70's, extrapolating from my experiences in China, I began to realize how flimsy the Soviet Union was, and that it was in for great changes in the near future. In 1986, there was Expo 86 in Vancouver, BC, and the day after the news about Chernobyl came out, I visited the Soviet Pavillion and started talking to one of the people there. He was in a state of shock: He was from Kiev, his family was there, he didn't know what was going on and he couldn't contact them. For a minute or two he tried weakly to give me the propaganda line he had been trained in, but he soon realized that I was educated and not a Russia-basher, and before we knew it, we were talking honestly with each other: I told him what I thought were the weaknesses in the Soviet system, what they might turn to positive uses, what I thought was wrong with America and so on. He did likewise. I was astonished how openly he was talking, and we were agreeing far more than we were disagreeing. This went on for 15 minutes to half-an-hour. Finally, two burly, unsmiling KGB-types started moving in on us, so I made sure they heard me thanking him for his brochures on the USSR, and how he had made me realize what an interesting country the Soviet Union was! When Chernobyl happened, I thought that it was the beginning of the end for the Soviet Union--and I was right. Well, now I am beginning to think that the oil volcano in the Gulf is America's Chernobyl, the beginning of the end for the USA, as we know it. I am still not sure; it depends on how much oil is really coming out, but the figures seem to be steadily inching up---as if the politicos and the media are trying to soften the shock by stretching out the bad news. Much may also depend on the hurricane season. If hurricanes pick up uncounted tons of oil and carry them far inland, it will be a disaster that is almost inconceivable. The Yankees did not manage to destroy Dixie, but BP might just do it. .
2.
BTraven 06/04/2010
Zitat von plotinus' In the late 70's, extrapolating from my experiences in China, I began to realize how flimsy the Soviet Union was, and that it was in for great changes in the near future. In 1986, there was Expo 86 in Vancouver, BC, and the day after the news about Chernobyl came out, I visited the Soviet Pavillion and started talking to one of the people there. He was in a state of shock: He was from Kiev, his family was there, he didn't know what was going on and he couldn't contact them. For a minute or two he tried weakly to give me the propaganda line he had been trained in, but he soon realized that I was educated and not a Russia-basher, and before we knew it, we were talking honestly with each other: I told him what I thought were the weaknesses in the Soviet system, what they might turn to positive uses, what I thought was wrong with America and so on. He did likewise. I was astonished how openly he was talking, and we were agreeing far more than we were disagreeing. This went on for 15 minutes to half-an-hour. Finally, two burly, unsmiling KGB-types started moving in on us, so I made sure they heard me thanking him for his brochures on the USSR, and how he had made me realize what an interesting country the Soviet Union was! When Chernobyl happened, I thought that it was the beginning of the end for the Soviet Union--and I was right. Well, now I am beginning to think that the oil volcano in the Gulf is America's Chernobyl, the beginning of the end for the USA, as we know it. I am still not sure; it depends on how much oil is really coming out, but the figures seem to be steadily inching up---as if the politicos and the media are trying to soften the shock by stretching out the bad news. Much may also depend on the hurricane season. If hurricanes pick up uncounted tons of oil and carry them far inland, it will be a disaster that is almost inconceivable. The Yankees did not manage to destroy Dixie, but BP might just do it. .
The parallel you have drawn is quite fascinating could the leak herald the end of the States as superpower like Chernobyl announced the end of Soviet Union? The Ukrainian you spoke to knew about the danger of an implosion of a nuclear reactor otherwise he did not feared for his family. But the people who were sent to the plant in order to seal off the reactor did not have any clue about the harm radioactivity cause when it is released. Perhaps they knew that they would die very soon after their work. I am not quite sure about their feelings. But what I know is that people have not cared much about aftermaths. The problems they had and still have seem not to allow them to deal with it. There are only few who demand that nuclear power plants must be closed. That is quite strange. I think Chernobyl has a much higher significance in Western countries than in the countries which followed Soviet Union. Chernobyl was very often interpreted as a sign of the technological superiority of the capitalist countries. Now, you are right, as the only superpower its own Chernobyl. I have not yet informed me whether BP managed to put the absorber on the BOP. I hope they fixed it. For the circumstance that the big oil concerns have ignored problems concerning off-shore drilling I think BP has done quite well so far. I do not know how people who are affected, fishermen for example, feel. As far as I know they have already got some compensation. Much depends on BPs ability to support those who are suffering from the catastrophe. As long as BP can finance it victims will be quiet. The results of that policy could be counterproductive since nobody is prompted to change the habit of using too much oil, however, everybody affected must be helped. Only a movement which comes from grassroots could develop a consciousness for environment. One messiahs is not enough.
3. Oil consume
Insulaner 06/04/2010
Another Chernobyl? The beginning of the end of the USA? I do not think so. Although it may well be the beginning of the end of todays lifestyle (in the industrial countries). The world probably will experience more accidents like the one in the Gulf. All industrial countries (and not only them) still are strongly depending on oil. As the accessibility of oil reserves gets more and more difficult such accidents will become more likely. Let us hope that BP quickly finds a way to stop the oil. The ones who believe in prayers should start praying that the damned hole is stuffed before the hurricane season comes. I did not like the "good old times" when oil was cheap and every beach had a small container with petrol ether at the paths leading there to clean the tar off the feet.... Regards Insulaner [img]http://cagle.com/working/100603/bagley.jpg[/img] From Cagle.com
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Black Death: The Worst Oil Spills and Their Consequences
Amoco Cadiz (1978)
The oil tanker owned by the US firm Amoco dumped 223,000 tons of crude oil after running aground and breaking in two off the coast of Brittany. Around 15,000 birds were killed and 360 kilometers (224 miles) of coastline were contaminated.
Exxon Valdez (1989)
The Exxon-owned tanker spilled 39,000 tons of crude oil, contaminating 2,000 kilometers (1,240 miles) of Alaskan coastline. The greatest environmental catastrophe in US history killed 250,000 birds and 2,800 sea otters.
Sea Empress (1996)
The oil tanker leaked 72,000 tons of crude oil off the southern coast of Wales, contaminating 200 kilometers (124 miles) of coastline and killing 25,000 birds.
Deepwater Horizon (2010)
Deepwater Horizon, a British Petroleum-operated oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico, exploded on April 20 and sunk two days later, killing 11 workers and causing roughly 700 tons of crude oil to flow into the gulf daily. The sensitive marshlands of Louisiana's Mississippi Delta are particularly threatened by the leak.

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