Saturday, August 14, 2010

Lest We Forget the Oil
Excerpts Taken from

JUST ABOUT THE TIME WE drop anchor off Oahu, and unbeknownst to us, a catastrophe is being unleashed 4,400 miles and five time zones away, in the Gulf of Mexico. A mile below sea level, methane is shooting up the experimental well drilled by the Deepwater Horizon rig, exploding at the well's head, killing 11 workers, and igniting a firestorm. After 36 hours of a raging inferno—and still unknown to any of us—the rig will sink and open a valve to the gargantuan reservoir of the Macondo oil field, estimated to contain perhaps as much as 1 billion barrels, or 42 billion gallons, of crude.
Though it won't be understood for weeks, the Deepwater Horizon is different from any other spill in human history. The extreme technology used to drill at unprecedented depths lacks the extreme safety equipment and protocols needed to stave off disaster. BP, gambling at the border of controllable engineering, has lost spectacularly in its bid to be the deepest and cheapest driller of them all.
And no one is ready for it. Not the Minerals Management Service, catering submissively to BP's laughable Gulf oil-spill "plan," a document featuring wildly inaccurate wildlife assessments (including walruses and other species nonexistent in the Gulf) and an on-call expert who's been dead for years. Not the scientists whose research is paid for by the oil cowboys. Not the environmental groups, who did not foresee the stupendous potential for cataclysm on oil's farthest frontier. Not the media, who almost entirely ignored the sneak preview offered last year by the blowout of the West Atlas rig drilling in the Timor Sea off Australia—a disaster that required five attempts at a relief well and 74 days to stanch. Far offshore, far from sight, far beyond the typical royalty-paying boundaries, BP and its partners have transformed themselves into modern-day pirates, operating beyond law or conscience. Their reckless quest has endangered and perhaps condemned not just the Gulf Coast, but the largest, richest, most pristine, most biologically important, and last completely unprotected ecosystem left on Earth: the deep ocean.
Despite an ever-expanding estimate of the volume of the spill, relatively little oil washes ashore at first, and only a small portion ever will. Instead, trapped in the deep, the oil fouls the ocean's twilight and dark zones: the mesopelagic and the bathypelagic (bathos: deep). After April 20, the dumbwaiter rising through the waters of the Gulf of Mexico will be ascending an ocean fouled with a toxic broth of oil, methane, chemical dispersants, and drilling mud. The relatively small amounts of oil washing ashore, and the relief felt when the surface oil began to dissipate, hardly account for the devastation being wrought in the dark world beyond our sight.


FROM THE OUTSET, BP has fought to control every aspect of its uncontrollable catastrophe other than the spill itself. It has wildly spun the numbers on the quantity of hemorrhaging oil. It has continued to dispense Corexit—above and below water—when ordered to stop. It has restricted press access with Kafkaesque flair. Unable or unwilling to skim much oil, BP has poured its energies into skimming up all available resources: renting virtually every hotel room on the Louisiana shores, helping to keep the press at bay; buying the silence of scientists with lucrative pay and confidentiality clauses; chartering nearly every boat on the coast and employing virtually every fisherman and captain made jobless by the spill. I find clusters of these men in the marshes and out in the Gulf, their boats tethered together so they can watch movies on the biggest boat's DVD player.
"They have to pay these guys to work or else they'll riot," says Carl Safina, marine conservationist and cofounder of the Blue Ocean Institute. "As it is, they're angry, drinking, griping in the bars. By paying them, BP is deflecting their anger. Plus some of them feel like they're really helping, even though BP's two prime cleanup methods—setting out boom and using dispersant—completely undermine each other."
The containment and absorbent boom that BP is deploying around beaches and marshes—largely ineffectively—is designed to do just that: contain and absorb oil. But the Corexit dispersant BP has flooded onto the leaking wellhead 5,000 feet down, and sprayed from the air onto the surface—some 2 million gallons in total—is designed to break up the oil. "Which one is it?" asks Safina. "Do you want to contain it or disperse it? It makes absolutely no sense to be doing both. Let's face it, with pollution, you count your lucky stars if you have what's called point-source pollution, that is, a single identifiable localized source of pollution, like the Deepwater Horizon. So what's BP doing with that? They're turning it into the worst pollution nightmare of them all: non-point-source pollution."

That's because untreated oil quickly rises to the surface, where it can be skimmed with relative ease. But treated with dispersant, it becomes a submerged plume, unlikely to ever float to the surface, and destined to migrate through underwater currents to the entire Gulf basin and eventually the North Atlantic. "Oil is toxic to most life," says Steiner. "And Corexit is toxic to most life. But the most toxic of all is oil that's been treated with Corexit. Plus, dispersants may well kill the ocean's first line of defense against oil: the natural microbes that break oil down for other microbes to eat." The EPA has never seriously examined Corexit's effects on marine life (see "Bad Breakup"). Now it'll get the biggest and baddest field experiment of all time, as the flora and fauna of the shallows and the deep scattering layer collide with the dispersed plumes.

BP's schizophrenic approach to the cleanup becomes more insidious in light of the company's legal liabilities: The Clean Water Act stipulates that BP must pay $1,100 for every barrel of oil proven to have been spilled—$4,300 per barrel if gross negligence is determined. But the use of dispersants clouds estimates of the spill's size, guaranteeing that the true number will never be known—since relatively little oil will ever wash ashore—and guaranteeing that BP's liability will be vastly underestimated.

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