The oil stopped leaking from the BP Deepwater Horizon oil well in the Gulf on July 15th and today the Admiral in charge says there is no more risk. Great! If you read BP’s take on the spill and watch their video, you will be encouraged. If you listen to Rick Steiner you will not feel so good. Obviously I have no special knowledge on this subject, but I have been struck by three aspects of the disaster. The first was the minor spat about whether 200 million gallons of oil is a lot or a little. The second was the issue of who got the blame. And finally, the big question: what are the prospects for recovery?
Well Tony ‘How-do-I-fit-that-boot-in-my-mouth?’ Hayward said early on that the oil leak was tiny compared to the volume of the Gulf of Mexico. And although he was vilified for the remark, he was quite right. But is that the right comparison to make? 200 million gallons corresponds to a tad under 1000 million litres or 1 million cubic metres. This volume of oil corresponds to a cube of black slush 100 m x 100 m x 100 m. Big, but not that big compared to the volume of water in the Gulf of Mexico. Spread out 1 mm thick it corresponds to an area of 32 km x 32 km – again large, but tiny compared to the roughly 2000 km x 1000 km of the Gulf. However when one considers the 2500 km of US coast that the oil was drifting towards it corresponds to around 0.4 cubic metres of oil (around 300 kg) per metre of shoreline. Even factoring in evaporation, the spill no longer seems quite so ‘negligible’. However the statistic which struck me most profoundly was that this volume of oil was sufficient to keep the US going for only around 6 hours. It is this statistic that overwhelms me – and brought the magnitude of global oil production into shocking focus.
The question of blame was interesting because of the sheer delight with which the American media found out that they could blame someone for the disaster. And a foreigner to boot! The ‘story’ was that the disaster was caused by management incompetence and greedy British profiteers despoiling America’s Gulf paradise. No mention here of the rampant overfishing and pollution which have created vast dead zones around the mouth of the Mississippi. However, I imagined what would have happened if this had been a nuclear disaster. I could be wrong, but I feel that if 11 people had been killed in a nuclear power station explosion, the spotlight would have fallen on the nuclear industry as a whole rather than a specific operator. And yet despite the inevitability of such oil disasters, I have seen no one reflecting on the fact that the oil we use so profusely is highly toxic and we are spilling it all over the world. The only person I heard mention the fact that it might be smart to use a bit less was President Obama, but no one appeared to listening.
And the prospects for recovery? Only time will tell, and I could be wrong (really?) but to the best that I can judge from this distance, prospects are excellent. However, it is in no one’s interest to say so! No one will believe BP, and everyone else wants to err on the side of ‘caution’. Scientists from all sides are having a major problem accounting for where all the oil has gone, hopefully nowhere too harmful. The BP response site has a daily report of wildlife casualties and they are bad, but not too bad. As of September 5th 2010, there are reports of a total of 7726 affected birds (8 collected yesterday), 1084 affected Sea Turtles, 94 mammals (1 collected yesterday) and 2 reptiles Consolidated_Wildlife_Table_09052010. With the exception of the Turtles, this doesn’t seem large enough to be likely to have any long term impact. The oil damage will have been partially offset by the reduction in fishing, and in the warm waters of the gulf, microbes will have eaten the oil with gusto!
So all in all it has been a disaster for us all to learn from. But will we?
Tags: BP Oil Spill