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Disaster warning: home to three oceans, Canada had best heed BP's legacy in the Gulf of Mexico.

Blowout in the Gulf: The BP Oil Spill Disaster and the Future of Energy in America, William Freudenburg and Robert Gramling, Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 2010, 240 pages.

ON APRIL 20, 2010, BP's Macondo well blew out in the deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico. Like a TV sitcom, the most infamous oil spill in American history went on and on and on. Millions of viewers the world over were "entertained" for months as the unchecked flow soaked pelicans and fouled beaches from Florida to Texas.

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Did this unprecedented coverage trigger the regulatory response required? Did it affect the future of offshore drilling - the growth area for US supply - now that its risks have been exposed? Blowout in the Gulf addresses these critical questions in clear terms.

The Macondo well lies due south of the Mississippi Delta, in 1524-metre-deep waters. BP used the latest technology available to penetrate a high-pressure reservoir that resides another 5578 metres below the ocean floor. The Gulf is both the most expensive and most productive drilling zone in US territory, and BP was its most aggressive and productive operator. Despite the challenges of offshore wells in deep water, and because there had not been a major blowout in the Gulf since 1979, regulators and the companies operating there had relaxed.

So, while BP filed a lengthy oil-spill-response plan for the Macondo well, its provisions fell far short of what the company was capable of executing. BP, in fact, had a bad safety record and was employing practices not included in safety manuals in order to complete the over-budget, behind-schedule well. Released seven months after the event, Blowout in the Gulf touches on some of this information. While the full story awaits inquiries and academic work on risk management, subsequently released material confirms the book's main findings: The well had experienced pressure "kicks" before, and corners were cut in both securing the well pipe and in the cementing meant to seal it.

On April 20, high-pressure oil and gas roared up the drilling column, passed though the blowout preventers (BOPs) at the ocean floor, and continued up the riser to the rig where the mixture exploded, killing 11 workers. Two days later, another explosion capsized the massive rig. As it sank to the ocean floor, it perforated the riser, letting forth an unchecked release of oil. Efforts to cap the well in deep, cold, murky conditions using clumsy robots were largely ineffective. It took nearly three months for a top-down cap to stop the flow, and another month passed before it was permanently sealed shut with cement.

Process failure (the cement), technical failure (the BOPs) and human error in the rig command centre all contributed to the disaster. But the question remains: Who was responsible and will assume the huge financial liabilities? Rough estimates of clean-up costs, compensation for lost employment and business revenue, as well as federal and state fines of up to $4300 per barrel spilled, total an unprecedented $50- to $60-billion, more than 10 times that of the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill. With a 65 per cent stake in the well, BP has, to its credit, absorbed the costs so far. Anadarko Petroleum Corporation (25 per cent) and Mitsui Oil Exploration Company (10 per cent) have not been as forthcoming. Nor have Transocean Ltd., the rig's owner; Halliburton, the well-servicing company; and Cameron International, which supplied the BOPs. Legal battles to determine their relative liabilities will take years.

Meanwhile, the Minerals Management Service (MMS) of the US Department of the Interior is immune from legal responsibility, despite being largely ineffective. Undermined by the George W. Bush administration, it had become too close to the oil industry and too thinly staffed to monitor 36,000 Gulf wells. There was also a basic conflict of interest in its mandate: the MMS was expected to maximize revenue from development, while rigorously enforcing environmental and safety rules. Reform is already under way in the US with the elimination of the MMS.

Given North America's integrated oil sector, Macondo's impact extended to Canada. Calgary-based Nexen Energy is Shell Oil's deep-water partner in the Gulf. Canada has three oceans with oil potential. Off the West Coast there is now little likelihood that a moratorium on drilling will be lifted. In Arctic waters, the National Energy Board is reviewing same-season relief-well requirements as a way to cope with a blowout. On the East Coast, Newfoundland has encouraged offshore drilling despite the 1982 Ocean Ranger tragedy. Deeper wells than Macondo have been drilled there, but now face tighter inspection.

Public attitudes have changed too. Both TransCanada Corporation and Enbridge Inc. face increased oversight of their pipeline operations. Opposition to oil sands development has intensified, while frontier projects like the Mackenzie Valley Gas Project experienced new scrutiny. Although the book does not deal with these outcomes, they are critical to all Canadians.

Blowout in the Gulf is a welcome guide to this disaster. Freudenburg and Gramling, one a scientist and the other a sociologist, are an effective mix, given their knowledge of the industry and offshore drilling. They combine three narratives: a history of BP, and the oil and gas sector; the political economy of the oil business; and the specifics of the 4.9-million-barrel Macondo spill. While rightly critical of BP, they let facts speak for themselves without an ideological slant. These are highly complex issues and the clarity of their account will assist a wide audience.

The book has some weaknesses. Its technical analysis is thin and it lacks diagrams to aid understanding. No maps illustrate the intricate system of wetlands of the Mississippi Delta or how ocean currents spread crude. Keeping the focus on the history of offshore drilling, technology and regulation would have helped too.

Nonetheless, I found this to be an insightful critique with many lessons for Canada. The authors argue that the US is throwing huge resources into the frenetic and misguided search for offshore oil in pursuit of energy independence. These same resources could be promoting the critical transition to renewable energy - a boast that BP claims with its slogan "Beyond Petroleum." The story is not new, but it is worth repeating given the tragic outcome of the Macondo spill.

Robert Page, a member of Alternatives' editorial board, is the TransAlta Professor of Environmental Management and Sustainability at the University of Calgary.

The New York Times published an exhaustive analysis of the BP oil spill, its impact on the US coastline and wildlife, efforts to stop the leak, reasons behind the blowout and more. View the interactive package at nytimes.com/interactive/2010/05/01/us/20100501-oil-spill-tracker.html
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Title Annotation:'Blowout in the Gulf: The BP Oil Spill Disaster and the Future of Energy in America' by William Freudenburg and Robert Gramling
Author:Page, Robert
Publication:Alternatives Journal
Article Type:Book review
Date:May 1, 2011
Words:1107
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